Archive for April 4th, 2012
On Saturday, my wife and I were lucky enough to see Anthony Grafton, the Princeton professor and historian of ideas, speak at an event sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Grafton is something like the American Umberto Eco, a scholar of enormous diligence and erudition who is also humorous, approachable, and deeply concerned with the perspectives his academic work affords on the culture around him. (I’d also love to see him write a historical thriller, preferably with Sue Grafton.) His talk, “The Book: Past, Present, and Future,” was larded with fascinating tidbits—like the fact that the Vatican Library used to lend books with chains attached, to remind the borrowers to return them, or that the London Review of Books has seen the length of its submissions increase by forty percent since the invention of word processing—but it was also characterized by a passionate interest in what the future holds for the book itself, especially for scholars.
Grafton’s perspective is particularly worth hearing because he’s a great reader and explorer of libraries, rather like one of his favorite objects of study, the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon. Casaubon (who inspired the names of lead characters in both Middlemarch and Foucault’s Pendulum) was arguably the most learned man of his time, and for him, reading was a sacramental act: he combed his hair before ascending to his study to read, usually for hours each day, and may have died from an enlarged bladder caused by extended periods of sitting. (An engraving of Casaubon’s bladder, a slide of which Grafton cheerfully displayed, is included as an illustration in his collected works.) And Grafton’s own research has some of the same obsessiveness: he reconstructed Casaubon’s library, which had been dispersed across the collection of British Museum, by the expedient method of requesting every copy of every book published before Casaubon’s death, opening it up, and looking at it.
Listening to Grafton, I found myself wondering whether this kind of reading and scholarship will survive my own lifetime. I’ve spoken at length about my love of physical books, but one thing I haven’t talked about is how books themselves constitute a kind of living history. The underlinings and other marks left on a book’s pages preserve part of the reader himself, like a mosquito in amber: Casaubon’s marginalia, for instance, are legendary, as are Coleridge’s and Mark Twain’s, not to mention Fermat’s. The books that a reader owns gradually become an extension of his body and mind. And it’s reasonable to worry about how much we lose when an author’s notes, manuscripts, and correspondence—and even much of his reading—have migrated online. Much of what we know about someone like Casaubon, like his interest in Hebrew, are thanks to notes and jottings that have survived by accident. And it’s going to be very hard for such things to accidentally survive in the future.
Grafton is particularly eloquent, and urgent, on the ephemerality of our web-based culture. He laments the end of GeoCities, with its gloriously ugly webpages that nonetheless represent an important part of the history of the Internet, all of which are gone—the original hard drives have been erased and overwritten. In response to a question from an audience member, he also pointed out that archival material of the kind we’re used to seeing for contemporary writers—the fascinating volumes of correspondence for authors as different as Margaret Mitchell and Saul Bellow—may no longer exist. It’s true, as Grafton says, that the Ransom Center in Texas has started to collect hard drives as well as literary archives, but a great deal of material will be lost as discs age, formats die out, and operating systems change. In the future, I hope, we’ll still have scholars like Grafton, laboriously going over the literary remnants of authors from our own time. But what will be left for them to find?