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Dec. 9, 2020

Last month, I helped to organise a virtual conference on the theme of book history during the pandemic. Many months went into the preparation of this event, and I had the great pleasure of inviting and working with some of the foremost scholars of book/manuscript history and textual materiality in the country. The idea was simple: wouldn't it be great to have an interdisciplinary discussion on the present state and future of teaching and research during this time of uncertainty with limited to no access to physical objects? The platform had been tried and tested: Zoom offered a whole new opportunity to bring in a much larger audience from around the world, unrestricted by the constraints of space and time.
What often escaped us (or me, rather, to avoid speaking on behalf of others) was the gravity of the new reality. The quotidian experience of numerical understandings of life, disease and death had a numbing effect. Mounting numbers seen through the screen provoked mild apprehension and fatigue, but not much more than that. Far more palpable was the restriction on what I could and could not do, the undesirable setbacks it had caused. Putting together this conference was in part an answer to this frustration: there is strength in numbers, in this case the great number of frustrated scholars and students. For a myopic, egoistic ABD grad student like myself, the greatest challenge the pandemic posed was its preventing me from doing my work and travelling to archives. I knew, of course, that it was much more than that. I knew in principle the crippling effect on livelihoods of economies from households to nations. But that was how I felt - what mattered most immediately was the nuisance of delaying plans, the annoyance of having to find ways around the inaccessibility of material sources.

At some point while organising this event, I experienced a crisis as I wondered whether or not worrying in unison about some closed libraries was an insult to the millions of families around the globe who lost loved ones, and to the tens of millions more who lost their jobs and were living through hell from one day to the next. What a silly thing to be worrying and complaining about, not being able to hold and read books in our hands. It was only on the day of the conference that my fears were expelled, as I listened to the wonderful speakers and followed the discussion. Recognition and empathy require solemnity - they do not mandate inaction.

(Colloquium | “The Virtual Materiality of Texts: Book History during a Pandemic” | Welcome & Panel I)

(Panel II & Closing Remarks)