Obviously when he was writing during the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Gogol didn’t have the Internet. He couldn’t have imagined that, a century and a half later, the kind of collective publishing experience he describes in his forward for Dead Souls would actually be possible.
Reader, whosoever or wheresoever you be, and whatsoever be your station – whether that of a member of the higher ranks of society or that of a member of the plainer walks of life – I beg of you, if God shall have given you any skill in letters, and my book shall fall into your hands, to extend to me your assistance.
Uncanny, right? It’s like the guy was predicting participatory creation. I love that he’s addressing the kind of mass audience that his novel never could have reached at the time, but with the confidence that somehow, sometime, it would fall into the right hands.
Next he goes on to add all kinds of disclaimers, the kinds of excuses, justifications, and self-deprecating remarks you’d find today in a medium a lot like, well, a blog.
Probably much of what I describe is improbable and does not happen as things customarily happen in Russia; and the reason for that is that for me to learn all that I have wished to do has been impossible, in that human life is not sufficiently long to become acquainted with even a hundredth part of what takes place within the borders of the Russian Empire.
To top it off, he even asks his readers to supplement his literary efforts with their suggestions, the kind of thing we take for granted today on Wikipedia. Here’s Gogol’s bald-faced appeal for free editing and factchecking services, from the author’s introduction as well:
Also carelessness, inexperience, and lack of time have led to my perpetrating numerous errors and inaccuracies of detail; with the result that in every line of this book there is something which calls for correction. For these reasons I beg of you, my reader, to act also as my corrector.
The way I see it Gogol, like most geniuses, was living ahead of his time. Which is why I’ve decided, with infinite humility, to fulfill his original vision by bringing my mod of Dead Souls into an era of true interactivity. It’s crazy exciting to me that we live in a time where the kind of help he envisioned is technologically possible.
Oh yeah, and in terms of all of the mistakes I’m going to make along the way: what he said.
Update: just found this great article about a project to posthumously crowdsource the economist Jeremy Bentham’s work. Dude lived around the same time as Gogol and produced so much material it’s taking hundreds of volunteers today to help sort it all out!