Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Broken Book II: From a Book of Hours to a Book of Bits

In 2010, Christie’s sold a beautiful, de luxe Book of Hours that had been made in Northern France in about 1460. It was listed here: The book went under the hammer for £25,000 + auction fees and was sold to a trade buyer. Christie’s description demonstrated the significance of the book. It’s important for all kinds of reasons: its artistic qualities are outstanding, as so many extant Books of Hours demonstrate. Foliate decoration embellished with gold leaf enhanced multiple pages; the regularity of the script suggested an accomplished and experienced scribe. Written into the last opening is a set of unpublished fifteenth-century French prayers. Seventeen full-page illuminations will have provided meditative image-space for users of the book. 

Thus, notwithstanding the guesstimated 10,600 surviving Books of Hours, it is a unique and rich witness to private devotional book production at the apogee of the manuscript age. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, when so many antiquarians meddled with manuscripts in ways that varied from vandalistic to fetishistic, this manuscript seems to have been touched up by none other than Caleb William Wing, a famous intervener, who worked for well-known book collectors, such as John Boykett Jarman. Thus, this manuscript, significantly, has quite a bit of its post-facture history and provenance intact, and is a fascinating case study of a book’s life.

And death.

I now own the ‘book’. Or at least, I might be said to own the ‘book’, since I possess the nineteenth-century binding, the pink silk flyleaves with the book’s distinguished provenance, and eleven folios of the original medieval core, including the French prayers. 

The remains of manuscript 615
But I do not possess the book and will never be able to reconstruct it. Why? Because it has, since 2010 (the year two thousand and ten), been broken up deliberately and sold (mostly via EBay, I think) piecemeal in an act of shocking and greedy vandalism that I have uncovered in the last two weeks. I should say, too, that I bought the binding and intact leaves from a trusted American book-seller, purchased specifically for teaching and assuming the codex had been fragmented decades ago. He, in turn, had bought the book-shell from a German dealer.

This shattered shell of a book has proven improbably easy to trace. 

It was owned in the nineteenth century by a well-known collector, Edward Arnold, whose ex libris is still in situ on the front, pink endleaf. Edward Arnold’s very substantial collection was sold at major auctions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the Catalogue of Manuscripts Belonging to Edward Arnold (, this book is his number 615, as recorded in pencil on the verso of the second flyleaf.

615. B. M. v., cum Calendario, illuminated MS, on vellum, 252 11. [Flemish 15th century], 17 full-page illuminated miniatures with designed and floriated borders, decorated with angels, birds, fruit, and grotesque figures, over 250 of the pages having beautiful painted leafy borders heightened with gold, with many hundreds of illuminated initial letters, stout small 8vo, modern black morocco extra, with metal clasps, gauffred gilt edges Saec. XV

I don’t yet know who bought this book during these auctions, but the book clearly made its way to Christie’s for their sale in November 2010. Currently, the individual leaves or individual bifolia are being sold on Ebay by the ‘International Art and Antique Gallery’, a shop in Leipzig, owned by ‘kunsthandel’ Chidsanucha Walter e.K (see

This seller has individual leaves listed on EBay in a variety of languages and with no meaningful context provided at all. The miniatures are selling for $2,300 or so; individual leaves for up to $150; bifolia for about $400, depending on the extent of gold leaf or foliate decoration. I am screen-grabbing every folio as it appears in an effort to record 'the book'. And in a crisis mode, I bought two bifolia from the Calendar, plus one leaf with foliate marginal ornamentation, that came up for sale in the week beginning November 11th, so that I can show students how this book would have looked (would have looked, just three years ago). I realize that by purchasing these leaves I am directly contributing to the appalling trade in dismembered books, but these are the only leaves I will buy, despite trying to deal with a feeling of desperation as I watch this book literally fragment online into irrecoverable bits. Buying these leaves has also given me the opportunity to comment publicly on EBay about this particular Leipzig-based seller, so I shall simply be saying that it's a curious thing he has so many leaves from this recently dismembered codex.

I have alerted Christie’s to the history of this book, since they sold it whole. Christie's (and all the rest of the auction-houses) have, I believe, a major responsibility to sell only to those who demonstrate best practice in antiquarian book-dealing (which wouldn't include mutilation or fragementation). I have also spoken to colleagues in the antiquarian book trade. There is more that can be done, I suspect, to stop this myopic and destructive profiteering. I calculate that the person selling the body parts of this book won’t make much more than $20,000 in profit. Is biblioclasm of this scale really worth that?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Broken Book I: Getty Exhibition 'Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister'

At the exhibition of the St Albans Psalter and Canterbury stained glass, hosted by the Getty Museum from September 20, 2013 to February 2, 2014 (, the curators claim that ‘By uniting the intimate art of book illumination with monumental glass painting, this exhibition explores how specific texts, prayers and environments shaped the medieval viewer’s understanding of these pictures during the period of artistic renewal following the Norman Conquest of England’ (blurb on board at entrance wall). Pace the facts that 'prayers' are 'texts', that it was more than England that the Normans conquered, and there was never a diminution of English artistic achievement such that ‘renewal’ was required, the focus on ‘these pictures’ should have been a warning of what was coming as I turned the end of the wall to face the first room. First, though, I had to pass another board that mistakenly claimed: ‘[In 1066] Latin replaced English as the written language used in government and religious life’. First, Latin had always been used in government and religious life; secondly, it did not replace English, especially in ‘religious life’; thirdly, why do the curators feel it necessary to ameliorate their exhibit by diminishing social and cultural accuracy? Why not reflect a more nuanced historical reality?  

Front Steps of The Getty

What is really missing at the exhibition, though, is that which claims to be present: the St Albans Psalter itself (or, indeed, complete stained glass). In a provocative display, the curators choose to maximize the literal spread of the codex by utilizing its current disbound state to disperse bifolia through the four large, high-ceiled rooms, dimly lit and ideologically impelled. Most curious is the decision to show bifolia in separate wooden frames, categorized in sections by various labels like ‘Text Page’ (containing the Alexis Quire, as if only those folios have ‘text’). These exhibited bifolia are obviously conjugate pairs of leaves, but since many are outer bifolia, this means that only very rarely does one observe what would be an actual opening in the properly assembled and bound book. Successive folios representing what a medieval viewer might have seen are infrequent and the book is thus turned into a dismembered spectacle, displayed in component parts (like the Calendar, which is shown out of monthly order). The book is made extensive, but its functional extensity is utterly elided. 
            This is understandable in some respects, since spread-out like this, many folios are available for viewing by many viewers simultaneously. A touchscreen reproduction of one opening, which is itself encased adjacently, allows the reader to move around the virtual page with a cursor, with a neat function to allow simultaneous translation of the Latin. A facsimile of the St Albans Psalter sits on a lectern against a sidewall for the assiduous attendee, but there is otherwise little left of the bookness of the book. Moreover, unhelpful juxtapositions mislead or make convenient connections that cannot be chronologically, generically or thematically justified. Thus, for instance, for no apparent reason, two leaves of the Eadwine Psalter’s prefatory cycle (owned now by the Pierpont Morgan, though more properly belonging with the unmentioned Cambridge, Trinity College R. 17. 1) appear at the exhibit’s margins, marginalized, against separate walls with little connection made between these and St Albans’ deconstructed quires.
            The first three of the large rooms are deliberately made to emulate sacred space; the stained glass (with two black-and-white supply panels) overlooks the fragmented Psalter, but does not connect with it in any meaningful way. Situated in front of the glass are long benches, like church pews, and this ecclesiastical setting is continued in oversized pictures (a cloister photograph covers the end wall in the second room, for example; and Canterbury Cathedral’s East End sits to the right of the stained glass). 

Digital Image from
Why did this seem like a good idea? Why is this hyperreal immersion, this pretend churchi-ness, appropriate? The third room—loosely about saints and Thomas Becket—proffers more forced connections: manuscripts with tentative links to Becket or showing the same artist as one of those in the St Albans Psalter are juxtaposed with a pilgrim badge, a Limoges reliquary, another reliquary casket and a liturgical comb carved with Henry II and Becket. Perhaps I didn’t read carefully enough in this room, but the theme of saints’ cults is oddly attached to two sets of texts (the Psalter and the windows) that are concerned with saints in far more complex ways than are suggested here. A more obvious connection might have been salvation.
            The final room is explicatory and by far the clearest part of the exhibit. Cases demonstrate how medieval illumination was produced and how stained glass is made. It’s a good final reminder that in this exhibition we are dealing with real objects that have multiple functions. The Psalter and the stained glass are not just pictures. There is so little emphasis on word-text in the case of the Psalter that one would be forgiven for forgetting the Book of Psalms is all about the text (said, sung, read, memorized). The real object is displayed at The Getty, ironically, as if it were digital—chopped up into its consistent parts, browsable in no defined order. And while it is a wonderful opportunity to see up close the details of the manuscript’s folios, one wonders what impression modern viewers are left with of this rather lovely, but here entirely decontextualised, set of materials.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Public Space as Text: Stanford University

Stanford was founded 128 years ago today, I just discovered, which is how long it's seemed since my last blog. This quarter, I'm teaching Text Technologies again, and we have the whole of Stanford to roam around. Stanford's campus, or the oldest parts of it, is famous for its stunning architecture, always photographed against aquamarine skies, like this: It is a strangely public private institution. In 2011, Lisa Lapin, the Associate Vice-President for Communications, cautioned against the burgeoning of photography by visitors at Stanford: "The Main Quad is not a public park", she said ( It may not be a park, but it is a very public space, overflowing with busloads of tourists every single day of the year; teeming with potential applicants and their parents; and spotted with students and employees going about their business.

My Text Technologies group was taken on a tour by one of our own students: a meta-textual experience. The tour made apparent the highlights considered appropriate for visitors: the age and tradition of the institution; the sandstone and red tile, reminiscent of Californian mission architecture; the non-denominational Memorial Church at the core of the original campus, surrounded by the vast, unfilled (but not unpeopled) space of the Main Quad:

As one of our group pointed out, no human eye can take in the entire vista of the Quad at once: it takes more than one look, emphasizing its size, its scale, and the wealth of the institution. It is particularly about wealth, because this is predominantly empty space: so much space we own! Large circles of plants serve to maintain traffic flow, but do not interrupt the panorama. Fan palm trees visually echo the cross at the apex of the church and repeat the theme of the main approach to the university down Palm Drive.

Like the palm-strewn triumphant journey into Jerusalem, the visitor approaching campus sees before them the palms, the gates, the church, the Stanford-owned hills behind: the whole vista of this public, yet private place.

Wth its oddly catholic architecture, peculiarly Californian, but deliberately traditional, national and authoritative (Richardsonian Romanesque), Stanford is simultaneously local and international, medieval and modern. It is at once monastic and ascetic, a bastion of learning, redolent of privilege and prestige, yet open to a world that enters through the gateless gatehouses and gazes at the buildings' symmetry, the declaration of presence and belonging.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Speaking up for English

In the New York Times on 23rd June (, Verlyn Klinkenborg outlined the so-called 'decline' of the English Major, unhappily conflating the apparent crisis in the Humanities with the falling numbers of students studying English and confusing the issue by lamenting these same English students' alleged inability to write clearly. (What students, by the way, would want to study with a tutor who complained in such a blanket fashion about them?)

There's so much one can say about this article. First, Klinkenborg's experience is not my experience. Some students write beautifully from the outset; others need more time to learn. It was ever thus. It is my job to teach my students the skills they need to be the best that they can be. Secondly, as pointed out here ( and here ( [a reference via Michael Bérubé at]), the figures depend on the particular data being manipulated. It was ever thus... again.

But in between the hand-wringing and the prophecies of a Humanities apocalypse, there are two things that strike me as particularly myopic.

1. The first is the common use of the English Literature and Language undergraduate degree as the whipping boy of 'the Humanities'. The 'Humanities'--or, more appropriately, 'Arts'--are much more than just English.

2. The second point is that a good English degree is much more than just 'writing' and 'reading'. A good English degree will train a student in all areas of English Literature. In the study of early literary texts, for example, the skills imparted by reading Old English or Middle English are not only 'clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature', as Klinkenborg lists, but also patience and meticulousness in the acquisition of translation skills, problem solving at the level of the individual lexeme, team work in class efforts to make sense of tricky syntax, empathy with a literary corpus at first so alien, tolerance of others' beliefs and expression of those beliefs, and so on. Thus, when we talk about an 'English degree', let's remember the field of English is itself varied and broad: it is not a single, uniform set of literary materials; it is not a narrow, individual set of tools. At its best, the field of English is diverse, chronologically capacious, concerned with minutiae as well as big pictures, focused on translation and interpretation as well as reading and writing. As a teacher, I am determined to teach students that what is difficult is worth pursuing; that the hardest work is usually the most rewarding. And as practitioners, we might remind ourselves that this Humanities 'crisis', while hyperbolic now, could actually become self-fulfilling if we continue to talk about our field in the negative ways we've so often seen recently.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

On MOOCs, flip-lectures and the medieval

The Times today reported on a conference about learning techniques that seemed to focus on 'innovation' in the classroom ( Its silly headline reads: '"Medieval" lectures could be replaced by free online courses'. It's a headline that makes no sense, since it implies that 'lectures' (which take many different forms), are 'medieval' in origin (when they've been a tested form of education since the classical period), and will be eliminated by 'courses' (which are not synonymous with 'lectures') that are 'free' (so what?) and 'online' (only available in electronic form? Really?). 

No one should believe this. 

The report goes on to say that Don Nutbeam, Southampton's Vice-Chancellor, believes that flip-lectures (not the same as 'online courses' or, indeed, 'free') could '"liberate" students from out-of-date styles of teaching'. He goes on to say that having watched the flip lecture, students and lecturer could then 'convene a discussion in a lecture hall'! Oh, that'll be a lecture, then? Most contemporary in-person lectures I have seen involve, effectively, the lecturer talking and then discussing issues with the students, but, truthfully, there is no one-size fits all model of teaching at institutions internationally. At my university, we use all forms of teaching: traditional lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, workshops, online supplementary materials, and flip-lectures. Moreover, "flip-lectures" and these other techniques have been around for years (ask the Open University, or look at Youtube); it's just the audience that has broadened by the openness of the internet.

Nutbeam was joined in discussion by Mark Taylor, the dean of Warwick Business School. He apparently said: 'Seminars and lectures are medieval concepts. They were introduced in medieval Europe and haven’t changed much in 700 or 800 years.' Oh dear. Where to start with this? It's not accurate of course, but even if it were, so what? Is the implication that not only lectures but seminars should be jettisoned because they're old? They should be scrapped because they're 'medieval'? Hang on! Universities are medieval. Parliament is medieval. Common Law is medieval. Mercantilism is medieval. Towns are medieval. English is medieval. 

This use of 'medieval' to suggest something so... what? -- Old-fashioned? Redundant? Useless? Simplistic? -- is vacuous. It is facile. It is, however, potentially damaging to those of us who focus our scholarly and academic efforts on the medieval. So, simply: please, stop it. 


Saturday, April 27, 2013

The MLA, Old English and all

MLA President, Marianne Hirsch, wrote to the Old English Division of the Association on 28 March 2013. On behalf of the Executive Council, she asked us the following, among other things: 'Given the disproportionate number of divisions in English in relation to other fields like African and East Asian, would you consider consolidating with Middle English Language and Literature, Excluding Chaucer and with Chaucer? What would such a division be called? Old and Middle English? Early English?' The Old English committee replied that we wanted no such consolidation.

Now, almost a decade ago, I argued for a more nuanced approach to periodization, with its arbitrary categories creating strange literary and linguistic lacunae ( For research purposes, and even for teaching (especially in the undergraduate program), it is useful to cut through swathes of time, to juxtapose and reconfigure in ways that narrower foci of single periods might not obviously permit. Yet, there's a great deal to be said about concentrated study, if that study is framed by peripheral vision.

Salisbury Cathedral Library 150: Gallican Psalter and Gloss

Still, though, I cannot agree to a request from a professional association to conflate, collapse, concertina a thousand years of English literatures, languages, and cultures into one. The letter that the Division wrote in response (here: gave a number of very good reasons to maintain the distinctiveness of Old and Middle English, and all are compelling. One of them, though, has a significance that is easy to miss: it's the #5 in the letter, the 'Professional' reason, which states that 'MLA Divisions in English Literature tend to mirror hiring specialties'. I think, perhaps, that 'mirror' is the most politic way of putting it. I wonder if, in fact, in some economically constrained and resource-light English Departments, the MLA's divisions and trends don't actually contribute to/drive/impel/suggest particular hiring specialties?

For this reason, as well as many others, the MLA has an influence that is actually quite astonishing when one thinks about it (and this is to say nothing of the job lists, which, as a British academic, I find bizarrely centralized in schedule and format, and utterly brutal in implementation). My view of a professional association is that such a body exists principally to encourage a love of its subject and to assist its subject's practitioners; that it seeks to support and defend and lobby; that it helps to provide useful meeting places, tools, and contacts for its members. And that would be all its members: from a hard-core Anglo-Saxonist (whoop!) to a contemporary digital theorist; from an African-American literature scholar to a Slavic linguistics PhD student. All the members, MLA. All of them.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Kindness, caring and criticism: the academic book review


The Kalamazoo 2012 Babel session in which a very different version of these thoughts was delivered concerned itself with “finally leaving, getting rid of, abandoning, refusing, and letting go of potentially toxic ‘love-objects,’ with ‘love-objects’ here denoting any possible object: ideological, methodological, disciplinary, textual, art historical,” and so on. My topic was the letting go of the objects/subjects of perfection and superiority. It was about embracing kindness in academia; practicing carefulness; encouraging a sense of self-worth in everyone.

Being an academic is, regardless of how we’re perceived, a difficult job, even though we are deeply privileged to be able to teach, to think our thoughts aloud, and to research what we’re passionate about. The difficulties come from many sources, including the constant pressure throughout a career to sit on an apparent cloud of cleverness, never mind the uncertainty of the profession in this age of cutbacks and cheapskate institutions. I recognize, too, that “difficulties” simply doesn’t cut it for those searching for a permanent position in a world of exploitation, faculty and staff retrenchment, and competition (and as for tenure, that’s another blog, and for what it’s worth, let’s remember that tenure was abolished in the UK in 1988). If it isn’t the RAE/REF that is hounding the British scholar—metering the minutes before the submission of the next article, calculating the merits of a book in unintelligible points (0-4*) before it’s been published—then it’s the tick-tock of the Tenure Timer, battering the Assistant Professor into submission to the system via the monograph—a form of writing that I’ve heard many say has had its day; yet, for most in Arts and Humanities, it lingers on as the measure of scholarly competency. (This obsession with “The Book” has to end, by the way. There should be room for many varied forms of scholarly output, each judged on its own merits.)

Writing a book is, frankly, tricky enough, without the clock, without the pressure from onlookers. For many, writing the first book is a truly stressful and fearful process, with long periods of self-doubt and, in some cases, doubt leading to an intellectual paralysis and the inability to finish the project. To all intents and purposes, finishing something that one can imagine needs to be perfect is almost impossible. Besides, when it’s “finished” it’s still not complete. When I finished my first book—submitted the manuscript, and went out to dinner with my husband to celebrate, he said, helpfully, “But it’s not really finished, is it?” reminding me of the copy-editing, proof-reading, and indexing remaining to be done. That put an damper on the evening. But, even when it is really finished…oh, there’s the reviews. Ah. The reviews.

Spitting Feathers, Splitting Hairs
What do these peer-esteem mechanisms reveal about our field and our profession? Academics, rightly or wrongly, are the arbiters, the authorities, on most “worthy” endeavors—cultural, social, historical, scientific. Indeed, from television and film requests to academics, to grant funding bodies’ requests for review, to tenure recommendations, others external to academic institutions clearly consider this scholarly authority to be credible. The role of arbiter and commentator, most obviously of all, extends to the reviewing of potential publications, too, where presses and journal editors choose reviewers cognizant of the importance of their seal of approval or disapprobation. And while I doubt that the puff on a book jacket would ever make or break a book, a bit of a blessing by a big name cannot go amiss. There are good books, there are bad books (see for some) and no one denies this, but in the academic world, more (or is it less?) is at stake than “good” or “bad”; scholars who are reviewing have a professional obligation to those whom they review. Thus, the guise of “arbitration” should not be used to provide thin cover for rudeness, sarcasm and personal attack. 

The Rhetoric  
From a wide choice of reviews, none of which I intend to publicize specifically, though I am happy to give reference details to anyone who wants them, I wonder what motivated the kinds of language used? Reviewers who dislike what they read have a number of interesting tactics (and I am sure there are hundreds more):
1. The rhetorical question, urging the discerning reader to agree with the implied criticism: “Is this really a novel insight?” “Does this author imagine himself to be adhering to scholarly standards?” 
2. The personification of the book, where it stands in for the person of the scholar him- or herself: i) “The book is flawed by a pervasive and reckless disregard for historical…facts and issues, and for much of the relevant scholarship in these disciplines”; ii) “[This book] would be highly welcome… if only it would meet moderate scholarly standards”
3. Sarcasm: “[X’s] monograph draws upon and enters into the recent discussions and gives a detailed overview—or as she calls it, ‘a critical study’—of the corpus”
4. Use of anti-intellectual lexis: “amateurish,” “mind-numbing,” “specious”
5. Meiosis (or some such term… what is it?) for diminishing substance yet incremental egregious error: “A few examples must suffice here for illustrating the editor’s pervasive failure to meet such standards. Most basically, there are serious deficiencies throughout in handling secondary literature. I restrict myself here, however, to technical deficiencies...”
6. Implied failure signaled by verbs and adverbs that undermine: “assumes,” “attempts,” “unfortunately”
7. The Critical Paradox: “Because of the outrageous and uncontrolled nature of the speculation which it contains [this book] in this reviewer’s opinion, is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on the field.” [If it’s unlikely to have any impact, why bother to review it?]
8. Unhelpful ambivalence: “Sincerity is the politeness of the critic, and it is with sympathy (after all the criticism) that this reviewer welcomes the provocative nature and vision of this book, although it claims and concludes far too much from far too little convincing evidence”.

Can any academic really suggest of another that they might write a monograph, willfully abandoning “standards” and being deliberately “reckless”? A desire to show what the reviewer knows to be wrong, without any real attempt to engage with what is right, demonstrates that the review is only partly about the book itself. What creates this sense of indignation in a reviewer is curious: that an author makes mistakes? Give a list of corrigenda. That the author treads on ground that the reviewer knows so much better? The reviewer can write a kindly corrective article. That the reviewer wishes to shame the author? The shame pertains, surely, to the reviewer’s lack of careful collegiality. Moreover, of course, the reviewer proffers an opinion on the overall utility and academic value of the book. In a case above, where the author is accused of a “pervasive disregard” for all that is to be upheld, the very same book won a major prize and was deemed by another reviewer to be “an important book…offering richness for modern scholars.”
Real damage to people’s sense of professional worth can result from hard-worded reviews. This writer here ( talks about how hurt their feelings are by the review they’ve just read. While they take on board some of the criticisms proffered, it’s clear that damage is done at a personal level. This isn’t ok; it really isn’t. To be hurtful, to say something in a review that you would not say to that person in a friendly and constructive conversation, is not ok. Reviewers have a responsibility to make their criticisms known, but known kindly, for these same reviewers also have a responsibility to their colleagues and their profession to assist in nurturing and appreciating the work done by those colleagues, often in very trying circumstances. If there is something critical to be said, and reviewers cannot encourage, mentor and gently correct, they should not comment at all. For, as I have said before, having learned it from the great Greg Walker some dozen years ago, 

“It’s nice to be important; but it’s more important to be nice.” If we can’t extend that mantra to our colleagues in the field, then there is something wrong with the world in which we work (and it is, after all, just work, just a job).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

That was 'This is Not the End of the Book'

Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere have co-conversed This is Not the End of the Book, curated by Jean-Phillipe de Tonnac (NorthwesternUP, 2011 [translated by Polly McLean]). At 336 pages, it's a long and wide-ranging chat about books--their role in mostly western culture, their significance to the discussants, and the manifold ways in which the book contributes to lives. It isn't, as one might think from the declarative title, a foot-stamping manifesto in support of the, apparently, fading light of the physical book, but it does remind us of the ubiquity of the book; its flexibility of form; readers' relationships with their books; and the technology's dogged persistence in the face of multiple persecutions through the centuries.

For Eco, quite simply, books (or scrolls) are 'the emblem of civilisation' (26) and the containers of collective memory (63). For Carriere, the rapid obsolescence of modern media makes the digital pale in comparison with the longevity and robustness of books (31). With books, through archives and libraries (the library as 'an assurance of learning') (284), information can be filtered, sorted and retrieved (67ff.). Moreover, and significantly, this retrievability means that '[o]ur not set in stone. Nothing is more alive than the past' (85). Carriere regrets the loss of the rough draft, the many visible steps en route to the text's completion--the (paradoxical) emergence of the 'phantom version' in the digital era (117).

And for both Eco and Carriere, it is the dynamism and quickness of the book that registers most strongly: 'A great book is always alive; it grows and ages alongside us without ever dying' (158); each reading of a book is different; each experience with an old favourite changes from the last, as we ourselves change. But some readers, it seems, never change or evolve intellectually. Eco and Carriere admit to a fascination with the idiotic and the false, with the bookburners (245ff) and the censors (207ff). 'Studying stupidity', comments Carriere (216), 'challenges the sanctification of the book, [and] reminds us that we're all constantly in danger of spouting similar nonsense'.

There's no nonsense here. This is a delightful book, replete with fascinating, eclectic, learned and trite facts, experiences and musings. Carriere remembers the impressive missals of childhood church services, where 'Truth came out of a book singing' (294); while Eco, decrying the use of toxic chemicals in removing active bookworms, advises keeping 'an alarm clock in your library. The kind our grandmothers used to have. Apparently the regular tick-tock, and the vibrations it sends through the wood, keep the worms in their hidey-holes' (310).

And if that doesn't make a reader want to read this book--knowing that once it's read it, it will be the End of the Book--I don't know what would.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Restrictive 'Humanities'

Hmmm. The Humanities. The Digital Humanities. As a Digital Medievalist, Andrew Prescott said in an email to me today that he has a BA, a Bachelor of Arts degree, not a BHum. We are PhDs, not PhHums. When did the 'Arts' become the 'Humanities'? 'Humanities' are everywhere and nowhere. The study of the 'Human'? Virtually all fields do that in some, even tangential, regard; indeed, 'the proper study of mankind is man' [and woman], as Pope helpfully reminds us.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1462, ff. 9v-10v

The definition of 'humanities' is shifting again. From its origins in English as a translation of humanitas, where 'humanness' was denoted (in the late fourteenth century Wycliffe Bible:, to its specificity in the educational ideal of Studia Humanitatis, to its current ubiquity, the word has formed the focus of lengthy and detailed scrutiny. In 'Renaissance Humanism and the Future of the Humanities', Literature Compass 9/10 (2012), 665-78 (, Jennifer Summit traces the origin of the Humanities to the Renaissance, publicising the utility of Renaissance scholarship for the current debate, pointing out that 'No more is "the human" the unique commitment of the humanities' (667), but that the Renaissance transformation of education still has lessons for contemporary academe. The trends that she discerns are temporally assigned to the fourteenth century when 'the unprecedented expansion of lay literacy and education across Europe...made the studia humanitatis a mechanism for both socializing the rising literate classes and sorting them into appropriate stations' (671).

In their recent Short Guide to Digital_Humanities (available as a stand-alone PDF here, taken from their book:, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp offer an interpretation of 'humanities' that confirms the post-medieval definition offered by Summit. 'For nearly six centuries,' they say, 'humanistic models of knowledge have been shaped by the power of print as the primary medium of knowledge production and dissemination'. This equation of the humanities with the dawn of print, or with the Renaissance more specifically, is unhelpful.

First: the dawn of print did not displace, and still has not displaced, the manuscript; indeed, the digital age itself has not done so, and, I venture, will never do so. Most of my students still take notes, even though I am quite happy for them to use tablets and laptops; in the 'modern' era, James Joyce wrote with a pen (see left); the Beatles Lyrics are manuscript; Seamus Heaney's evocative translation of Beowulf exists in hybrid form--as typescript with manuscript emendations, corrections and expansions. The age of the manuscript, then, is still with us, and very much in vogue with large numbers of students wanting to study palaeography, calligraphy, and book-making, and with the 'handwritten' object or the celebrity autograph in huge demand, and demanding increasingly exorbitant prices.

Secondly, to associate the origin of Studia Humanitatis with the Renaissance is to risk overstating the 'dawn of modernity' theory that underpins Stephen Greenblatt's contentious book, The Swerve (on which, see my previous blog, and see Let's be clear that the 'humanities', as defined under Studia Humanitatis in the Renaissance, derived from the Medieval curriculum--the Trivium, in particular (see Paul Oscar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts [NY, 1965], p. 178). Medieval scholars, students, thinkers, writers--people--were not some antiquated and utterly unlike-us body of beings. The Medieval is not set apart from the Renaissance by some thickly-drawn line of differentness.

Our desire to situate ourselves historically, to explain how we have come to where we are, to think through how we can compare text technological 'revolutions' like the manuscript-to-print, print-to-digital shouldn't blinker us to the full story that history offers. It shouldn't suggest a yearning to disguise the long march of humanity--the really longue durée--, to exclude (tiresomely, yet again) a whole millennium of rich, meaningful and pertinent textual cultures in the Medieval period. And this is only the tip of a global iceberg often missed in these debates claiming academic ground; these debates also, too frequently, preclude the astonishing contribution of Eastern and Islamic cultures, among many others, that properly belong to 'Humanities', Digital or Otherwise. Instead of restricting what 'humanities' does or doesn't mean, then, it is time for generous, capacious and welcoming methodologies and definitions that seek to include, temporally and spatially, rather than exclude.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

What's in a Name?

‘A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights; no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.’

Ai Weiwei

Perhaps a half-a-mile separates the Vietnam Memorial in The Mall in Washington D.C. and the memorial to the students killed by the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. The former, by Maya Ying Lin, sits unobtrusively in the west end of the Mall, while Ai Weiwei’s installation, ‘Remembrance’, is a temporary exhibit in the Hirshhorn Museum, further east towards the Capital. Both memorials are extraordinary testimonies to the tragic loss of human life in recent decades, and both, in very distinct ways, are intensely moving. From a text technological perspective the differences are obvious and notable: the Vietnam Memorial is discreet and yet absolutely public, created from black durable granite, with sandblasted inscribed names. 

Weiwei’s monument to the crushed students is materially ephemeral: it is ink-jet printed onto smooth, matt paper and takes up an entire wall of the Hirshhorn’s first floor, placed (surely strategically) as people come up the escalator. Hardly anyone stopped to look at it. As I came up the escalator, I assumed it was a list of donors to the museum, so I didn’t bother to examine the wall more closely. There was some kind of voice in the background, but this didn’t register, either.

On the way down from the second floor, having seen Weiwei’s work, then, then I stopped to look. ‘Remembrance’ is transient and a surrogate for the ‘real’ list that resides permanently in Weiwei’s workshop. It is public and yet private—huge but indoors, utterly visible and yet easily missed. It shares this missableness with the Vietnam Memorial, though the fame and cultural relevance of the latter draw people to it. The Vietnam Memorial is permanent, monumental, reflective (and a place for reflection), where the inscriptions can be touched and literally entered into by the fingers of those searching for the traces of a loved one. The smooth polished surface of the granite reflects the park behind it and the shapes of those who pass by. In this way, viewers become part of the tragedy, if only temporarily; and the world goes on both around and within the memorial, reminding everyone of the transitory nature of life.


The Vietnam Memorial is a nationally and politically sanctioned and positioned act of commemoration, staffed by volunteers in yellow coats, and stopped at by buses full of tourists, many of whom walk the path past it, but barely stop to linger. ‘Remembrance’ is, if anything, the anti-governmental act of a political agitant: a man of profound courage and resilience, who insists through his work that the world pay attention to China and its many issues as it emerges onto the global stage. The names on his printed monument might have been easily forgotten, elided, erased. Yet here they are, in Chinese, each one listed and, importantly, supported, doubled, by an acoustic text which reads out every name, taking over three hours to individually commemorate the more than 5,000 students who died as a result of poor building standards in Sichuan province. There are no volunteers to point out the meaning or the specific name, here, but its poignancy is not diminished by its intimacy and interiority.

Both memorials use the sweep of their respective landscapes to suggest unendingness and extensity of perspective. The Vietnam Memorial with its angular centre (see photo 1) where the end of the war (1975) meets the beginning (1959) is ten feet tall at this central point, but decreases in height as it moves away in two directions. This amazing sight of the diminishing perspective enhanced by diminishing size suggests the interminable nature of man’s feuding. Weiwei’s monument seems to use the gentle curved sweep of the Hirshhorn’s rounded architecture to fade into an indefinable end. The overall effect is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the suddenness and brutality of the students’ deaths with the smoothness (efficiency of the state?) of the paper material and the monument’s positioning.

Numbers are significant. They underscore the enormity (in both its traditional and more recent meanings) of lost life. The veteran gentleman who stands at the vertex of the Vietnam Memorial answered three people’s questions--‘How many names are here?’--in the few moments that I stood close to him. I asked him what question he is asked most often. ‘How many died’, he replied. ’58,282’. This is twenty-six more names than are accounted for in the information leaflet for the Memorial. This is thus an eventful text, a fluid text. As the names of those missing-in-action, introduced by a cross, are transformed into the names of those known to have died, the cross is transformed into a diamond. Should those listed as missing-in-action ever be found alive, the cross would be surrounded by a carved circle. 

Weiwei’s eventful text is added to as the names of victims are discovered by the investigators. His looks like the clinical exercise of the registrar at a big event. The tabulated listing could be mistaken for some form of spreadsheet counting exercise, until one looks more closely and the horror of the list is revealed by its scale.

The Vietnam Memorial, meanwhile, also uses a sense of proportion to shock: the first 1959 granite panel contains the names of those lost over six years; the second panel, the names of those lost over five months; the third panel, those lost over five weeks. That visual escalation of war is shocking; the accumulation of black and white detail in Weiwei’s memorial, similarly so. Both are overwhelming.