Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Nemo's Almanac, an annual literary competition now in its 106th year, presents its readers with six quotations for each month. The challenge is to identify them, which requires not only an extensive knowledge of the canon, but also an acute and persistent literary intelligence.

A few years ago, a cloud called Chadwyck-Healey appeared on Nemo's horizon. The Cambridge publisher has established itself as the leading exponent of turning canons into databases. Its production is an example of how modern enterprise leaps across continents in search of cheaper workers: the digital canon has been compiled in the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, the Far East and the West Indies.

Chadwyck-Healey began poem-crunching in 1990, and by 1994, Nemo was faced with the prospect of contestants armed with CD-ROMs containing the entire corpus of English poetry, from 600AD to 1900. The then editor, Alan Hollinghurst, gloomily foresaw that "a year from now half the Almanac will be solvable in ten minutes". But he decided upon a policy of circumspect inaction, a line supported by contestants, who declared that they would not use the database even if they could.

I pitted the 1994 Almanac against the new online gateway to the Chadwyck- Healey databases (see Literature Online, or Lion, is a massive price-cutting exercise - but then the starting price for the English Poetry CD-ROM is pounds 25,000. Lion offers its subscribers English Poetry (pounds 2,000 plus VAT per year for a single user), American Poetry (pounds 1,000), African-American Poetry (pounds 400), English Drama (pounds 2,000), and Eighteenth- Century Fiction from the British Isles (pounds 450). Forthcoming archives include The Bible in English (pounds 250), Editions and Adaptations of Shakespeare (pounds 400), and Early English Prose Fiction, 1475-1700 (pounds 1,000).

With that lot and the current state of Internet bandwidth, it's hardly surprising that it took more like two hours than ten minutes to process Nemo's quotations. Admittedly, I took as unintelligent an approach as possible, in order to accentuate the difference between mindless data entry and the genuine understanding that contestants need to locate sources with which they are not familiar. I tested all the quotes, whether antique poetry or modern prose, against all the databases.

This tactic did pay off with the epigram on the cover of the Almanac booklet, which turned out to be from John Greenleaf Whittier's preface to "Snow-Bound" - a hit from the American Poetry database. This item was noted in the competition report to have caused entrants particular vexation, as did the lines: "His hand still grasped a bunch of flowers; / And (true, though wondrous) near, / To sentry his reposing hours, / There stood a female deer." "Vile," one competitor called it; but Lion, an imperturbable drudge, tracked it down to Thomas Campbell's "The Child and Hind".

In the end, though, Lion totalled only 220 points, well down a field in which the top scorer tallied 740. That may have been the fault of the jockey rather than the mount, but if I were paying pounds 3,000, I think I'd want the service to provide the requisite skills itself. As Nemo's Almanac costs just pounds 2, the problem seems better value than the solution.

Nemo's Almanac 1997 is available from Gerard Benson, 46 Ashwell Road, Manningham, Bradford, BD8 9DU.