- Picketing and ZeitgeistReading Material
At the center of The Swerve (2011), Stephen Greenblatt’s award-winning study of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (56 BC), there is a book. Not the manuscript of the ancient poem itself, which had been lost to history for nearly a thousand years. Not even the copy that Poggio Bracciolini, the great book hunter of the Renaissance, once chanced to discover in 1417. Instead, another copy, prepared by a bibliophile friend of Poggio’s, and preserved to this day in the Laurentian library in Florence.
Latex gloves accompany this copy when a reader orders it to be brought to his desk. A modest volume—“bound in fading, tattered red leather inlaid with metal, a chain attached to the bottom of the back cover”—Greenblatt’s gloved hands shake when he holds it in his hand. He remembers the ten-cent paperback of Lucretius he once picked out of a Yale bookshop bin, after being struck by its cover, a detail (two pairs of legs high above the earth, under a crescent moon) of a painting by the Surrealist, Max Ernst.
Does it matter that in neither case is the book original? No, provided it be acknowledged that some copies or printings of an original are more original than others, or at least closer to the original. What Greenblatt’s own book so eloquently reveals is how the original is important simply by virtue of its material form. Had On the Nature of Things not been copied it would have been completely lost forever. No Lucretius and—Greenblatt effectively argues—no modernity.
Of course the precious, singular copy back inside the Laurentian library doesn’t itself matter so much now. “That the ancient poem can now be safely left unread,” Greenblatt remarks, “that the drama of its loss and recovery can fade into oblivion—these are the greatest signs of Lucretius’s absorption into modern thought.” Yet not so fast. The “drama” is not without value today, as attested to by Greenblatt’s whole study, considered in one respect as a romance about the book as a material form.
Why should we be enthralled? Because today the book as a material form is changing and even becoming outdated. E-readers (including iPhones and iPads) reduce books to “content,” and then offer the content to be consumed as only minimally, as well as ephemerally, material. Mini-versions of Greenblatt’s drama are played out on Kindles or Nooks thousands of times a day, with the difference that no one form of any book that appears on any screen is original because no one single appearance is material.
Consequently, The Swerve can be read as memorializing a long historical era—still ours, but apparently coming to an end—during which our culture was founded upon books. These books of course had to be preserved. One [literal] form: reproduction. There is an intimate relation between the priceless, singular volume inside the Laurentian library and the ten-cent paperback in the Yale Coop bin. Each “form” attests to the primacy of the book as material form itself.
This form is gradually disappearing now, insofar as the preservation and consumption of books is concerned. The power of digital technology has proven irresistible, whether it is a question of email replacing letters, newspapers and journals going online—or e-book sales continuing to increase, libraries making shelf space available for none but the most popular, reader-friendly books, and the bound paper we know as a “book” actually being used in order to play electronic games. Consequently, we are now in a position not only to study the history of books but simply to understand how the very act of reading itself is still not easily conducted without attending to a book’s very materiality.
One of the most interesting things about Will Schwab’s wildly popular memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club (2012), is how its narrative of attachment to books is founded upon a detachment from—not to say outright hostility to—to e-reading. Whether searching for his old copy of The Hobbit (1937), loving the way his mother likes to...