Sunday, 21 January 2018

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-second : TRAMPING AND HAULING

Sarah Ruden

The Internet, on balance, seems to me to have been no friend of scholarship. When you had to tramp to the library for books and articles, you tramped only when well motivated, and you studied and evaluated whatever you hauled home so as not to feel like a total chump. The current capacity to pull up an article a minute on a screen creates an apparently powerful temptation to staple together a nonargument from five hundred sources and to stuff a bibliography with crap.

This head quote is a footnote in Sarah Ruden’s book on Bible translating. She reminds us of a world in which people went through rain, hail, and snow to gather invaluable source materials from libraries; source material that can only be found in libraries. She is deeply aware that her motivation was worth the effort.

Ruden’s trademark humour points up the physical reality of reading and study. It might actually involve you having to exert yourself bodily, having to travel measurable distances, and having to spend measurable amounts of precious time working somewhere other than at your own computer. By placing these kinds of activities in the past tense, Ruden seems to be suggesting it no longer happens, though it does. Such is the force of rhetoric.

The library was, and still is, a great arbiter of time management. It tantalises with stores of knowledge not otherwise procurable. It stands apart from the daily round of home and work: you have to go there to make it happen for you. The library is the only place where you can get the goods. It releases its bounty on reasonable terms, giving its visitors a rightful sense of belonging and self-esteem. At least, these are some of the things we can infer from Ruden’s descriptions of getting physical with libraries. She places a value on libraries that she does not place on the (capital ‘I’) Internet.

Ruden’s healthy objectivity about the academic life is at work here. Her footnote is asterisked to the following sentence, found in the thick of a discussion about Bible commentaries: “Conversely, the exposition may be so dense and technical that its writer’s own expert opinion drowns amid the innumerable citations and intricate qualifications.” Any student of biblical books will recognise this kind of commentary, thankful or overwhelmed depending on the time of the day. Ruden is not being negative about such commentaries, in fact is insisting that such works are a necessary good, even a blessing and inspiration. She knows that such intricate scholarship has a sure foundation, when only the best will do.

The Internet, though, is another matter. In an environment where authority can be whatever you want it, where every crazy view vies for equal attention, and where the quantity rather than the quality of your citations is all that counts, the results will be (obversely from the above) thankless and underwhelming. The implicit meaning of her argument in this paragraph, that scholarship is more than just sitting hourly at your computer and sorting everything into something halfway coherent, goes with it a discernible belief in embodiment. She trusts the feeling, arrived at by her own experience, that tramping to the library, getting all the stuff together, and hauling home what you most urgently need, is an essential part of the scholar’s life. She’s not rejecting the Internet out of hand, she’s simply saying it’s not enough.   

Quote from: ‘The face of water : a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible’, by Sarah Ruden (New York, Pantheon Books, 2017), page 160.

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