Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Real Books and Magic Books

Better on a screen? An illuminated 15C Bible from Malmesbury Abbey.
Photo by Adrian Pingstone

I caught my first sight of a Kindle this week, over somebody’s shoulder on a train. In its black leather (or mock leather?) case, it initially looked like a travel document pouch. When I realised what it was, I craned across the train aisle rather indiscreetly. Would it hurt my eyes to read this for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours, or had technology cracked this problem? Was this an exclusive, paradigm-shifting glimpse into the future, the equivalent of being taken into a smug 15C cleric’s library and shown a printed book fresh from the presses of Peter Schoeffer or Georg Stuchs? (Important new technology brand names too, in their day…)

A few months ago, the British Library was conducting internal research on the needs of its users and I agreed to participate via telephone interview. The principal question was seemingly straightforward: If you needed to look at a 16C book, and there was a digital copy on-line and an original in the British Library, would you come all the way to London to look at the latter? In the usual historian’s way, I ummed and aahhed and said it depended. If I wanted to check something very simple, like a date of publication, then the online version would do. But if I were really studying and writing about, say, an anti-Lutheran polemic from 1524 by a Polish bishop, I’d certainly want to see the original if it was in the UK. Justifying this seemingly irrational position to the interviewer was easy on one level - there is a big intellectual trend in Renaissance research to treat the book not just as a disembodied text, but as a material artefact. Its size, weight, texture of the covers etc. are important evidence too, and better gauged through an encounter with a ‘real’ peculiar-smelling original book rather than with its clean and disembodied electronic cousin.

But there was also something else, which I rather struggled to communicate to the BL interviewer. Many historians feel a very strong need to be in the physical presence of the books, manuscripts, letters etc. they study. This isn’t just a self-indulgent desire to take delight in the age and rarity of our sources, enjoying our exclusive access to them – not just the connoisseur’s frisson of pleasure in holding, say, an illuminated tract on astrology produced for Henry VII’s doomed son Arthur. Writing about the past requires an effort of imagination, and that doesn’t in any way detract from its intellectual rigour. It’s much easier to imagine, think, analyse and see new things if your access to the past is unmediated via a screen, and bright fonts, and dialogue boxes.

It does feel like magic to click on the mouse in my Somerville room, and see rare 16C printed books opening up on the screen, and this is transforming and massively accelerating the way we do research. If that becomes a substitute for handling and thinking with the original physical books in front of us (good though that would be for the conservation of the poor books themselves), I think we would lose something precious but rather intangible in the process. Which is also what many consumers say when faced with the wizardry of the Kindle – they prefer to hold a real book in their hands. Whether this is a irrational, wrong-headed, Luddite resistance to a new technology, or people putting their finger on something genuinely hollow in the heart of the Kindle and its virtual 16C friends, we will of course have to wait and see.

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