Looking twice at the history of science

Monday, January 7, 2013

Other Men Laboured

Whatever this vision, it is not a child's. It is what a child's vision can become. (Geoffrey Hill: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy).

In the opening pages of his fine recent book The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett spends rather a long time describing what it lacks: 'there is not a single cetacean of any sort in these pages. You knew that, of course, since even the smallest dolphin needs much more room than the largest trim size of the most voluminous scholarly tome. And though they breathe air, cetaceans basically like being in the water, while books are mostly written on paper, a substance that fares poorly when submerged.' The lugubrious comedy here is doing a certain sort of scholarly work: it is reminding us about materiality, the difference between the traces which books can contain and the living creatures which they can't. And it is drawing a quite standard boundary around the practice of academic history; Burnett is not gesturing romantically to rhetorical evocations of a whale. Books and whales are different. Expand post.

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