Long Tail in Usum Delphinorum?

by John Holbo on December 16, 2006

I’ll be at the MLA this year – will I see you there? – delivering a paper that is basically a major rewrite of my inaugural Valve post about the crisis in humanities publishing. (Other bloggers you know are on the same panel.) Here’s a bit from the old post:

Here is Nietzsche on the psychological presupposition of exorbitant philological care. None of it makes sense unless “there is no lack of those rare human beings (even if one does not see them) who really know how to use such valuable books – presumably those who write, or could write, books of the same type. I mean that philology presupposes a noble faith – that for the sake of a very few human beings, who always “will come” but are never there, a very large amount of fastiduous and even dirty work needs to be done first: all of it is work in usum Delphinorum [for future royalty]” (Gay Science, §102). Scholarly overproduction is, conversely, a case in which one assumes (even if one does not see them) the eventual appearance of a rare human type, a spiritual termite capable of the fastidious dirty work of masticating masses of indifferent scholarship to extract good bits bashfully tucked away on groaning shelves.

There is a certain obviousness to the thought that what redeems the practice of scholarly overproduction – if anything – is a democratic inversion of this ‘for future royalty’ fantasy: in short, the Long Tail. I’ll quote Anderson’s original Wired article:

“What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?”

Most people guess 20 percent, and for good reason: We’ve been trained to think that way. The 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s principle (after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906), is all around us. Only 20 percent of major studio films will be hits. Same for TV shows, games, and mass-market books – 20 percent all. The odds are even worse for major-label CDs, where fewer than 10 percent are profitable, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

But the right answer, says Vann-Adib�, is 99 percent. There is demand for nearly every one of those top 10,000 tracks. He sees it in his own jukebox statistics; each month, thousands of people put in their dollars for songs that no traditional jukebox anywhere has ever carried.

People get Vann-Adib�’s question wrong because the answer is counterintuitive in two ways. The first is we forget that the 20 percent rule in the entertainment industry is about hits, not sales of any sort. We’re stuck in a hit-driven mindset – we think that if something isn’t a hit, it won’t make money and so won’t return the cost of its production. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But Vann-Adib�, like executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, has discovered that the “misses” usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.

Who has written interestingly about the Long Tail and academic publishing? Or, more specifically, the consumption of academic publications? The analogy between libraries of mp3’s and libraries is rather obvious.

A couple links. The ACLS just released a report (follow the link to read the abstract and download the PDF): “Our Cultural Commonwealth: The final report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences”. It seems like a basically sound document.

Here’s a livelier piece by Michael Jon Jensen, “Evolution, Intelligent Design, Climate Change and the Scholarly Ecosystem” – a keynote address to some librarians. I liked this bit:

It was at Project Muse that I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation which convinced me that we were spending more of our grant money *preventing* people from access to the online journals, via security and IP-range subscription system development, than we spent enhancing access and adding value. This opened my eyes to some strange realities of electronic scholarly publishing.

Last but not least, the good folks at the Institute For the Future of the Book have gone and helped me out by illustrating a point I’m going to be making in my talk: namely, for purposes of discussions of the future of academic publishing, ‘blog’ should be treated a variable. It’s so obviously useful if scholarly articles can have comment boxes. We’re just using ‘blog’ as shorthand for all the stuff that could be.

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12.17.06 at 9:30 am



Otto Pohl 12.16.06 at 2:33 pm

I think academic journals in particular have a small readership. I have noticed that out of 73 confirmed academic works that have cited me, 70 of them cite one or both of my two books. Journals are generally harder to find and usually the author has a more polished and detailed version of the same argument in book form. The evolution of academic writing seems to go from conversation to blog post to conference paper to journal article to book.


kid bitzer 12.16.06 at 3:12 pm

can you tell me anything more about the phrase “in usum delphinorum”?

I can’t seem to track down a meaning for it (other than references to your “for future royalty”, which may be right, but gives me no independent purchase on it).

I seem to recall owning a fancy 18th century edition of Caesar once, much tricked out with variorum notes and tipped-in plates and so on, that presented itself as an edition delphinorum.

I took away from that the vague sense that ‘usus delphinorum’ meant roughly what ‘edition de luxe’ means. But I honest-to-god don’t know.

You are probably right, I would just like some way of checking.

oh–I feel some confidence that it does not mean “for the use of aquatic mammals of the genus delphinidae”. More’s the pity.


Adam Roberts 12.16.06 at 4:07 pm

Kid B, you’re not a million miles away with your Dolphins. The original phrase (I can’t say where Nietzsche’s variant comes from, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lock horns with him, or his shade, on matters of Latin) is “Ad usum Delphini”; which was used of editions designed for the use of the French dauphin, the son of Louis XIV and future king, and hence editions that were sumptuous and lovely. If you speak French you’ll find out about it here.


Adam Roberts 12.16.06 at 4:12 pm

Actually, the link I’ve just given also says that these editions were tastefully expurgated of obscenity, and that the phrase is now used to mean what we might call a Bowdlerised text. But that can’t be what Nietzsche, or Kid B’s C18th Caesarian editor, meant … can it?


kid bitzer 12.16.06 at 6:13 pm

yeah, yeah–I knew about the dauphin and all. I just wasn’t convinced that Nietzsche’s phrase was a reference to the French heir apparent. I’m more convinced now on seeing the French wiki. (And I agree that it is pretty explicit that the main *current* meaning of the phrase is “edition with all the naughty bits taken out”).

you never know with Nietzsche. It wouldn’t be the first time he had suggested that philologists are sexless/neutered etc.

I’ll have to see if I can hunt up that old edition of mine–may not have it any more. I wonder if the phrase became like a royal stamp of approval–the way Eliz. II puts her name on marmalade and what-not.

final query–why the hell did my google searches never take me to the french wikipedia? I have to tweak my preferences, clearly–but I had thought I was searching in all languages.


kid bitzer 12.16.06 at 6:37 pm

silly twit–of course google wasn’t pulling it up: i was searching for “delphinorum” instead of “delphini”.

With the correct spelling, I note that one important feature of these editions is that all of the notes are in Latin as well as the original text. So you only get help from the notes and commentary to the Latin text–if you already know Latin.

now *that* is a good candidate for what Nietzsche might have meant here: note this bit in the original quote: “…who really know how to use such valuable books – presumably those who write, or could write, books of the same type.”

i.e. Nietzsche may have used the “in usum D.” phrase here to mean “books written by experts, for experts, and of no conceivable use to non-experts.”


Kenny Easwaran 12.16.06 at 6:49 pm

Otto – I think it depends on the subject. I’ve heard prominent philosophers say that no one reads books any more, so they’re actually much more obscure than journal articles. At least in philosophy.


d. des chene 12.16.06 at 8:21 pm

The Dauphin was the eldest son of the king of France, so-called after the province of the Dauphiné, formerly an independent country, sold to the King of France in 1349. From that time on it was given to the heir to the throne as part of his inheritance; the Dauphin’s arms include a pair of dolphins, taken over from the arms of Guigues IV, comte d’Albon. Why Albon’s arms included a dolphin I don’t know.

Delphinus (from Greek δελφις, δελφιν-, ‘dolphin’) is just the Latin translation of Dauphin. Delphinorum is the genitive plural: “of the dolphins”, i.e. the princes—the Dauphin himself and his brothers, who were always taught privately and for whom textbooks were written by their preceptors (e.g. Bossuet; Condillac wrote one for the Prince of Parma). Ad usum delphinorum was a catch phrase meaning “for beginners”. In the passage from Nietzsche, who is alluding to the Princes who were the original delphini, the sense of the phrase is that textual criticism, collation of manuscripts, etc.—the “dirty work” of philology—is done for the sake of future geniuses who will benefit from trustworthy, well-annotated versions of old texts. If you have a good library nearby, take a look at Heyne’s edition of Virgil’s Æneid. On the first page of the poem, you will see, if I remember rightly, one line of verse. The rest is commentary. Now that’s philology. But if you want to understand Virgil, you had better have some such commentary on hand. The same goes for Nietzsche. Guessing just doesn’t make it.

Nietzsche’s claim may be no more than a jibe at his old profession. If he meant more by it than that, I don’t think it can stand. The hope, faint or bright, of scholars that their works will be useful to the princes of the future is no doubt one motive for writing them. But in a less crass age, such work would be regarded as intrinsically valuable. The writing of it is satisfying in the same way that making well-crafted verse or music is satisfying. Utility is an afterthought, a byproduct.


Gene O'Grady 12.16.06 at 9:03 pm

Some information on the Delphin Classics for those who don’t have ready access to Sandys’ History of Classical Scholarship (not a particularly good book, although Sandys was a fine editor of Greek prose texts):

The general editor was Pierre Daniel Huet (1630 – 1721), who from 1670 to 1680 assisted Bossuet in attempting the education of the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.

Quoting directly from Sandys (which should be old enough to be public domain):

“Nearly sixty volumes were produced in less than twelve years by the thirty-nine editors at a cost equivalent to about 15,000 pounds. — that’s Edwardian pounds for you economists out there. The project marks an epoch in the history of classical literature in France. Learning had indeed been declining since the days of Francis I, but the Latin Classics, though no longer exclusively cultivated for their own sakes, were still recognised as forming a part of general literature, and popular editions of the ordinary Latin authors were welcome. In addition to a Latin commentary, each of these editions had an ordo verborum below the text, and a complete verbal index. These points were not novel in themselves; the novelty lay in their application to the whole of the Latin authors included in the series. The best known of the editors are (besides Madame Dacier) Hardouin and Charles de la Rue. But the only distinctly scholarly edition was that of the Panegyrici Veteres by De la Baune, while Huet’s conjectural emendations on Manilius prompted Bentley, the next editor of that poet, to describe Huet and Scaliger as viros egregios. All the volumes of the original edition have an engraving of ‘Arion and the dolphin,’ and are inscribed with the phrase “in usum serenissimi Delphini.” The Dauphin, for whose benefit this comprehensive series of Latin Classics was organised by Huet, and for whom the ‘Discourse on Universal History’ was composed by Bossuet, celebrated the completion of his education by limiting his future reading to the list of births, deaths and marriages in the Gazette de France. He died four years before Louis XIV, who was succeeded by the Dauphin’s eldest son.”

I don’t believe that last bit is true, by the way — wasn’t Louis XV the grandson of the Grand Dauphin. But it may provide some context for what Nietzsche had in mind. (By the way, note the presence among the editors of a woman, Anne Dacier, to the best of my knowledge the only woman with children to edit a classical text before Adele Adam in the early 20th century, and perhaps the best French classicist of her time).

However, it’s not clear to me that Nietzsche was thinking of this edition, because there was at least one 19th century reprint by A J Valpy between 1819 and 1830, and possibly another reprint series from France later in the century. These reprints retained the dolphin figure and in usum… from the original. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an example of the original 17th century set, but the 19th century reprints are quite attractive volumes. In fact, in my long ago youth there was a wonderful privately owned (non-chain, in other words) department store in San Francisco called the City of Paris, started during the Gold Rush by French immigrants. In the basement they had a French section called Normandie Lane, which in addition to then exotic cheeses stocked exotic books, among which I remember there were always quite a few Dolphin Classics. Wasn’t smart enough to scoop up any during their legendary going out of business sale.

My assumption was that the latter day Dolphins were sort of the Loeb Classical Library/Bude texts of their day. I don’t know if that is true. Another thing I don’t know is if A E Housman, who is sort of a contemporary of Nietzsche and arguably a rebel against some of the same tendencies in 19th century philology, was alluding to the “in usum serenissimi Delphini” when he marked some of his editions “in usum scholarum.”


Anonymous Massachusetts college student 12.17.06 at 12:22 am

Hey I’m a college student, and know many people who are annoyed at how online journals are not free. There is definitely a population of people who would read all of that if it wasn’t restricted. And, there are many people who read still books, too.


John Holbo 12.17.06 at 2:31 am

Thanks Gene, that’s fascinating. I didn’t really know any of that.


kid bitzer 12.17.06 at 7:33 am

thanks to d. des chene and gene o’grady for historical background on the original editions in usum delphini.

getting clear on what Nietzsche meant by using the term in this context is going to require more than that, e.g. a knowledge of N.’s rhetorical habits.

For my money, I’m doubting that ‘future royalty’ really captures what Nietzsche meant by using the phrase in this context.


kid bitzer 12.17.06 at 9:18 am

yup. It’s a Valpy edition of 1819 that I have. printed in London.

But it’s really more of a variorum based on the Delphine edition.

now that I know it might be worth something, it makes me glad I never cracked them open.


Test 12.17.06 at 11:01 am




garymar 12.17.06 at 12:39 pm

Weren’t the royalty Nietzsche was talking about the Geistiges Ubermenschen of the future?


John Emerson 12.17.06 at 12:41 pm

Kenneth Rexroth once put the entire run of an academic journal on reserve where he was teaching, and came back a year later to see if anyone had read it during that time. The answer, according to him, was no. I don’t remember which journal, but suspect that he was feuding with its editor or the faction supporting it.


Gene O'Grady 12.18.06 at 11:43 am

For those who didn’t have enough of me earlier, a couple of comments:

In response to John Emerson, the idea that articles in scholarly journals are otiose to real work in a field may be true in other disciplines, but it’s certainly not true in classical (i.e., Latin and Greek) philology. Probably due to the peculiar nature of the beast, including the minimum thousand year manuscript transmission of the texts and the fact that the languages are essentially no longer spoken.

It may have gotten obscured, but fairly clearly Nietzsche (of whom I am by no means a fan; I personally find Pius IX more sympathetic) was clearly being sarcastic when he changed the delphini to the plural. What he meant about whom I’m not sure.

And for the fellow with the Delphin edition, while I find the prices for out of print academic books inexplicable by rational means, I doubt that any 19th century dolphin is worth very much.

It’s interesting that Nietzsche and his putative great contemporary rival Wilamowitz both employ an allusive manner that assumes a certain attitude to the matter alluded to in order to follow the argument (not an attractive style in my opinion). I was once in a reading group going through Wilamowitz’ Einleitung in die griechische Tragoedie (a book everyone should read), and we were constantly running across allusions that stumped us. I remember locating the proctophilologists in Goethe’s Faust, and an allusion to Cicero that turned out to refer to his very ahistorically speaking Greek in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Finally, this discussion reinforces an old feeling of mine about the history of scholarship, which probably covers other fields than classical philology. The model usually employed is of great minds setting themselves and the world free from misconceptions; what may well be more interesting is the labors of those who provided the texts that people actually read. Those who don’t know the book will find a remarkable instance of the latter sort of study in Professor Bloch’s book on the Abbe Migne, which has the wonderful (and probably unfair) title God’s Plagiarist.

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