The Rose and the Needle – Closing remarks

My name is Paul van Capelleveen; I am part of the organising committee of this conference, and it is an honour for me to deliver the closing remarks.
I have given them a title The Rose and the Needle, because I dreamt that a blooming rose emerged from the mouth of one of the speakers.
That was extraordinary, but then two long knitting needles appeared without danger or damage.
I have no idea what Freud – or any other psycho – would say about this phenomenon, but it reminded me that the spoken word is perhaps as vulnerable as the written word.

Our President explained that the power of the written word this year, ironically, entails the power of the spoken word; this is the first conference since 2019 that allows us to communicate face-to-face.

What exactly is the difference between the power of the written word and that of the spoken word? My words, spoken tonight, will be forgotten before you have finished your first drink – and some of you will already have had your second.

But your words, written down, published, stored online and in libraries, will be remembered for a long time, as long as people want to consult them.
Unfortunately, eternity does not exist – at least not for libraries, books or objects. Eternity lasts as long as readers and books exist. I work in the national library of the Netherlands, but I can not claim that our collection will last forever – I give it another 5 billion years or so.
Just these last twenty years too many libraries have been lost through fire, flood, neglect, or deliberate war damage. This means that a library exists first and foremost for now, for today’s readers.

My personal connection to the written word is based on the presumption that it is ridiculously powerless. I publish articles and books on subjects that seem to interest only me. The number of readers of my books is less than the number of people needed to produce them, even if I do not count the designers and printers. And when I start a speech, people immediately start – drinking. Well, could be worse. It used to be: smoking, drinking, and swearing.

Power is an exceptional phenomenon, and often a hidden force.

The power of the written word used to lie precisely in the possibility of continuing the conversation without a speaker, that is, for a text to be read in isolation.

A printed text implied that the author did not need to be present after the creation. We can read Spinoza’s thoughts – at least if we assume that he could write down his thoughts as he conceived them – without needing to be present. Most philosophers or writers cannot be present because they have died, when we read their words.

A spoken text could not exist without a speaker, but now, thanks to podcasts and audio books, that has changed. The power of the spoken word now works just as it does for the written word, at a distance. There is no difference any more. As we noticed at this conference. There were online sessions for people all over the world and there were sessions in conference rooms for participants here in Amsterdam.

So what difference does it make?

Amazingly, quite a lot.

Incidentally, it has nothing to do with the possibilities or impossibilities of online meetings, although it seems that sometimes people react differently. The most important aspect is the potential of the audience to respond to what is said, – and especially the audience not as a unit, but as an independent company, a group of individuals. And individuals in a group in a room react differently than individuals each in their own room.

But the main difference is coincidence. Online, you have to deliberately seek out stuff, whereas here, these days, a lot can happen by chance, depending on non-technical conditions such as the lovely weather, the surprisingly inscrutable layout of Amsterdam, surprise elements that make presentations suddenly take place in the dark like in a nightclub; participants whose bags get lost or want us to become their travel agency; lunches and meals that bring unexpected parties together.
It is a bit like the difference between searching for a book on the internet and browsing in a well-stocked bookstore. If on the Internet you only find roses (thanks to your search history), here you find both roses and needles.

In the end, it is not so much what is said here during all the sessions, but what is born during the discussions or receptions, culminating in new initiatives that will blossom in the future. What matters most is what happens between the sessions – and between the lines.

I have strayed somewhat from the question of the difference in power between the spoken and written word – and that is because I realise that this it is the wrong question.

Perhaps, in our time, it is no longer a question of whether the power of the written word is greater than that of the spoken word. The real question is another one: is the power of the lie greater than that of what comes closer to the truth?

Because you are academics, it is your duty to question the truth, but it does not relieve one of the duty to continue searching for it. And as citizens, it is your duty to defend the truth. It clearly matters, but how does truth survive in acidic conditions?

But it is also the wrong question for another reason.

It is not about words.

In her keynote speech, Kate Rudy did not talk about the power of the spoken word or the printed word, or even of the written word in the Middle Ages, but about the power of the image. The image pressed to the lips, held to the face, licked and kissed. Her terminology was quite moist. The words only mattered as a kind of incantations, spells, but the forces emanated from the image.

Our second keynote speaker, Elizabeth Savage, questioned how we can determine what impact prints had on society, if so much was lost before Gutenberg began. She demonstrated that through images, words could cross the border between heaven and earth. And her conclusion further enhanced the status of the image: the power of words should also be examined in museums.

The third keynote speaker, Surekha Davies, discussed the need for more accurate analysis of scientific woodcuts on early European maps. Her examples of knowledgemaking imagery, imaginative prototyping, and imaginative reasoning, images that were based on lack of testimony and the absence of words, emphasised the need for a forensic imagination when interpreting such images. Again, images, not words!

During the conference I regularly heard about examples of crossovers between image and text, some of which were like roses and others like needles.
War propaganda in the form of graphic novels; primers for Chinese children books depicting steam trains and rhinoceroses; artist’s books based on a printed or manuscript book ‘altered’ in such a way that images take the place of the original words; or, indeed, embroidered textiles that combine feminist images with tweets from misfit heads of state. Roses and needles indeed.

My suggestion, therefore, is that from now on, for the one day that remains, this conference be given a more elaborate title. Power of the written word, that’s fine, but it’s really about: Power of the written word, meaning words accompanied by attractive pictures that steal the show.

I know, too long for a banner or a logo, but please write this longer title in your programme booklet; go ahead, have fun, make it your own manifesto.

Anyway, although this is not the last day of the conference, this wonderful and historical location – and one that reminds us of our democratic duties – is the site of our last reception this year. Tomorrow we will meet again online for a series of promising sessions, or at a library or museum for an excursion.

My main concern tonight is to express our deepest gratitude to all of you who have actually come to join us here in Amsterdam; we have been delighted to see so many of you here over the past few days.

Since this meeting is not zoomed or recorded, I could say that we are having a much better time here than those who have stayed at home, sitting in front of a screen, but I won’t, because we miss all those people here very much.

The pleasure of feeling connected to all of you is what drove us, the hosts of this year’s conference, to organise it after the disappointing cancellation of SHARP 2020. Here we all are, in high spirits, looking forward to more conferences in the future.

My greatest thanks go to the chair of SHARP 2022, Lisa Kuitert, whose optimism, intelligence, perseverance, relaxed attitude and sense of humour may be an example to us all.

Others have been equally important – the sponsors have already been mentioned at the opening and in the conference programme, including the Jewish Cultural Quarter, – and I would like to limit myself to those who actually arranged rooms, lunches, travel grants, microphones, and whatever else needed to be taken care for, Rogier Rompen, Everdien Rietstap, Astrid Balsem, Michiel Cock, Eline Kortekaas, Marie Leger St Jean, Trude Dijkstra and Rindert Jagersma (for organising the pub quiz), our keynote speakers, the itinerant librarian Sara Wingate, anyone who was at any time a member of the organising committee, and all the volunteers you have met over the past few days. I would like to hear a round of applause for them.

Versatility, openness, boldness, curiosity, pleasure – I experienced these again so much during this SHARP conference as qualities that can take us forward, that I believe the youngest generation of SHARP members will secure the future of book history internationally. Experiences will vary enormously from country to country, but it is all about the big picture and it is pointing in the right direction.
Learning from you all is an honour, keep inspiring us, and thank you for being here.

Paul van Capelleveen