What happened was, for that Sex and T.E. Lawrence piece, I had to engage in an old-fashioned paper chase; books, scribbles, large work surface. I’d say “No search engines involved” but that wouldn’t be true.

Few of the primary sources on Lawrence are available online. This may explain why the level of scholarship among the Wikipedia editors in question was unsatisfactory. Fortunately, I happen to have read more or less all of them, and own a fair proportion.

Books by, or about, T.E. Lawrence

I had some recourse to the books’ indices; it was no great effort to look up “sex” and “homosexuality” and “Bruce” and “Dera’a”. But I also did some page-turning looking for things stuck in the back of my brain from having read this stuff. For example (pardon the inside baseball), none of the sex-related index entries were for the Farraj-and-Daud story (so sad, and so finely written). I dug it up by plowing through the wonderful chapter summaries Lawrence supplied for the Seven Pillars Subscribers’ Edition front matter, reproduced in the 1935 First Edition, and was delighted to find that he had indexed it under “Sex” even if all the subsequent students hadn’t.

Since these books refer to each other and all refer back to Seven Pillars, you end up having to look, in close succession, at the index, the primary text, and the notes to the text, which requires a half-dozen active bookmarks (tall thin pieces of paper, remember those?) in three or four books at once.

When I lost my patience at the ignorant ham-handed editing of that Wikipedia subsection, I hadn’t realized I was letting myself in for three solid evenings of what used to be, pre-search-engine, a primary occupation of serious scholars of, well, anything.

But you know, the Internet helped too. There were a few key phrases I remembered but which had come unhooked from their sources in the ramshackle extrusions of my overcrowded memory. Google could solve the problem of hooking the phrase to the book-title, and then I was off to the scholarly races. And the Net led me to Yagitani’s magnificently-obsessive An 'S.A.' Mystery.

Also, I discovered that the text of Seven Pillars is available at Project Gutenberg Australia. So I had my computer do some brute-force scanning to reduce the chances of I or any of my fellow-scholars having missed anything important.

With time, more and more of these source texts will migrate online, and it seems obvious (can this be controversial?) that the quality of scholarship will thereby improve. It does trouble me a little that the next time anyone is dissatisfied with what they’re reading about T.E. Lawrence’s sexuality, the nearest search engine will lead them quickly to my work, and they may be satisfied with that, and never cast their eyes over any of these aged beautiful pages.


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From: Michael C. Harris (Dec 24 2009, at 00:25)

Indeed, you're already on Google's first page of search result for "lawrence of arabia sexuality". I don't think there's anything we can do to stop it, but at least your love of the books is obvious to those who do end up here.


From: Joseph Franklin (Dec 24 2009, at 17:31)

You highlight the problem of the web, a double-edged sword if ever there were. Someone, whoever they may be, can write anything about anything - and it can be accepted as "fact". Unfortunately, the vast majority know nothing when it comes to validating the precedence of what they read. How many times have I heard "It said so on Wikipedia...". An illustration of ignorance if ever I heard one.

PS This is not a critique of the web, but rather of those who accept what they see as gospel and delve no further than what is presented to them.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Dec 25 2009, at 21:42)

It can very well be controverted.

Surveys show that with the aid of a good search engine, people research differently than without it: they are entirely content to only look at the topmost hits (which for their purposes is entirely rational behaviour, mind), pushing much of the material into a previously non-existent long tail of the nearly unread. And what people in turn publish based on this research follows the same distribution. So the seemingly paradoxical result of the presence of a good search engine is that the chain of citations tends to converge rather than diversify.

Making the good stuff easier to find reduces serendipity.


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Dec 28 2009, at 13:41)

Dear Tim,

There is another historical character who may be as interesting as Lawrence. This is Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). In Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence describes him as, 'a silent laughing masterful man with an immensely powerful body, and a savage brain'. A gentleman by the name of Ralph Furse recounts that Meinertzhagen was so irritated by Lawrence's showing off that he once picked him up bodily and shut him in one of the Colonial Office cupboards.

Source: Out in the Noonday Sun - Edwardians in the Tropics by Valerie Pakenham

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


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