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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


= Text
I’m reading a fascinating book professor Mary Carruthers called The Book of Memory This is a study of what memory meant in the middle ages, and the techniques people used  to store, retrieve, and combine information they held in their brains. The most famous example of this is the "memory palace of Matteo Ricci" (described in a book of that name by Jonathan Spence, In effect, scholars trained their minds to function as databases, creating visual icons in their minds that allowed them to store and shuffle vast amounts  of information. The parallel to modern computing is self evident. But even as I am learning and comparing eras, Carruthers keeps giving me extra treats — and that is because she is a literature professor totally at ease in Latin. So as she describes the nature of memory she keeps examining words we use all of the time, where they came from and what they imply. And that gets to this blog
            Carruthers shows that the world "text" comes from the term "to weave" and thus is linked to similar words such as textile and texture. Text is a weave of ideas, the meeting place of warp and weft. And when you examine text you see that it has a materiality — a grain and pattern just as we see in fabric. I loved discovering that link, that association. And I think it helps clarify to me the particular place  of print books in our culture — even as the twittering e-world swells all around us.
           All of you who write, edit, design books now how much pure labor goes into creating them. Books are simply slow and hard to make — or at least to make well. The problem with the very immediacy of the digital world is that it is so easy — it is a great reflection of now (thus twitter, the absolute immediate  now). But it does not require, and thus reward, the accretion of effort — of first draft, second draft, first pass, second pass, review and re-review — that produces books. The digital world tends to treat text not as weave or texture but as bulletin, as flare, broadcast — as if it were two dimensional — pure lines without heft. Books, in their very slowness, weight, materiality, remind us of text as a physical thing, the product of the labor that went into composing, editing, designing the product. 
            I am not totally sure where this leads. In a sense computers allow us to empty our memories — we don’t need a memory palace, we have a flash drive. That frees us to think — we can use our brains to invent because what we need to know is stored elsewhere. So will something similar happen to text– where books remain the fixed holding pen for the products of our labor, while in the digital world we and our readers play, share text and ideas, combine and recombine? I am not sure, but I am fascinated. What do you think?


  1. Mary E. Lyons says:

    To my mind, technology has changed more than the recognition that writing or editing a book is a slow, thoughtful, painful process. One crashed hard drive or one gigantic cyber attack, and an immeasurable number of memories are gone.

    To wit: A software ad I saw online recently says: “[name of company] + Twitter = Instant Memories.” The company promises it will save public and private messages in the Cloud. I suppose you can then transfer them to your hard drive.

    We might do well to remind young readers that early medieval Irish monks chained their precious hand-copied manuscripts of Greek and Roman books to a table so no one could steal these memories of memories. Across the Atlantic, the scribe in each Maya town was called “The Keeper of the Book.” Only the king of the town had more power than the scribe. Considering that Maya scribes recorded generations worth of genealogical and astrological memories that still stand on stone stelae today, one could say the scribes were more powerful than the king.

    Ach! Technologically, it seems we’ve gone back in time and come full circle—almost. Cuneiform scratchings on Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian clay tablets look a lot to me like shorthand tweets. The big difference is that no one will remember the tweets of today four to six thousand years from now. The memories will have disappeared.

    Last spring I discussed these topics with middle school kids in an exurban Maryland middle school. To my surprise, none had heard of Twitter. My well-planned talk (I thought), complete with a clay tablet inscribed by me and baked in my oven, was mostly lost on the students. Still, I gave thanks for small—though no doubt temporary—favors.

  2. Mary
    I am going to have more to say about this in my next post. The whole question of the depth and texture of books in the age of instant digital contact and clouds is fascinating — especially as we look back to previous eras and their relationship to memory and writing, invention and preservation.