[Humanist] 23.199 on Grafton's dematerializing book

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jul 29 07:24:48 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 199.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 28 Jul 2009 08:53:15 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: old smells, new glitter and many speculations

It is not surprising for anything by Anthony Grafton to get attention, and
for something by him that touches on the fate of the codex book in this our
digital age to be taken without even the tiniest grain of salt. The piece in
question is "Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes", chapter 15 in Worlds
Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern World (Harvard,
2009), recently reviewed in the TLS as previously announced here (TLS for 15
July, "Google Books or Great Books?"). Grafton's essay is definitely worth
reading, and a great pleasure to read, but I find it curiously unsatisfying.
Other reactions to it would be welcome.

Grafton is no Luddite of any variety. He has and exhibits deepappreciation of the pleasures as well as the practical benefits of the
great collections of books found in the great libraries, chosen and
grouped with intelligence. At the same time he recognizes the enormous
benefits, e.g. of making it possible for an impecunious postgraduate
student to enjoy the kind of access to sources previously at the command
of very, very few. He soberly predicts that libraries have to change to
remain afloat. But, in my reading, that is where his vision stops. At
the end of the essay he quotes Jonathan Barnes' withering "description
of the siren song of the TLG" (from "Bagpipe Music", Topoi 25, 2006, 17-20):

> Load it into your laptop, and you have instant access to virtually
> the whole of Greek literature. You cut and paste snippets from
> authors whose very names mean nothing to you. You affirm -- and
> you're right -- that a particular word used here by Plato occurs 43
> times elsewhere in Greek literature. And you can write an article --
> or a book -- stuffed with prodigious learning. (There are similar
> things available for Latin.)... The TLG is a lovely little resource
> (I think that's the word) and I use her all the time. But she's
> strumpet-tongued: she flatters and she deceives. "What an enormous
> knowledge you have, my young cock -- why not let me make a real
> scholar of you?" And the young cock crows on his dung-hill: he can
> cite anything and construe nothing.

Barnes is not making this up; such really happens, and Grafton
acknowledges the seriousness of the problem. But the picture painted is
incomplete, and so the obvious guidance on what to do about the
trivilization of scholarship (continue to offer a real education in the
classics, and hope?) is incomplete.

After duly ringing the hands more can follow than saying "on the other
hand", which tends to be Grafton's response. We could ask, for example,
"what happens (positively as well as negatively) when people skim
surfaces more than they plumb depths?" Then we can ask, "how do we train
students to take advantage of the good and shun the bad consequences?"
Very interesting and consequential answers follow from going beyond
questions of mere access to sources one would have reached for had they
been there to reach for. What *actually* happens in consequence of that
which mindless string-searches turn up that one never would have thought
to ask for? What new understandings and techniques of winnowing do we
need? What old value-judgements, based on metaphors implying a truth beneath, need to be set

But it is very difficult indeed to think anew. Just try saying that
something scholarly is as we would all wish it to be *without* using
metaphors of depth (e.g. deep understanding, profound thought etc). And if
that doesn't sober you up, try acting on the opportunities of going wide
rather than deep without being trivial. But wait: what now can we now mean
by trivial (a word that echoes with the thunder of a previous cognitive shift)?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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