Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beware The Ides Of Roman Literature

The New York Times has an interesting essay by Mary Beard, comparing the authors of Rome with modern authors. Amazingly, in a sense, very little has changed.

Even though they didn't have printing presses and they had to use slaves to manually copy text from one scroll to another, other traditions from that era have lived on.

All the same, there’s a lot in the Roman literary world that seems quite familiar two millenniums later: money-­making booksellers, exploited and impoverished authors, celebrity book launches and career-making prizes.

...most Roman writers knew that the profits of their writing ended up in the pockets of the booksellers, who often combined retail trade with a copying business — and so were, in effect, publishers and distributors too. At best, the author received only a lump sum from the seller for the rights to copy his work (though once the text was “out,” there was no way of stopping pirated copies).

Good gravy, since the Normans had yet to come into existence, I guess you wouldn't have had an author with the name "Nora Roberts" back then. Correction, "Norma was a druidess during the Roman occupation of England and "Norma" is not the feminine version of "Norman." So what would that be, "Nora Roberticus?" Or would it that be "Nora Rigoberto?"

Note that here we go again with adventures in reading and punctuation-

The books they read were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century, “book rolls” — long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right- hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page. Bad manners — but a common fault, no doubt. Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the book at the very end, with just this problem in mind.

These cumbersome rolls made reading a very different experience than it is with the modern book. Skimming, for example, was much more difficult, as was looking back a few pages to check out that name you had forgotten (as it is on Kindle). Not to mention the fact that at some periods of Roman history, it was the fashion to copy out the text with no breaks between the words, but as a river of letters. In comparison, deciphering the most challenging postmodern text (or “Finnegans Wake,” for that matter) looks easy.

(insert inappropriate joke about a "period" of your choice, right here). The rest of Mary Beard's essay is in its entirety right here.


Doc said...

I guess there weren't page-turners then, more roll-spinners.


Cormac Brown said...


An excellent quip!