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Touching History: Addendum

In a little essay in The Times (which you can read here or there) I muse about the differences between the artifacts of history—the tangible, venerable manuscripts and notebooks and other touchstones—and their new digital counterparts. I try to push back against what I see as a little bit of sentimentalizing.

But nothing I say—and nothing I’m pushing back against—is as eloquent as a comment almost thirty years ago, long before the digitization began, by the great historian and biographer Richard Holmes. So let me just quote it here. It’s from his classic book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot … It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work or creation, imparts a personal “virtue” to an inanimate object, gives it a fetichistic power in the anthropological sense, which is peculiarly impervious to the passage of time….

And then Holmes adds this wise caveat:

But this physical presence is none the less extremely deceptive. The material surfaces of life are continually breaking down, sloughing off, changing almost as fast as human skin.



  1. Rebecca Reynolds says

    My comment is as much in response to this post as it is to the “little essay” it refers to – which is, quite simply, a gem. I, too, have felt elation at the access that digitization proffers while, deep in my bones, longing to protect the mysticism of the historian’s hunt. When I first heard that the Vatican was digitizing its archives, I was immediately transported back 20 years to the august chamber of the Vaticano Archivio Segreto. To the moment when, after months of search, I finally held seven letters that validated my thesis and, indeed, some aspect of myself. Could it be that these would be scanned and then, in a flash, become immediately visible after a simple Google search? The thought seemed to rend my glorious find irrelevant. But such thinking is, as you say, sentimentalism, if not egotism. Eco’s The Name of the Rose reminded us not to be like the monks of old who “protected” knowledge in darkened recesses with restricted access, but rather, to celebrate the opportunity for all to know the historian’s delight firsthand.

  2. Tom Campbell says

    I was disappointed by your article in the Times. It seemed to me to be yet another contribution to the books vs screens debate based on emotion rather than science. Why does it not occur to people to question whether reading on a screen “works” as well as reading on paper? Do we learn as much, is our interaction with the text as deep? These are very important questions, and answers to these questions might be found through well-designed studies.

    Some (very few) studies have been done. The results seem to come down all over the place–some showing no difference between screens and paper, some showing screens to be better, some showing paper to be superior. But when the studies are filtered by the variable of time, a very different pattern emerges. The studies that wait a couple of days before testing their subjects on understanding and remembering a text all show a decided bias toward paper. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that when we read on screens we may read more superficially. The content may not sink in and we may not remember it as well.

    I have collected the results of these studies on a web site, http://www.ebookskeptic.net. In addition to the studies cited there, the only study I know of that looks at an e-ink screen (the Kindle) comes from a PhD dissertation at the University of Texas. That study quizzed its participants immediately after their reading, so it does not conflict with the argument I make here.

    Much more study is needed before we turn all our reading and studying over to the screen. The digital world is wonderful when it comes to allowing us access to so much of the world. But if our resulting understanding is “a mile wide and an inch deep” it may not help us as much as many people think. Perhaps we need both the digital and the printed word.

    P.S. An interesting theory as to why we may have a deeper interaction with a text on paper: When we are reading, we are not just using our eyes and our minds. We are also using our hands–holding the text. Our physical interaction with a paper text is more rich and complex than our physical interaction with a plastic screen. We are not just minds, we are mind-body combination packs. Physical sensation matters–even in reading. Next time you see a person engrossed in reading a paper book, watch their hands.. There is more on this on the ebookskeptic web site.

  3. Scott Love says

    Your musings are raising the bar of instant memoir to a higher level. Once again an evocative observation that challenges everyday thought. Yes, a splendid gem as Rebecca comments.

    I’m not prepared to give up the notion of sensation or my own emotions when confronted with an authentic “object” such as an original manuscript or even crumbs of a decoded tablet long lost. It’s all part of waiting in anticipation of seeing the mystery in person; if even a fetish or on a whim.

    The digital bits we view are obviously not the same as the atoms of the ancients that reflect something temporal and contextual even in a glass-entombed, gallery display. Like art history, I can easily view the masters through Google but a trip to Amsterdam is still my preferred mode of seeing an original Rembrandt. If I could see the Codex in person, that too. For now, we can settle for this experience:


    Scott Love
    Palo Alto, CA

  4. Michael Murphy says

    Tristram Hunt’s (what a name!) concerns make me think that what he really misses is the sense of exclusivity, that he is a member of a small group who realistically could get access to the originals in a place like the British Library, while now anyone can (Ick! Ordinary people without his training and sensitivity!).

  5. Ben Elijah says

    Hi James,

    If you’re in London anytime soon you might want to check out the Treasures of Heaven exhibition currently on at the British Museum. I went the other day and remembered this article. Religious reliquaries seem designed to be imbued with the “spirit” of a saint while containing parts of their corpse or vials of blood.

    People seem to assume that such things are inbued with a certain character and essence of that saint. I guess it’s the same thing for places of pilgrimage or homage, from Abbey Road Studio to the Wailing Wall.

    I feel like it’s the same thing with historical books. They appeal to our essentialist side.

    Is this hard-wired into us, something to do with our ability to work with abstractions, signs and symbols? I wonder if something like this could have originated with the human habit of ceremonial – essentially essentialist – treatment of their dead?

    It certainly gets you thinking!

    Ben (unformation.net)

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