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.



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