Worlds Made by Words

For our first installment, we read two essays from Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West. Reading about reading seemed like a fitting way to begin this project.

“Arendt and Eichmann at the Dinner Table” is Anthony Grafton’s examination of an ultimately unpublished article on Hannah Arendt that his father, journalist Samuel Grafton, researched and wrote for Look magazine in 1963.

Arendt’s series of New Yorker articles on Adolf Eichmann (which would later become her book Eichmann in Jerusalem) touched off explosive controversy. Arendt, whom the public had come to regard as a brilliant scholar of the radically evil nature of totalitarianism, now advanced a notion of ‘the banality of evil,’ arguing that Eichmann—despite his prominent role in organizing the Holocaust—was in fact a man of no particular genius, a simple functionary following orders. No less shocking, for many readers, was her treatment of the Jewish councils, which she condemned as having cooperated with the Nazis in the destruction of their own communities.

Disputes in living rooms and across the pages of newspapers and magazines proliferated across the country (particularly in New York, where the Grafton family lived), and the whole churning controversy assumed a form that Anthony Grafton contends has become the standard script for American intellectual controversies:

All of a sudden, a story emerges: not the story of the original book, which becomes at most a sidebar and usually nothing more than a first paragraph. Rather, the conflict becomes the story. Individual positions and posturings, particular reviews and debates, generate still more publicity. The actual theses and substance of the original book lie buried and forgotten, unread or distorted, under the tons of invective hurled at the author and his or her detractors. In many cases, no one actually seems to have read the original, though everyone has read the cover article about it in the New York Times Book Review. (274)

In recent years, we’ve seen this pattern play out many times. To name just two examples: In 2011, everyone had a hot take on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but for many, the debate seemed to have more to do with their own ideas about how to best raise children than it had to do with Chua’s account of her family. And in 2014, the buzz surrounding Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century reached deafening levels, but statistics from Amazon’s Kindle suggested that few readers advanced beyond page 26 of the nearly 700-page book.

Anthony Grafton locates his father’s unpublished Look article at an approximate turning point in the life of American intellectual debates; our current pattern of media circus was emerging, but the careful reading and reportage that can serve as a moderating force in these debates were still common. Samuel Grafton belonged to this older world, Anthony Grafton argues. He and his editors had read and discussed Arendt’s work. In preparation for an ultimately unrealized interview (which was the reason the article never made it to print), the elder Grafton and Arendt exchanged pointed questions and responses by mail. And the journalist interviewed not only Arendt’s fiercest critics, but also some of her more sympathetic readers whose names Arendt herself had given him. In short, Anthony Grafton argues, his father exemplified the sort of careful reading and professionalism that are in such short supply in today’s intellectual controversies.

This seems about right. But the practice of careful and thorough reading—let’s call it ‘slow reading’—hasn’t died off entirely, of course. There’s always slow reading going on to some degree (it certainly thrives in the academy, for instance), but it has largely receded from the public sphere. Why? Have there just been too many demands on the public’s attention for the last 60 years for slow reading to remain prevalent? Is it just that we’re too distracted by an ever-expanding universe of entertainment and the second-by-second updates of social media? Could it also be that slow reading’s scarcity has something to do with an American anti-intellectual bent?

The answer to these questions can’t be found within this essay, but we aim to keep them in mind as we tackle future readings. We also want to take to heart the implicit warning of this essay by employing the practices of slow reading for this project. They are important skills to exercise.

The second essay we read was “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes.” As the final motion in Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words, it functions as a wrapping up of sorts. Originally written as an article for the New Yorker, it reads more as scholarly storytelling than as an academic paper. The writing is highly personal, combining Grafton’s experiences and love of books and libraries with those of other literary and non-literary figures. We find there to be something important in this overlap between layperson and scholar in the library setting, and will turn to this later.

While Grafton thinks through many library-related topics, we found this to be his main thesis: Libraries and material sources of literature and information will continue to be indispensable alongside current and future digital technologies. Grafton quotes Kevin Kelly of Wired, who claims that current digitization projects aim at creating “a virtual, universal library” with “all the books in the world,” which will “become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas” (289). Kelly hopes that such a monad of information will help users gain “a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know. The white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness.” While Grafton holds that this drive towards a modern day Tower of Babel is not a contemporary desire, he warns that it exists 1) as an impossibility and 2) always leaves out some pieces of contextual information.

For Grafton, such a totalizing library exists in the realm of fantasy, of utopia. Digitization always loses something in the translation from analog to digital. Grafton argues that there are integral components of books that lie beyond the text itself, including packaging, binding, marginalia, type of paper, etc. All of these contribute to the overall milieu of the book: “To hear books speak, you have to interview them in their original habitat,” he writes (311). Grafton takes issue with the implicit philosophy of the digitizers: That what is most important about a book is the text: what the book says, not how it says it. The center, the text, is worth saving and collecting, not the context in which it was born and surrounded by.

Of course, Grafton recognizes the contribution that online resources have added to scholarly work. Before the internet, in fields such as Eighteenth and Nineteenth century literature, one had to travel around the world to see primary texts. Now, one can produce excellent scholarship from a home office in Boston or from a cafe in South Africa. As digitizing techniques get more sophisticated, more of the context (such as watermarks) can be seen on a screen. Yet, there is something beyond information that physical books (and the spaces they inhabit) bring: libraries, those communities that bind people together through their bibliographic desires.

Libraries are not merely places to access information. For Grafton, it is a space where the public and academic overlap. Many nuggets in this chapter are from these types of connections in libraries. Grafton cites the highly formative nature of these interactions and the way they’ve imbued many academics (such as himself, Alfred Kazin and Peter Brown) with strong memories and identities. There is something important about the library and the knowledge produced therein. “[I]f you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will still have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stone stairs” (324).

Beyond this short overview, we would like to take Grafton to task for a few comments we find a bit tenuous:

Ask the WorldMap to show you how many public library books the world’s nations boast: you will see the relation of the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and of Western nations to their former colonies, all laid out in stark color. Sixty million Britons have 116 million public library books at their disposal, while the more than 1.1 billion Indians have 36 million.

World poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as lack of food—it means that citizens of many nations do not have access to their own literature and history, much less to information about other countries. The Internet, as constituted in its short past, has not yet done much to redress this imbalance. (301-302)

There are a few things going on here, so we would like to slow them down and see what sort of work is at play. First of all, Sam finds something troubling about the equation of quantitative data (number of books available) with knowledge about national and international history, culture and literature. Should we equate the amount of information with its accuracy, truth or knowledge content? Does more mean better? Especially since more seems to signal greater progress in the liberal, Enlightenment sense of the word.

Second, we feel uncomfortable with the equation of poverty with lack of food and lack of knowledge in the form of books. We see here a glimmer of movement away from Maslow’s (liberal) hierarchy of needs towards a different sense of what it is to live a satisfactory life. We have no problem with Grafton’s equation of literary and historical knowledge with physical substantiation. We do, however, take to task the medium by which this is assumed to take place. In this passage, physical books are equated with cultural knowledge and history. The universalization of a specific form (books) as applied to widely heterogeneous cultures (including those of some of the Third World) is troublesome. It reminds us of Einstein’s (possibly misattributed) quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” If we judge another culture’s history and knowledge by Enlightenment standards (the number of books they have), we will likely view them as lacking. Alternatively, we might leave a space for which cultural knowledge might still exist. We would like to ask Grafton: Are there other ways in which a culture’s literature and history can exist other than in book form? If so, then might they not lack such histories? And if they do not lack these things, do they still fit into the category of poverty?

While we prefer to leave these questions open, we also wish to recognize that the colonial system did destroy cultures and histories at some level. Some stories survived, were reinvented and/or took on new permutations (for example the West-African Yoruban religion’s success in Cuba, Brazil and Haiti and its syncretic relationship with Catholicism). The problem with colonialism was not that it completely erased cultural knowledge but denigrated non-western forms of knowledge to a lower realm of existence. This necessarily created an ideal identity elevating the colonizer and western ideals of democracy, westernization, and sovereign recognition. Such an ideal became embedded in colonized individuals and societies (and, more prominently, the nationalist and bourgeois components). Through this and globalization, non-western modes of knowledge have fallen out of their previously culturally relevant role. Through such idealization, colonized populations, in a sense, can be viewed as destroying their own culture based on the newly internalized western ideal.

The western ideal we are referencing can be seen through Enlightenment era thought and its epistemological commitments. Conscious, rational, empirical knowledge is a plus, material science shining light on a dark world is a plus, and so on and so on. Such a tendency moves towards a form of cataloging. To understand, expose, control and catalogue the inner workings of nature is a perilous endeavor, often fraught with unforeseen consequences and desires. While we do not think that Grafton is saying this explicitly, we are implying that liberal Anglo-American rationality might retain an often-unnoticed imperialistic unconscious.

Returning to an earlier thread, could it not be the case that the book itself (as a medium) is an earlier iteration of the imperfect universalizing repository of knowledge that Grafton argues against in its online form? If we lose something of the great local book cultures of the Vatican when we digitize papal decrees, might we not also lose something in the process of trying to encapsulate the knowledge of a non-book culture in books? For instance, a book on Hindustani music couldn’t hope to capture the guru-shishya (~teacher-disciple) model of pedagogy that is integral to learning about the art form in its contextual setting. Strangely, Grafton recognizes that there has been a desire to totalize even from the early days of Ptolemy I in Alexandria’s stacks. In this sense, Grafton’s critique of Google seems a bit unwarranted. If both of these forms (libraries, digital or analog) share the same universalizing drive, why pull the reigns on progress?

The danger with digital progress is that it stands to remove the committed work of one seeking knowledge. Work is force applied over distance. The current media culture of sharing what already appears is a recycling of sorts that often fits recyclers into one of two camps. Such superficial antagonisms do not produce an actively engaged community. There is no work done. A return to the stacks, to slow paced scholarship, is necessary and important for the production of active discussion and a heterogeneous community. We share this sentiment with Grafton. That deep, local reading has fallen out of trend in the face of quick, easy, grab-and-go “intellectual snack packs” that are provided by googling the topic one is interested in. While Grafton reminds us that they are compatible, Google and slow reading, the work still has to be done, and there is no shortcut to cultivated scholarship.