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Seth Lerer on the history of the book

Seth Lerer holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University, a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University, and he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1981. He joined the Stanford faculty as Professor of English in 1990, received a joint appointment in Comparative Literature in 1996, and served as Chair of the Department of […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
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Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
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And we're coming to you live from the Stanford campus.
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Two-term on the Xispura Bhuti Dasanvivra.
Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.
Stefan Malarmay.
Ah, the French.
They love to pronounce.
They love to dazzle.
They love to provoke.
Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.
What's that supposed to mean?
Malarmay Babel.
French purewet.
Or maybe not.
Malarmay was not one to throw words around lightly after all.
He probably meant exactly what he said and believed it too.
But if we're going to take him seriously and start looking at all of reality as something that wants to end up in a book,
we're going to have to ask ourselves a simple question.
What exactly is a book?
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We've talked about books a lot on this program and about a lot of books too.
In my opinion, books are among the greatest gifts of the dead bequeathed to the living.
But that doesn't mean I know what a book is.
Recently, I ordered half a dozen novels from Amazon and what arrived in the mail were six books.
I mean physical objects with their palpable weight, covers, and pages of printed paper.
Somehow, these objects contain the novels inside of them.
But how can something weighing 300 grams contain a world?
That's what a novel is after all, a world.
I have six worlds piled up one on top of the other.
I wonder how long it will take me to read them.
A pile of books occupy space, but in fact, it stands for so many hours of reading.
A novel does not exist in space only in time.
And that's the wonder of it, isn't it?
The physical objects we call books transmute time into matter.
And it's only by reading the books that we retransmute their matter into time.
In this case, the time of the novel.
Books, no less than the act of reading them, are forms of alchemy and magic.
A miraculous transubstantiation that materializes time and dematerializes substance.
By folding it into matter, books literally save time, stored away, preserve it.
When Maladme says everything exists to end up in a book, I have to believe he means more than what the tradition tells us about heroes, wanting to be glorified and song after their death,
so that their fame may live on after them.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh lemends to Enkidu not yet have I stamped my name in clay.
In other words, not yet has he performed the deeds, which scribes will record in their long-lasting clay tablets.
The warriors and homers' epics have one overriding ambition, and that's to end up in Homer.
In that sense, books store a lot more time than the time it takes to read them.
They are the locus of an afterlife, where long dead heroes and offers live on in a time they are no longer present in, except as ghosts or disembodied voices.
Of course, some books are populated not by dead heroes but by strictly imaginary characters.
If we believe Pete Andello, such characters are often more real than we are.
In so far as they have found a home in the enduring world of art, while the rest of us simply live out our lives in parish.
Pete Andello's six characters in search of an author are in search of precisely that kind of reality.
They want to be realized in a work of art. They want to end up in a book.
But the author who conceived them in his imagination refuses to comply with their demands, so they desperately go off in search of someone else who will.
But surely Maladme's statement means even more than that.
And what if he's right?
What if everything that exists, trees, mountains, stars, insects, rocks, houses, nations, possesses this overriding ambition of ending up in a book?
What kind of book is large enough to contain the totality of all that exists?
That's a question we would do well to put to Dante.
When Dante looks into the Godhead and the last Kant of the Divine Comedy, when he looks into the essence of all that exists, what he sees as precisely such a book.
In its depths I saw in gathered, bound with love in a single volume, that which is scattered throughout the universe.
Now that's a book.
Or is it?
What if Maladme and Dante along with him are wrong?
What if books are not these hyper realities after all?
What if Maladme's statement is only an extreme version of a way of thinking that belongs to a time-bound civilization, for which the book has happened to have had a very special importance and authority?
Maybe books have become so much a part of our history over time.
Maybe we have poured so much of ourselves into them that we can't help but think that the whole world must be ordered, integrated, and unified.
The way our books presumably order, integrate and unify what they bind together in their volumes.
Maybe Maladme's statement simply reaffirms an article of faith that pertains to the so-called age of the book.
And what if it's true as some people are claiming these days that the age of the book is now coming to an end?
That the book no longer structures are modes of understanding the world the way it used to.
In that case, maybe our whole way of perceiving reality and organizing our knowledge of it are bound to change too.
Maybe we are already seeing signs of it.
I mean the disappearance of deep time, stored time, historical time, and their replacement by a continuous present without memory.
To help me probe these questions, I have with me in the studio a very special guest, my friend and colleague Seth Lehrer, who teaches in the departments of English and comparative literature here at Stanford.
He knows more about the material and cultural history of the book than anyone around.
So why don't we ask him whether he believes there is such a thing as the age of the book and whether that age may indeed be coming to an end?
Seth, welcome to our program.
Thank you Robert.
So the question has been posed, Seth, has Western civilization been founded for a very long time on the authority of the book?
And if so for how long?
Well I think it has. I think that the book has been central to the religions and the cultures of Western civilization almost from their founding.
And in so many ways we think of cultures of the book or religions of the book.
We think of laws, keyed to books and literatures, keyed to books.
That one could argue that a great deal of our Western culture is literate in its structure and its organization.
Yeah, in my lead in I mentioned the Homeric epics and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I guess we should point out that these originally were not books as we understand them as such.
That's right. I mean so much of early Western literature is oral in formulation and in transmission.
And it's really not until much later than the original composition of these texts that you can even talk of them as texts that you can see them as written down or organized into books.
And certainly what they would have looked like as written forms would not have been the kinds of books we think of, the clay tablets of Gilgamesh or the papyrus scrolls of early
Homer. It's very, very late before these things show up as books as we'd recognize them.
So should we postulate that if we're going to talk about books we have to be talking about something that is printed or inscribed.
In other words if it was indeed the case that prior to their transcription the Homeric epics were oral, orally performed.
Could you say that a song that was in the head of a poet or a rapist who would go around the villages of Greece, you know, singing, is that already a kind of proto book even though it resides in the memory of a song singer rather than in a text?
It's an interesting question. I think that one of the ways of thinking about it would be to say, is there anything in Homer or anything in Gilgamesh that is aware of its possibility as a book.
You gave this wonderful example from Gilgamesh where you have the hero lament to Enchidu, not yet, have I stamped my name in clay.
So there's an awareness of textuality and certainly in Homer we know that there's this moment in the Iliad when a strange piece of writing comes in.
When there is an awareness even in these orally transmitted works of forms of writing that these works might eventually take shape in.
There's also a moment in the Odyssey, not necessarily a book as such, but when Odysseus is hearing one of the poets singing the story of the Trojan War and he says, now let me become the poet and sing it in my own way.
That's exactly right. I mean there's all of this sense in which you have in these works their own awareness of their status as literature and possibly their own awareness of their own afterlife, not as heard things but as read things.
So we're going to talk about the materiality of the book and before we go on to that there's just one anecdote which is just too beautiful, not to throw out.
Remember our now deceased colleague Ian Watt, great Conrad scholar, modern novel.
He during the Second World War was imprisoned for a very long time and the prisoners in their cells they had tobacco but they didn't have paper and they had an addition of the divine comedy in very rarefied paper.
But they were all literate and lovers of literature so what they would do is each of them would memorize a can-fill by heart and then they would rip out the pages and roll their tobacco in them.
So when you asked Ian Watt, he said, so Ian you know Dante pretty well, he says, no, I have smoked him.
That's right, that's right, well to see, to see all of love in gathered in one volume like that and to see it go up and smoke.
Pretty dramatic.
It's a sublime consummation maybe of the destiny of the book which we'll talk about later in the program but you mentioned that so much of our so many of the religions that dominate Western culture and non-Western culture.
Are founded on the authority of the book, why don't we go through that because that's one of the places where the book assumes a kind of importance that is very hard to overestimate.
This to me is a fascinating history and certainly in Jewish culture the primacy of the word, the sacrality if you like of the five books of Moses of the Torah, but also the way in which what's
fascinating to me is how certainly by the end of the antique period the scroll was of course the Jewish scripture and what's interesting is how early Christian culture very self consciously decided to move away from a scripture of the scroll to a scripture of the bound page, the Codex.
Sorry to interrupt, can you tell our readers exactly what a scroll is because of historical memory of being what it is you can.
Well that's right, well the scroll it would have been a set of sheets of of papyrus or a parchment that would have been glued together and rolled around to wooden dowels.
And so a scroll enables you to read in a linear way and when you finish reading your scroll is kept at the moment when you stop so that when you open it up again you're back to where you were before and in the annual cycle of the Jewish liturgy the readings of the Torah and and begin and are keyed to particular dates so you always know where you are.
You don't have to as it were bookmark in a bound book the Codex is a book as we understand that is a book of leaves that are bound on a spine and the Codex as a kind of technology of the book is something that evolves in the Roman school room when you had children who had wooden boards covered with wax and these would be the these would be like slates they would take notes on it and then they could melt the wax and reusing.
And six or eight of these bound together was a Codex it was a was kind of like a book of very very thick pages this became the visual or conceptual model.
For Christian scripture the idea of being that Christian scripture was in many ways accessible that it was about a certain level of humility or humbleness.
That it was to be read by all that it was not perceived to be the language of the priestly classes or restricted to the priestly classes.
And so these are kind of if you like ideology or politics or real meaning to the physical appearance of the early Christian book.
And so when we talk about Judaism or Christianity or Islam as cultures of the book I think it's important that we recognize that their cultures of different materialities of the book.
So scrolls would have been much more difficult to reproduce and disseminate among school children or among the non wealthy classes in the Codex.
Well it's that part of the humility.
I think that's part of it.
I think part of it too is the way in which you have a kind of scribal class or the way in which a scroll is not just maybe harder to reproduce.
But you read a scroll differently. It's very hard too while it's almost impossible to skim in a scroll.
Whereas in a bound book you can flip it open and you can skim.
And so there's a different way of dealing with the randomness, with the occasion of reading.
Well here let me ask a question about the Jewish scriptures because we know a thing that's called the Bible.
Which is the Greek word for the book.
And it's traditionally been the Jewish scriptures as well as the Christian scriptures all in one sort of book.
But was there such a concept that was operative in Judaism?
Because you have different books of course you have several books that make up the Jewish scriptures.
So was there a sense of a unity of the whole?
Well I think there's a sense of the unity of the Torah.
There's a sense of the unity of certain portions or certain narratives.
But probably in any historical sense there was no single item that contained all of the scriptural writings in Hebrew.
Whereas in the Christian tradition you can have a single item that contains all of those in the bound codex.
Here's another question that might take us a little feel but we'll get back to this chronology because we want to speak more about the Christianity and Islam.
But there are some in our midst and of our fellow Americans who believe that the Bible as such is a sacred text that all of its, the words contained in it are literally true because it somehow was dictated by God in the form that it has come down to us.
When does such a notion of a divinely dictated and integral unified entity called the Bible really take hold?
Oh that's a really hard question. I mean it's certainly true that there are portions of the Hebrew Bible that are from antiquity on believed to have a divine authority.
And there are portions of the Hebrew Bible that have a contemporary or historical quality portions such as the story of Esther.
For example the poem story that we can think of as very late or that we can think of as more human or more courtly.
And it really is not until I think very late in Western culture that we have this sense of a totally sacralized Bible of a text whose every word is divine.
And when we go to the Christian scriptures of course it's a very complicated convoluted story because what we know is the New Testament.
Actually we know that there were a number of say editorial decisions that went into establishing what would go into it and what would be apocryphal and that you know you take the letters of Paul you take the gospels they come at different times.
And the idea that they had some principle of integration and coherence between themselves is really a retrospective act of editorializing.
And certainly the work of scholars such as Elaine Pagles has you know revealed to many of us the ways in which what we think of as the New Testament was for hundreds and hundreds of years a body of texts in flux and really not canonized or shaped until relatively late in the Christian tradition.
Yeah I think I was trying to get to that a little bit in my opening remarks that it's because perhaps books or like the codex can bring things beautifully and in geometrical form into a kind of bounded form that we think that books have a their internal contents are unified but all the fascinating books that I've ever read are precisely in flux or completely at a certain level chaotic.
And don't resolve themselves into perfect unity by any means even Dante's divine comedy would you talk about surely I hope.
Yes I think that's right I mean one thing I would just want to add in addition to this is in the in the Arabic tradition and in the Quranic tradition I just want to say something about the letter about the tradition of calligraphy.
Because what's what's interesting about that tradition from the point of view of somebody not in it is that when you look and you see that there is a kind of sacrality to the letter that it's really not just the page of the word but it's the individual letter that seems to contain the world the way in which it's developed the way in which it's shaped and of course as we know.
In the Islamic tradition because of the prohibition of any representational imagery artistry is calligraphic artistry is very much lettered artistry and so what you see there is the way in which an individual character if you like can contain that world.
Yeah I think it's beautiful that art of calligraphy as you know you know I grew up in Turkey but yes go back relatively frequently and I remember one summer going to all the mosques I could go to a stumble in other places and and again there's no representational art but there's this beautiful calligraphy and you have a sense of the kind of discretion of the god head and then from there you know go back to Rome and then you go into the churches and.
It can be quite vulgarly shocking to see all this human eyes and more for representation with colors and things like you say well I don't know there's something about you know the beauty of the letter the discretion of the letter is more appropriate to that.
Well it's a call of the other it's interesting that you mention that just as an aside you know that you have saying Victor the 12th century scholar and philosopher said that this whole world is a visible book written by the finger of god.
And I think you have a sense in that of the way in which both Western and Eastern traditions imagine the world shaped by god that the world is a book.
And that the book doesn't end with the page that what we're looking at are really readable or meaningful characters in many ways.
Yeah compelling notion for sure.
I have to believe that it's the doctrine of incarnation that is the enabling doctrine for all this hyper representational human humanizing art that we associate with the media and I think that's the distinctive if you like ideological or conceptual break between Western and Eastern religious art.
But there's also the same proscription in Judaism to a certain extent no that's true although it doesn't it doesn't inform the way in which the art works.
And certainly you know the issue of grave and images is an issue is it an issue of representation is an issue is it an issue of worship.
There are you know there are degrees if you like of iconoclasm and these traditions.
So talking about Islam set the of those of these three religions once impression again from the outside is that the book is even more central and foundational in Islam than it is in Judaism or Christianity would you agree with that.
Well you know I guess you could say that I mean I guess what you one way to put it would be to say that the Quran has a unique social and cultural status in Islam that the very word Quran that implies in the Arabic both reading and writing forms of understanding that the traditions of calligraphy that you know that these create just a different notion of the book than you would see in traditional Jewish or Christian cultures.
So much so that there for a very long time it could not be translated that's right and I was told I I can't verify this but I guess I have to believe it's true because the source seemed very credible that the Quran was not translated into Persian until the 20th century and in fact late in the 20th century now that is astonishing if true because you know one of the great nations of the Islamic world.
would have been reading the Quran in a language which was not its own.
Well you know all cultures as you know have a language of sacrality or a language of learning and so you know it could be Latin it could be Greek.
You know and in the Middle East it is Arabic and certainly you know the traditions of Arabic education in in the Middle East.
Well you know would one need a Quran let's say in Farsi in that way.
Well can we talk a little bit about the Middle Ages where the my impression is that it's one of the high points of the history of the book.
Because it's not only writing and letter but it's also illumination image.
Yes and the codex takes on a very sublime form in many cases.
There are many things about that and certainly you know the codex books are huge books are display objects.
You know medieval Bibles was very interesting is they're so big because they would be walked around the church and it's not as if the congregation could read them but they could see them.
And the great codices of the Middle Ages the Lindes foreign gospels for example that great old English collection of the scriptures.
These magnificent books these large books would have been seen by the public but not really read.
It is also a great age of the initial.
The illuminated initial where you can see a whole history in an initial.
I remember sort of wonderful old English Psalter that is a collection of Psalms that I saw in the British library which was produced in the 11th century where the initial letters of the Psalms were produced by the
contorting snakes and other beasts into shapes.
And so you had as it were the forms of creation themselves making the letters out of which the book of creation was written.
It's a brilliant stunt and they're beautifully colored as well.
Fabulous. That's where the letter takes on another.
And of course in the Middle Ages the book not only as an artifact but as a concept is so hugely important.
And maybe we want to say a few words about certain famous scenes for example.
There are some wonderful you know one could write a whole history of the West and especially of the Middle Ages in terms of books.
I have a couple of little anecdotes. One of my favorite is the story of King Alfred the Great who was King of the Anglo-Saxons of the 9th century.
And the story is that when he was a little boy his mother showed him a beautifully illuminated book.
And she said to him if you can learn to read this book I will give it to you.
And so he goes to his tutor and he learns to read the book.
And what's very nice about this is that the story which of course is told in Latin describes the letters as
literas pulcross as not just beautiful letters but letters of almost female pulcratude that there's something quite simply sexy or alluring about these books.
That to me is a wonderful story of reading from the time.
Fabulous. What came to my mind was St. Augustine.
Augustine of course in the confessions there's two moments. One is the dramatic moment of the conversion.
In the garden and it's the letters of St. Paul that is lying on the bench and he hears a child's voice tallie lege take up and read.
And he picks it up and he opens it.
And what's wonderful about this scene to get back to our earlier discussion is that you can only do this with a codex.
You can't do this with a scroll. That is you can't open the book at random but that's what he does.
And he describes how he read silently to himself.
And I think this may be getting back to what you were thinking about earlier which is a
he says that his lips moved but no sound came out.
And Augustine is sort of amazed at the intensity of Ambrose's silent reading because we know that silent reading as a social practice was not established in the West until really not until the 12th or 13th or even 14th centuries.
But he is Augustine writing about events in the late 300s and he sees someone reading silently.
So it's a dazzling moment there with the book.
And in that convert the book of book eight of confessions where before he even turns to St. Paul he mentions how he and his friends were reading in reading these books, the lives of the Saints.
And longing to emulate them.
And these would be heterographies that would have served the purposes of education, emulation and so forth.
And then of course Dante takes this up in one of the most famous cantos of the Divine Comedy which is in Fair enough Five.
Exactly with Paolo and Francesca.
The two lovers and Dante wants to know how did they fall into sin. They were adulterers and they tell the story of reading the romance of Lancelot.
And how when Lancelot kisses Gwynorvere then they stopped their reading and reenacted with them.
But they were reading in the book and then the famous lion Galleo Tofuilibroekioskri said that the Galahot or the go-between.
The pimp was the book and he who wrote it.
That's right. Well this is the wonderful thing. I mean that the way in which in all of these cases and so many others books in the Western tradition become guides for behaviour.
The idea of the guidebook that it can be a guide for sacred or holy behaviour or sinful behaviour.
And one of the interesting things is how the idea of the phrase by the book emerges.
The way in which living by the book becomes a way of living your life according to instruction or according to seduction.
I mean another great example of this in the Western literary tradition is Don Quixote.
Where you have the Don whose mind has been shriveled up by all of the books.
He's reading the books of Chivalry too literally as it were.
The way Emma Bovahi will read her cheap romantic fiction in an overly literal way if you like.
That's right. She's kind of a latter day incarnation of Francesca who were.
Well it seems to me that we talk about literacy and we talk about the book in these wonderfully positive and affirming ways.
But we also in moments like this have to talk about the dangers of the book.
Are there books dangerous objects? Is literacy a dangerous thing? What happens when you read not to be edified but you read to be excited or you read to be led astray?
And this is one of the central questions I think for the tradition of the book in the West.
This is the tradition of censorship. It's the tradition of the imprimatur of the Catholic Church.
The whole tradition. The whole tradition. The whole tradition. The whole tradition. The whole tradition. The whole tradition. The earnings of the inquisition. When is a book bad? When is a book good? This whole notion of investing in the book itself a moral and didactic quality.
Yeah that's a... You cannot overestimate the importance that the potential dangers of the book.
In cultures where censorship was very active. The way in which the power of the word actually.
I think I remember something was it the soldier needsn when he came over to the saces. I left a culture where you were not allowed to speak but where the word meant everything.
You can say anything you want but it doesn't matter.
Well this is it. I mean the question is does the threat of censorship? Does the threat of erasing the word make the written word more powerful?
You know is freedom of speech is freedom of the press truly a liberating thing.
These are some of the larger questions. I mean it seems to me too that when you think of the history of science in so many ways the history of science is the history of the book and the history of publication.
The problem with Galileo. The problem with Galileo is not so much what he believed but what he published.
The problem with the whole notion of experimental science was in the 17th century when people like Robert Boyle and Robert Hook were experimenting with gases and with new scientific techniques.
The way of proving their theorems and justifying their work was to be able to write up their experiments in ways that could make them reproducible.
So the book here becomes the vehicle for scientific authority.
And so the history of science one could argue is in many ways the history of the book itself.
In more ways than one because Galileo whom you mentioned maybe the form of the book had permeated so much the mentality.
Even scientific mentality that he called nature a book that he called it the book of nature is written in mathematical.
That's right symbol. That's right. That mathematics is the book of nature.
And there's a wonderful recent book that I'm sure many of our listeners will be interested by Adrian Johns which came out a few years ago called
The Nature of the Book in which he talks precisely about Galileo and about modern science as being a story of nature itself.
If I could just pause just for a second. One of the wonderful things I have this book with me.
There's a beautiful picture in the book of an alchemist.
And we tend to think of alchemy as a kind of pseudo science or as a kind of fantasy.
But many pictorial representations of alchemy show the alchemist surrounded not just by the retorts or the crucibles of his trade but by the books with all the recipes.
And the wonderful thing about this picture and so many other pictures of alchemists is the recognition that alchemy is a science of the book.
It's about recipes. It's about writing things down. It's about looking for formulas.
And in a way it's a kind of book culture gone mad.
Do you want to say something set about margin A, because that's connected a little bit to notes and things.
But how important it was in the Middle Ages that there was not just the master text.
But everything that took place in the margins of it.
Well that's right. If you look at an early book one of the things that strikes the modern reader is how little of the space of the page is actually devoted to the main.
Huge amounts of blank space would be required around the text.
And the purpose of this blank space was to fill it up with commentary.
Sometimes these commentaries were traditional or inherited.
And sometimes they were original by the readers themselves.
One could argue that, you know, well into the 18th century all acts of reading were acts of writing.
That is you always read with a pen or pencil in your hand.
You underlined, you noted, you marked in the margins.
And in fact a good deal of my own research lately has been involved with looking at margin A, in books to see what people actually thought of the books.
How they read, what was on their mind.
And the recognition that reading was perhaps more of an interactive if you like phenomenon than it is now.
We're talking with Professor Seth Lehrer from the Departments of English and Comparative Literature here on entitled opinions.
I also want to mention that it's baseball season.
And so we might get cut off very abruptly before we actually get to the conclusion of our discussion.
But our listeners are encouraged to go to the web page or to download the show from iTunes if they want to hear the whole thing without interruption.
So, yeah, I think when I teach Dante for example, you have an infinite choice of translations.
And I choose not only the quality of translation, but there's some additions where there's a lot of space around the home.
And there's something about the experience of reading.
The interactive experiences you were talking about which is so enhanced by having large margins.
As opposed to small paperback editions, which might be much cheaper for the students.
But they fill up the page entirely.
You have a sense that this poem needs to breathe.
It's the space.
And these margins are there historically in there there for modern readers as well.
I mean, one of the things about going into libraries that's so wonderful is reading all of the margin alias.
And I just want to say one of the interesting things about the book trade that is rare book collecting or the book options is that very often,
people want to collect books that look pristine.
And what very often happens is that modern auction houses or collectors will wash away the margin alias, which to my mind is the most interested part of the book to create that white space.
I saw that you brought a few books with you.
I don't know if you wanted to read from them or refer to them.
But, of course, I never know what it is you brought.
I never go anywhere without a pile of books.
And this was certainly true.
I mean, as early as the second or third grade, I was always the kid with an arm full of books.
And so when I came in, I brought an arm full of books.
And one of the amazing things about books, about books, if you like, is the way in which they enable readers to encounter certain kinds of phenomena.
And one of my favorite books is the history of the French edition, the history of the French book that Roger Sharkier and Arijama Tam put together.
And they have a wonderful volume, L'Eliv Conquerante, the book conquering, the way in which the book takes over.
And one of the things about a book like this, and so many books of this kind, it seems to me, is the way in which you can see both in the print and in the reproductions of the script.
The way in which book making and book reading is such a physical thing.
And I think the thing that I would stress and that I stress in my teaching and that I stress in my research is that reading is not just a mental exercise, it's a physical exercise.
And one of the things that concerns me about modern reading, that is reading off a screen rather than reading off a book, is how the active reading has, as it were, been decoupled from that physicality.
I mean, I always read with my hand on the book.
I always read with a pen or I always moved along.
And when you see reproductions of these magnificent medieval manuscripts with their beautifully formed letters, you know, scribes as described in books like this, scribes saw reading and writing as such a physical labor.
There's a wonderful, scribal colophon, a little ending that a scribe wrote after he finished a multi-volume commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard.
And he says in Latin, but I'm translating, he says, "Thank God, thank God this book is done."
And it's just a wonderful moment when you realize that, you know, the physical experience of this.
And I would just want to say, you know, in the minutes we have remaining, that I'm concerned about losing that physicality in the future and the way in which we read.
Yeah, probably losing a lot more than physicality and we do want to talk about the end of the age of the book if there is such a thing.
I'm one of those people who are more skeptical that the book will come to an end as a kind of dominant sort of object for.
I mean, how can you go and swear on how are you going to swear on a scroll?
I certainly can't imagine curling up with a computer.
And one of the things, another book I brought my friend Leah Price and I edited a recent issue of the journal, "Publications of the Modern Language Association of America PMLA."
And it's on the history of the book and the idea of literature.
And one of the questions we ask in many of our contributors ask is precisely this question, you know, is the book history in that sort of colloquial sense?
I think that we do so many things with books that we cannot do with other textual media.
That books are going to have to survive.
I think this is certainly true in children's books, that the way in which children learn to read, the way in which you meet over the book,
you know, that the book is a go-between, but not in the illicit sense of Paolo and Francesca, the book is the go-between between the parent and the child.
You really, truly meet over the pages of a book.
I'm as pro-book as you can get. At the same time, I do have a fascination with an author like Shakespeare, for example,
who from everything we can sort of surmise had a kind of contempt or disdain for the notion of, you know, collecting his place, publishing them, putting out what we call these great books of Westerns of a living.
Well, what's a different world? Very different. It was performed rather than a different sense of intellectual property.
Yes. And that's right.
But, you know, so many of his characters in his plays are enter Hamlet reading a book.
You know, the interesting thing is the tension between, as you say, the sense of Shakespeare's different attitude towards his own production,
and the way in which throughout his plays, people are always reading, and books function in the drama of his plays as such, profound if you like icons of belonging or icons of identity.
Yeah, very much so. And his, well, the kind of books that he read that enabled him to write all those plays about Royal High Plutarch, for example, the lives of the Romans.
I take those fundamental books away from Shakespeare. You don't have Shakespeare. That's right. That Shakespeare is, you know, there's a recent book by the scholar David Cassen called Shakespeare and the book, which is a way of talking about not only the book Shakespeare read, but what does it mean to read Shakespeare in book form? What happened when Shakespeare became printed or transmitted in books?
But at the same time, I want to maybe push this point that one of the big differences between, you know, a great poet of genius like Dante and Shakespeare, because often those two authors are used in the same breath, that Dante really was committed as committed as you could get to the book as something which is the very organizing principle of the cosmos.
And then God, so you're looking into the light of God that what he sees there is a bound book which serves as the analogy for the way in which everything that is scattered in space and time, which we see as discreet and disparate, actually has its unity within the dimensionless mind of God.
And that that mind there is a book and it's all unified. And therefore, he gives us something called the Divine Comedy, which is one of the most, let's say, resolved books in literary history as opposed to Shakespeare who was far less committed ideologically, his notion of unity and who's plays are still very much.
There's scattered the corpus of Shakespeare cannot really be understood as a master book in any sense because precisely it was not nearly as committed in that this Christian sense to his soul.
Well, that's right. And I think it's immensely important that the great first folio of Shakespeare, the collected plays is something that appears only after his death.
And that the Shakespeare doesn't authorize the collected works in any modern sense. And that there is a difference I think between, as you're saying, Shakespeare and Dante and the sort of really the metaphor of the book, the idea of the controlling, if you like, a most spirituality of the book.
And that so many of Shakespeare's books are earthly things, if you like. There's a wonderful moment in one of the comedies when he has a character named Slender say that he'd rather have a certain amount of money than, if he could only have his book of songs and sonnets. He's referring to a collection we now know as Tuttles Miss Sullen, a collection of songs, a collection of sonnets, a guidebook for lovers.
And the issue is that this is not the Bible, this is, or if you like, it is the Bible of the court here rather than the Bible of the believer.
Yeah, well, Seth, do you think with the computer we have not entered a new era, but that it's inevitable that the more engaged we are with this new medium with the screen that all sorts of mentality shifts are bound to take place.
And that perhaps, I think you, as you mentioned to me before, maybe we're going back to a kind of scroll culture rather than a book culture.
Well, we scroll down, I think that is true. And I think there are all kinds of changes that we've yet to see. I mean, one of the things that interests me is that, you know, when you look at a screen you look out.
When you look at a book you look down. And these are two different ways of moving your head in two different ways of associating cognition with your life.
I think the other interesting question too is, what does it mean to write and what does it mean to type? You know, I think of my son as really the last generation of people who will actually learn to write.
And certainly at this point in his life, the only thing he ever writes is his own signature. So I think there really will be...
It's astonishing. Social and cognitive changes.
If you've gotten any handwritten papers from students recently, I mean, it's so obvious that calligraphy is something that is in the way of extinction.
That it looks completely childlike and primitive compared to even 10 years ago.
Writing is by hand, is an endangered species.
Well, I think the issue is that when you and I grew up, we believed that we would write as adults. And children today and people today, students associate writing with something you do as a child.
And so the writing remains childish.
That's a good point.
And I know poets who still insist on writing by hand because they believe probably rightfully so that writing is not just a physical, but it's almost a kind of bio-rhythmical.
And something passes through the senses when you're writing with a pen or pencil on paper that doesn't translate even into writing on a typewriter, let alone using a computer thing.
It's true. Although Billy Collins, you know, America's poet laureate was quoted in the times a few days ago, is saying that he saves no drafts. He only hits the delete button.
Yeah. That's another consequence of the new technology is that we're not going to have variation.
Variants in the manuscript tradition.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, I don't know.
I maybe we should go on a crusade at least to save the art of handwriting because it's really shocking to get handwritten papers or exams from students and see how much it's fallen off.
Well, speaking of handwriting, all I can do is relate the anecdote. I mean, it's an actually a true story about me and my father that when I was in high school.
I told him that I'd wanted to be a writer. And he said that's fine. Right prescriptions.
That's a good place to conclude our conversation, Seth. Thanks a lot for joining me.
Thank you, Robert. It's been a delight.
And we'll get you back on for sure. And I want to tell our listeners that we have a web page just log on to the Stanford French and Italian department homepage.
Click on entitled opinions and there you can download previous programs.
You can also look for our show in iTunes for podcasting purposes.
Thanks again to David Lummis for all his technical help. And we will be with you next week.