Reminiscences and Thoughts Arising from Reading “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris

In The End of Absence Michael Harris shows himself to be a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, or at least a disciple of Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan. Harris necessarily makes reference to McLuhan in his (too brief) anecdotal investigation of the ubiquity of social media and the internet in our lives. I found Harris’ Glossary at the back of the book a little too clever-clever and an overly self-conscious homage to the marginalia of Coupland’s Generation X, that marginalia obviously being rooted in McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage and some other late work.

The End of Abscence shines, however, in Harris’ exposition of the idea that there is a generation alive today which remembers the time before the internet. Harris — and I, and my parents — it’s actually a multi-generational cohort — straddle the change which may be more revolutionary than the Gutenberg upheaval McLuhan described.

Unlike The Gutenberg Galaxy which won the 1963 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, The End of Absence, this years GG non-fiction winner, is a quick, breezy read. I finished it in two leisurely evenings with my smart phone beside me. The fact that such a light read won the GG is perhaps an indication that the GG judges’ attention spans have shortened significantly over the past half century.

At the midpoint of my loping journey through this book, memories were triggered by a passage in which Harris is grappling with the shimmering meaning of “authenticity”:

A prime example is the Google Books project, which has already scanned tens of millions of titles with the ultimate goal of democratizing human knowledge at an unprecedented scale — the new technology needs the old one (briefly) for content; the old one needs the new (forever) to be seen by a larger audience. Screen resolution and printout resolution are now high enough that digital versions satisfy researchers, who no longer need to look at original manuscripts (unless they’re hungry for first-person anecdotes).

As though first-person anecdotes are mere frippery rather than the personal expression of authentic human experience. After all, what is “The End of Absence” if not a long first-person anecdote?

Harris continues:

A real Latin copy of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, for example, waits for us in the stacks of Jagiellonian University in Kraków; but it, like a fourth-century version of Virgil’s work or a twelfth-century version of Euclid’s, is handily available in your living room (sans airfare). It’s thrilling: our sudden and undreamed-of access to magazine spreads as they appeared in the pages of Popular Science in the 1920s or copies of Boccaccio’s Decameron as they appeared in the nineteenth century. The old, white-gloved sacredness of the manuscript is rendered moot in the face of such accessibility. Literary critic Stephan Füssel has argued that this means the “precious old book and the new medium have thus formed an impressive invaluable symbiosis.” I would only add: For now.
(pp. 102-3)

Well, I’ll tell you, “first-person anecdotes” should not be dismissed, and there is nothing shimmering about “authenticity” in my mind. I’ve told at least one first-person anecdote about books before. Here’s another:

On Monday, June 20, 1983, I stood nervously outside an ancient-looking doorway at the side of Exeter Cathedral in south-west England. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and two spring session courses. My first academic publication was in press — I’d mailed the corrected proofs back to Chicago shortly before leaving for Europe.

As I stood at that doorway I was pausing in my circuitous travel to the south of Italy where I would be introduced to hands-on Classical Archaeology. I was to be one of a number of students, mostly Canadian, some American, under the supervision of Dr. Alastair Small and Dr. Bob Buck. A few years earlier Dr. Buck had taught me Latin in a brutal course in which he drove us far harder than usual in those days. I’m forever grateful for Dr. Buck’s pushing, which had us go from clueless sophomores to more or less competent readers of Virgil by years end.

I stood at that door in Exeter because those galley proofs I’d mailed off a few weeks before discussed the meaning of a word, a single word, which lay somewhere behind that door, and nowhere else in the world. Behind that door was the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, and in that library was the thousand year old manuscript known, uncolourfully, as The Exeter Book. I had travelled by car and airplane, by train and on foot, to look at The Book.

The door was intimidating. Should I just open it and walk in? There was a grubby little button set into the wall beside the door, like a doorbell button, but looking only slightly younger than the experiments of Faraday.

I pushed the button.

I waited.

A long time later the door burst open and a man came out into the sunshine, apologising as he almost bowled me over, and then going on his way.

I went inside and up the stairs to a small room with a single attendant. I explained that I was a student of Anglo-Saxon poetry from Canada and that I’d be interested in seeing The Book.

“Well, I can’t let you handle it, of course, but it’s right here.”

He leapt up and went to a class case just behind me. I turned. There it was, so magnificent! So beautiful!

I looked down through the glass, only inches from Leofric’s “mycel englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisan geworht.” It stood open roughly at the midpoint of its hundreds of leaves. I looked at the text on the verso and recognised it! It was “The Seafarer”! I read along to the end of the verso. There, the last word on that page was “hean” the very word that was the subject of my first academic publication! The Book had been waiting there, ready, open at folio 81b, and my word.

The librarian kindly let me handle and spend quiet time with the magnificent facsimile edition of The Book — a very rare volume itself — published in 1933.

I said thank you and left, later writing in my diary simply:

I’m tired now after much walking. I don’t think I’ll go to Exeter University.
I saw the book.

journal

Later, while preparing my dissertation on “The Wanderer”, another poem in The Book I discovered that the University of Alberta Library had an item of interest in its Special Collections. I mentioned that the 1933 facsimile was quite rare. It turns out it had been microfilmed (a primitive form of Google Books). But that microfilm was also quite rare not something the University had managed to acquire. But, the university did get a hold of a photocopy of the microfilm of the facsimile of The Exeter Book. And, thanks to the generosity of the Special Collections staff in the early 80s, I have in my possession a photocopy of that photocopy of that microfilm of that facsimile of  The Exeter Book!

20141120_202609

I remember well the awed look on my thesis supervisor’s face when I pluncked that stack of photocopied sheets down in front of him:

“Where did you get this?!” asked Dr. McKill breathlessly.

20141120_202735

I later bound those sheets myself by hand. Nothing archival about the thing. Just nice. Standing, holding that old stack of photocopies, looking at my old young handwriting in my journal, and remembering standing inches from The Book on my way to digging Roman ruins — these present moments of remembering moments of actual presence have more “authenticity” than Google Books will ever bring. Sure Google Books makes travelling for research unnecessary. But I didn’t travel to Exeter to do research. I did all my research at home in Edmonton, in books and libraries. No. I went to Exeter to be in the presence of The Book. Google still can’t do that for me. But Google just might make a young scholar decide against making the effort to go to Exeter to develop that “authentic” first-person anecdote. Google may prevent a young scholar from even imagining the trip. That is tragic, I think.

On page 200, Harris writes:

Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come.

But Harris is referencing the epigram of his own first chapter, the words of historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg. In fact, Kranzberg was able to say more about technology than “It has come.” As Harris knows, Kranzberg’s full words are:

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.

Nor, indeed, is it neutral.

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8 comments on “Reminiscences and Thoughts Arising from Reading “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris

  1. sydney says:

    John, thanks for this. You’ve hit the nail on the head: real, lived experience of literature of any sort (or writing of any sort) is so much more than symbols we convert to sounds and meaning. The phenomenology of the book as object is such a wellspring of growth and understanding, far and away beyond the words written in it, no matter how profound.

    • Thanks, Sydney.

      One thing that really struck me about Harris’ “unless it’s for the first-hand anecdote” comment is that his entire book is a collection of first-hand anecdotes, including the anecdote about reading his very physical copy of War and Peace, the copy he had started many times before over the years, the copy that still had dog-eared pages where he’d given up in the past, the copy that ended up wrinkled after he dropped it in the bath. That annecdote is all about the physical object and hardly touches on Tolstoy’s narrative.

      • sydney says:

        Exactly! There are risks associated with being completely dislocated from our bodies and the real, meaningful effects of the physical experience of savouring books and the written word (and all other objects, when it comes to that). A Durkheimian ‘anomie’ is the tip of the iceberg.
        I wonder at Harris’ ability to completely ignore the profundity of the ‘interface’ between human and book, as a source of meaning in relation to his overall experience of the narrative. But then again, he doesn’t really dig deep into the Tolstoy … That in itself is telling.

      • I think Harris’ best bit is the idea that there is a cohort of people alive today with a foot in both worlds. I think he’s at his most disappointing when he shrugs and says (I paraphrase) “Oh well. Can’t fight progress.”
        There are good reasons to plant a garden even with a grocery store down the block, to cook over an open fire even with a fully functional kitchen in your house, or write long-hand even with a computer in every room, and to read a real book even with google books on every screen. And these reasons are worthy of defence, and “outdated” skills are worth preserving, not least for the fact that reinventing wheels gives us a deep and potent understanding of the acheivements of the giants whose shoulders we sit upon.

      • sydney says:

        I agree completely! Skills are never outdated – simply superseded – and it is the loss of these tangible manifestations of our animal-humanity that keep us connected to the world around us, and to our bodies. As a visual artist, even though I use computerized technology of various sorts to produce some of my work, I very much feel it’s necessary for my actual hand to be in the making of the final work. So, for example, I may create a digital photograph and edit it on a computer, but I actually print it in a fashion that requires my physical work and intervention in the process … Or I print it, and then alter it with the addition of media via brush, pen etc. Working this way keeps me and my body active in the process of making; it’s a visceral part of the entire process that is too precious to be lost.

      • I much prefer hands-on to computer work with art, although I tend to do a blend with writing (yes, I still write longhand). I also have a wacky obsession with reinventing wheels. For example, I have buckets of clay I’ve dug from my yard that I mold little things out of. When they’ve dried well, I put them in my backyard fire pit and fire the clay with wood I’ve cut from trees on my little inner-city lot. Often the things shatter or at least spawl flakes off, but a satisfying amount of the time I dig beautiful, primitive terracotta pieces out of the ashes. Even better is pulling the piece, still glowing red, out of the coals in the dark of a winter evening. I feel like I’m Merlin’s teacher’s teacher on those nights, and like the stumbling alchemists are still far in the future 🙂

      • sydney says:

        Oh, nothing like earth and fire to get the mind going! Those not-so-simple basic things that make the world a fascinating place for creating. I write longhand too, as well as on the computer … one for work-related things (and legibility!) for the most part … and the other can be anything: poetry, journalling, drawing, to do lists, meeting notes. I need the tactility to think and retain ideas in a different way. A big part of my practice is site-specific installation in the landscape; can’t get much more hands-on than that, because I work with the materials on site, and my body as a tool. It’s a similar wheel-reineventing to your terracotta pieces … the connection between the body, the space, the materials, and the making. It all comes together.

  2. […] I was young and little prepared to rebut. I knew, of course, of Tolkien’s important and influential lecture “Beowulf: The monsters and the critics” and he was sort of an eminence hanging over my Old English studies. And I knew that the influence on me of Tolkien the storyteller and philologist was a major part of why I was in Europe that summer, digging in Roman dirt and visiting a Book in Exeter. […]

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