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The Decline of the Sacred

Books at the Bodleian by Dollymoon (

While preparing a conference abstract, I reread Stephen Marche's article; Literature is not Data.” Although he writes positively about it, his judgement sentence of the Early English Books Online receives the lowest blow when he writes, “That wonderful database in its way demonstrates how digitization leads to the decline of the sacred.” It is, without a doubt, a resonant phrase that echoes in my mind with the persistence of an earworm. However, its potential for poetic appeal is not what has carved it in my mind, but rather the underlying veneration and the images conjured by Marche’s lexical choices. He follows the above sentence with:

Before EEBO arrived, every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian Library in Oxford; that’s where one found one’s material. But actually, finding the material was only a part of the process of attending the Bodleian, where connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue. Professors were relics; they had snuffboxes and passed them to the right after dinner because the port is passed left. EEBO ended all that, because the merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian was no longer justifiable when the texts were all available online.

As someone who works with manuscripts and incunables, I partake in the devotion to the spaces where books are held. There is a mystique surrounding certain libraries and their keepers, but ultimately, we love them all. Even those libraries that are new or small or only have a copy of the latest bestsellers. All libraries are lovely, even those that do not carry the weight of their own age or the fundamental importance of their most revered volumes.

Marche’s description, however, reeks of privilege. Consider the sentence, “every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian library.” Not every “Renaissance scholar” but every “every English scholar of the Renaissance.” Be sure that he means scholars who specialize in the Renaissance as a period, and he also implies that “every” one of those had to spend time at the Bodleian. It is not that they could do so but that they ought to do so. Within most of the Global North, Marche suggests that going to the Bodleian is a sort of pilgrimage for anyone specializing in Modern English literature. I cannot be sure how feasible that is in the Canadian, Australian or United States context, but I am pretty sure that for scholars in other parts of the world, such a pilgrimage might never ever happen. What would Stephen Marche think of them? Of those people who probably could never afford to go on this literary pilgrimage without having to save for ten years or more? Are those people, in Marche’s view, lesser scholars? Is it not clear how the EEBO democratizes access to information while removing one of the barriers to the pursuit of knowledge?

But of course, knowledge doesn’t only arise from the painstaking identification of individual sorts in early printed editions, it comes from the “connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue.” When I read that, I feel sick. No matter how much I study or learn, I can never share the feeling that Oxford is my “mother university” (I also hear the Cambridge stiffs giving a little outraged gasp while sitting at their high table because surely, they are the “mother university”).

Oxford is not even the oldest university in existence so where does the idea of it as a primigenious place come from? I can only think that this is from the Male Caucasity Mythos Compendium, where there is a list of places in which men of great authority drink port and sherry and smoke while offering hollow laughs because they cannot see beyond their own noses. In other words, where most nonsense arises from. Even men lacking great authority could be blessed with the communion with a college don when they managed to go in one of the literary pilgrimages.

Poor Stephen Marche, who cannot see that more than snuffing anything, he makes himself read like an even more pathetic version of Oliver Twist, who is asking for “some more” not because he has to but because he wants to. It is his way of kissing the bishop’s ring.

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