Books: 'Against my ruins'
I have spent a good deal of the last three and a half years researching the Sibyl of Cumae, the pagan prophetess of classical antiquity said by Virgil to write her oracles on leaves (Virgil books 3 & 6). Through my research I have discovered a library of lost books: ancient books that exist now as fragments, or only in text-memory, as titles or small quotes in other works.
Varro, a Roman scholar, compiled a list of ten Sibyls. This list exists
today because Lactantius, a fourth century early Christian, quoted it
in his work, The Divine Institutes (Lactantius
book 1.6). Reading about Lactantius himself, I stumbled across a number
of his works that exist only as titles (McDonald
xii-xiii). I think of what William Arrowsmith calls the "mutilated
state" of Petronius's Satyricon: "What
we have...is a tantalizing fragment from a whole of uncertain length,
and even the parts we do possess are not continuous but are everywhere
marred by lacunae of greater or lesser length"
I think of Sappho's poetry, now lost but for a few recovered scraps. I think of the scrolls in the library at Alexandria, burnt at the time of Julius Caesar (Avrin 231). In 64 C.E. a fire swept through Rome and destroyed what Tacitus called the "ancient and authentic manuscripts of so many of the great writers of Roman literature", which were "unique and irreplaceable" (Tacitus book 15.41). This is only a small selection, and does not touch the books destroyed more recently.
If these texts and stories had gone missing without a trace, we would
not know to grieve. But the remains give a hint, a glimpse - enough to
show us what has been lost. There is something of Derrida's "absent
presence" in these allusions to lost books
(Derrida 154). They resonate with the potential
of what once was.
These literary ruins give me a glimpse of the lost worlds of previous
millennia, and make me wonder what fell through the gaps. They also prompt
me to consider the present, and to look forward to our future. Much of
our cultural heritage has been written on paper and bound into books,
in which we attempt to capture our lives in both history and fiction.
Yet paper is fragile. What books will remain in two or three thousand
years to tell our stories? What will future generations make of our literary
ruins, of what we leave behind to be unearthed, classified and interpreted?
Which stories will endure? I think about our leavings, imbued with what
Bruce Sterling calls "the pathos of lost things"
Recent developments in computer technologies pose other interesting questions.
Will books continue to be our main repository of culture and history,
or will they vanish with developing technologies, replaced by virtual
pages? It is a popular question, appearing in discussions in the online
journal The Book and the Computer: The Future of the Written
Word, (Note 2) and a 1996 collection of essays
edited by Geoffrey Nunberg called The
Future of the Book, appropriately in book form.
It is important to remember that this discussion is not an opposition
between technological and non-technological media: the book itself is
what Howard Rheingold calls "a bundle of technologies", which
developed at a particular time and place, rather than a cultural given
(Rheingold 6). Consequently, I consider the book
as technology, comparing it with other technologies, their usability and
Some commentators suggest that digital writing is the next media revolution
after the invention of the printing press. For Jason Epstein, the development
of digital text, combined with the Internet, is "an epochal event"
(Epstein 34). Michael Joyce writes: "We live
in a time when the book itself is in ruins, eskhate biblos"
(Joyce 274). For Roger Chartier, the revolution is
multi-faceted: "The electronic text revolution is, all at once, a
revolution in text production and reproduction techniques, a revolution
in the medium and substantiality of texts, and a revolution in reading
habits" (Chartier 1). McKenzie Wark, however,
is w(e)ary of claims of revolution: "Media technology 'revolutions'
now come so close together that a lot of people still remember the failed
promises of the last one when the new one is doing the rounds"
(Wark 1). A cynical Paul Duguid suggests that claims
of technological supersession are cunning marketing ploys to force us
to keep up with rapidly changing electronic products
Revolution or not, the presence of computer technologies and digital
text is a fact in the literary world. Some authors are releasing their
new works as electronic books (e-books). Other writers are developing
styles of writing relevant to the medium, like hypertext, dynamic text
or communal writing projects. The immediate interaction allowed by the
Internet (through e-mail, bulletin boards and chat sites) creates dialogic
pathways between writer and reader, and these online audiences can influence
the way a writer writes (Rheingold 8). Online writing workshops, discussion
sites and newsletters also foster a sense of writing community. Numerous
new publishing opportunities for aspiring writers have also appeared on
the Internet, in websites and online journals.
Today, thousands of books are produced in comparison with the painstakingly
hand-copied texts of the Middle Ages, or the slow creaking of the first
presses. As the printing press made it easier to produce more copies of
a work, so do developments in electronic publishing. Epstein describes
the publishing industry as already heavily reliant on digital formats.
These formats also hold possibilities for the future. Storing books digitally
means backlists could be maintained cheaply and easily, preventing works
going out of circulation Epstein suggests we will print out single copies
from this digital backlist at point-of-sale, rather than in bulk factory
print runs.(Epstein 34-5)
By conserving paper, e-texts reduce the environmental impact of the publishing
industry. Furthermore, huge amounts of information can be stored in very
little physical space (only the space of the server, hard drive or other
storage medium), which is an important consideration as the world's population
There are already entire libraries of full-text books ready to be accessed
on the Net, for example Project Gutenberg (Hart
1999/2001). E-libraries represent greater, more convenient access to large
numbers of texts for people connected to the Internet. Rather than one
copy of a work in existence, there can be hundreds, even millions, all
around the world. Texts can be reproduced with the click of a mouse or
the touch of a key. If one copy is lost when a server crashes, there is
usually a backup copy to replace it.
These technologies also allow a wide readership of certain precious manuscripts.
Pages from Leonardo da Vinci's Leicester Codex came to Sydney's
Powerhouse Museum recently. The pages of the actual manuscript were pressed
between sheets of glass and kept under low lighting to preserve them.
The manuscript was written in Italian from right to left. Text from one
side of the page showed through, making it difficult to actually "read"
the works. The pages were more like exhibits in a gallery or relics in
a Catholic Church. However, the original pages had been scanned into a
computer and translated by a tool called a "Codescope"
(Fewster 7). A row of computers enabled the public
to see the pages as they were, to reverse them and read them in Italian
or in English translation. Leonardo's words were able to reach more people
than in book form, while the original was safely preserved.
As I consider these digital possibilities, I find myself returning to
the physical presence of the book. Leonardo's actual pages elicited awe
and reverence in me, an almost visceral reaction, while the digital versions
were practical, but not poetic. I love the first page of a blank journal
or a new novel, and the crinkly thin pages of dictionaries. The deckled
or marbled edges of old books, their stains and musty smells. I wholeheartedly
admit to what Ueno Chizuko calls "our fetish attachment to the physicality
of the medium" (Chizuko1999: 10). The
book is not just an object, but what Régis Debray calls a "symbolic
object" (Debray 141), marked
by time, which resonates with personal and cultural associations.
Part of my pleasure in writing and reading is bound up with the material texture and sensuality of the work. These tactile pleasures are lost to me when books are translated into computer languages. While e-texts are non-material, they must be read through a material object. Our current "reading machines" give me little sensual pleasure, with their black marks on a white screen, the nondescript beige boxes, the hum of the fans or the static crackle of the screen. I appreciate the convenience of this medium and its functionality, but it doesn't fill my senses.
Rheingold believes that today's computer screens are inadequate for
reading large amounts of text (Rheingold 7). Currently, e-books are being
developed to mimic the physical form of a book, making them as user-friendly
as their hard-copy cousins (Wildstrom
1998/2001: 1). Some fold out into two screens, and some are leather bound,
yet the text is electronic and down-loaded from the
Internet (Hepp 2000/2001: 1, 4). Others come in tablet
form (Wildstrom 1998/2001: 1). Recent surveys show readers of e-books
prefer to "turn" the pages of these e-books, rather than scroll
through the text ("Can e-books
Readability" 1). Interestingly, there is also resistance
to e-books because they don't smell like books ("Can
Chartier suggests that computers will change to accommodate the sensual
pleasures of reading and writing (Chartier 3). Another possibility is
that we will change - our habits will shift as we become accustomed to
this medium, possibly developing a symbolic connection as powerful as
our relationship with the book. It is important to recognise that this
relationship is culturally constructed, and to acknowledge what James
O'Donnell calls "the unnaturalness of this whole affair our culture
has had with books" (O'Donnell
91). (note 3) My feelings
for the book exist because the change to computers came late in my upbringing.
The way I read and write, the way my body does these things, is inscribed
in muscle memory.
But the world is changing quickly. Perhaps it will be different for today's
toddlers, whose earliest experiences of writing and reading will probably
be mediated by computer. Their ontological and phenomenological experience
of digital texts might be unimaginable to me, creating pleasure where
I see only function. Chizuko says: "When a generation makes a new
technology its own and learns to manipulate that technology as it pleases,
it begins to express itself in ways suited to the medium in question"
(Chizuko 1998-1999: 9). George
Landow describes the physical form of a text as having its own defining
qualities, and these have cultural effects (Landow
217-8). What will be the symbolic resonance of this new medium for generations
to come? How will our reading and writing patterns change?
It is also important to consider how this new medium will age. Harold
Innis (1950/1972) considers various media and their differing properties
of longevity and mobility. (note
4) He notes that heavy materials such as stone or clay are durable,
but because of their weight are difficult to transport, while lighter
materials, like papyrus, paper, parchment and vellum, are easily carried
across distance (facilitating the growth of sprawling bureaucratic empires),
but are more vulnerable to the action of time (Innis
7, 9, 107, 116).
Writing's trajectory has taken it from stone to paper to screen, and
in each transition the medium has shed volume and mass. In themselves,
electronic texts have no materiality, existing as patterns of binary code
stored on floppy disks, CD-ROMs, hard drives, zip drives or Internet servers.
There is no physical form unless the pages are printed out. E-text is
the logical extension of Innis's idea: it is non-material therefore infinitely
portable (i.e. accessible from any Internet-ready computer around the
world). But how will this affect a text's longevity? Does Innis's formula
of physicality to time apply to digital writing?
Thinking in apocalyptic terms (like some of the ancient Sibyls), I wonder
how easily these electronic texts would be retrieved if a great cultural
shift occurred - as large as the shift between Greek and Roman societies
and our own. This possibility was hinted at in the panic about the so-called
"Millennium bug", when the computers we take for granted threatened
to behave in an unpredictable way.
More worrying is technological obsolescence. Even now it is difficult
to access documents formatted in outdated word-processing programs. Translating
these old documents into current programs often creates curious quirks
of font and paragraph alignment. What would happen if the gulf became
so large that it was not possible to translate them? Electronic documents
would be like books written in an archaic language, needing what O'Donnell
calls a "data archaeologist" (O'Donnell 48) and a Rosetta Stone
to translate them. According to Epstein: "Sumerian clay tablets can
still be read, but the long-term survival of digital texts cannot be taken
for granted" (Epstein 36). Bruce Sterling questions the permanency
of texts stored on the Internet. He asks:
What if communication technology shifts away from computers to some new,
as-yet-unimaginable medium? Without equipment to read the binary code,
our electronic texts could not be retrieved or read. I imagine computer
carcasses as artifacts analysed by future generations, yet giving up none
of the secrets hidden within their beige exoskeletons.
The word ephemeris is Latin for "diary"
(Simpson 1963/1987: 79). It comes from the Greek word
ephemeros meaning "lasting a day" (YourDictionary.com
Inc 2001). The English word ephemeral shares
the same stem. While considering the relationship between book and computer,
I realise that both media seem ephemeral. Books have a physical presence
that implies permanency but, as we have seen, this is not true. Digital
text has no permanency. Read on-screen, e-text overwrites itself, a palimpsest,
like early wax tablets, or the vellum and parchment manuscripts scratched
back to blank so a new text could be written on them (Joyce 273). Despite
this, we trust both media to be the repositories of our cultures, to store
the minutiae, the details and experiences that define our milieu. What
will become of these in years to come? What will survive?
According to O'Donnell, "prophecy is a mug's game" (O'Donnell
83). Indeed it is. Unlike the Sibyl of Cumae, I have no direct link to
the divine. I can only shuffle fragments of the past and the present and
speculate. Looking back at our fragmented past, and considering the ephemeral
nature of our cultural products, I believe it is a safe assumption to
say only fragments of our stories will be transmitted into the future.
This moves me. Our words, in books or binary, are inscribed for contemporary
readers, but they are also our legacy to the future. Yet there is no guarantee
these words will survive the passage through time. Every letter we write
contains a trace of its own uncertain future, just as our signatures can
be said to contain a trace of our death (Derrida
& Bennington 148-66). As the absence of the lost books evoked
their presence, so our present evokes an absence, and our writing contains
our non-writing; the point at which we will no longer write. I hope our
words will outlive us, to tell our stories when we are gone, but there
is no guarantee. Strangely, this knowledge does not make writing seem
futile. Instead, it makes my determination stronger. I write, knowing
that every word is as vulnerable to the action of time as the Sibyl's
My stories of the lost books have a double function. On the one hand, the gaps in the texts show how much has been lost over time. On the other hand, the existence of these literary ruins, circulating thousands of years after they were originally written down, proves the tenacity of the word, even on frail media. I have found the process of gathering these fragments fascinating, and I hope future generations will shuffle our leavings with equal enthusiasm. To end, I offer a poem from Sappho - one hardy fragment that has survived the voyage through time:
1. The quotation in the title is from T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' (Eliot 79).
3. My thanks to Jenny Lee for suggesting O'Donnell's fascinating book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998). TEXT Vol 5 No 2 Return to article
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Catherine Padmore recently submitted her PhD in Professional Writing, completed at Deakin University. Last year her novel was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Literary Award and will be published by Allen & Unwin in early 2003.
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Vol 6 No 1 April 2002
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady