History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.


“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.


Twenty Fifteen, Post Two

I began reading a 11-volume series of books on world history. It’s called ‘The Story of Civilization‘, by Will and Ariel Durant. Much like the most of my book shopping nowadays – ahem, with the exception of signed Subterranean Press books – I picked up 9 out of the 11 volumes in a Long Beach used bookstore, for the grand total of 9 dollars and 90 cents (10% sales tax). I had to get my car from the parking lot, park illegally outside the bookstore and wave at the sales guy to come out with some of the books, because they are heavy, bulky 1000-page volumes.

So why did I begin this year with this apparent ordeal of going through 9000+ pages of history? Therein lies a short tale.

Last year, one of my friends was appearing for the GRE. Her scores in the quantitative section were off the charts. In the verbal section, she scored really well in the vocabulary questions, but her reading comprehension section left much to be desired. Emergency help was sought, and I sat down and tried to help her reason through some of the essays in the test material. And then I realized that the problem was not just about comprehension, it was also about context.

You see, my friend – for no fault of hers – could not get a grasp of the subject matter that appeared in those essays. Most of them were literary criticism or snippets from world history. Words like “Byzantine”, “Renaissance” and “Holocaust” stumped her, and cost her precious minutes as she read and reread those passages, trying to glean whatever meaning she could.

So I ended up giving her a primer in world history, in one hour. It was a fun, challenging exercise – it had been a long time since I had talked about topics like the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Silk Route, or even World War II. In the middle of that hour-long conversation, I realized that my dates were all over the place – suddenly, I could no longer place Indian history in relation with the birth of Islam (was it Harsha ruling Central India at the time, or was it the Kushans? Or both?), or even that of the Renaissance vis-a-vis the Reformation. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about precise years here, I was getting centuries wrong, even. That detracted a bit from my narrative, as I told her to take my timelines with a grain of salt, but it was a fruitful hour for the both of us.

And this is the primary intent of this 9000-page exercise. To  sift through my decade-old knowledge and rekindle some old flames, and learn something new at the same time. Will Durant writes in the kind of semi-formal tone that is brisk and yet dense, highly readable without being the dry academic tone that turns me off. At the same time, he is not a pop historian; his stories are rarely embellished to woo ADD blurb-friendly readers. I began book 3 (‘Age of Faith: Medieval Civilization from Constantinople to Dante’) early this week and I am only on page 162. The Western Roman Empire, having embraced and absorbed Christianity in every walk of life has just declined, fallen to attacks from Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns and Vandals; as has the Persian Empire – after the flurry of great Sasanian warrior-emperors Shapur and Khosru (I and II, for both); the Byzantine emperor Justinian has built the Hagia Sophia with an expenditure of 134 million dollars (and this is by early 20th century exchange rates); and we are now among the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, referred to as “Easterners”, from the Arabic sharqiyun, which was corrupted by the Greeks into the word ‘Sarkenoi’, anglicised to ‘Saracens’. Durant takes his time to set up the mileu, talking about the pre-Islamic Arab’s love for poetry, for example:

Every year, at the Ukaz fair, the greatest of these contests was held; almost daily for a month the clans competed through their poets; there were no judges but the eagerly or scornfully listening multitudes; the winning poems were written down in brilliantly illuminated characters, were therefore called the Golden Songs, and were preserved like heirlooms in the treasuries of princes and kings. The Arabs called them also Muallaqat, or Suspended, because legend said that the prize poems, inscribed upon Egyptian silk in letters of gold, were hung on the walls of the Kaaba in Mecca.

I had no idea that the word Kaaba comes from the same root as “cube”, it means a square structure. Nuggets like this abound throughout, and that makes for slow going, trying to take in this continuous flow of information. It’s fun though, and so far, seems very very worthwhile.

What about my friend, then? She appeared for the GRE, did really well, and is now waiting for responses from the University applications she sent in. Our discussions about medieval history has sparked in her the interest to go visit Venice and Florence this year. I am trying to get her husband to buy me a free ticket, so I can be their tour guide and honorary baby-sitter. I don’t think he is sold on that idea.

Note: apparently Durant’s earlier work The Story of Philosophy is available for 99 cents for the Kindle. Unfortunately, the 11-volume set of Story of Civilization is priced at 99$.

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Another Book Meme

Pal Amulya is full of book-related questions, and I can talk about books all the time. This is from a Facebook meme that involves naming 10 books that stayed with you. Shit like this is tough because number-bound lists suck yada yada and well okay, these are some books that I keep going back to. It is also a list that surprised me.

The rules are: No comics. Cool? Cool.

1. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo

I have talked about this book before. Instead of adding to the yakkery, allow me to point you to a painting. It’s an illustration of the Count done by artist Mead Schaeffer in the 1920s, one magnificent painting that arrests your attention. I was lucky enough to see it in person at the Weismann Museum at Pepperdine University, Malibu last year, and it gave me the fucking chills.

2. RK Narayan – Gods, Demons and Others


This was the cover to the version I bought


I was ten, and this was a book I had finished reading in a week, after buying it at the Guwahati Book Fair. A friend’s father borrowed it, and when he came home to return it, a month later, he was much surprised to know how fast I was done with the book. “Did you really read it?”, he asked. Smiling at my indignant yes, he opened the book and pointed to the first line in the introduction, which had the phrase ‘part and parcel of Indian life’. “What does “part and parcel” mean?”, he asked me. He was a little surprised at my answer, and accepted that I was not fibbing about the speed of my consumption.

But my mind was blown because, for the first time, I realized that the introduction to a book was not necessarily boring and that it should not be skipped over.

I pick this over the Mahabharata, because this was the first prose version of mythological stories I read. And it made me look for more. And also, stunning RK Laxman illustrations that made me wear out my black oil pastels trying to copy them.

(Oh, and I also found a first edition hardcover much later in life)

3. Mark Twain – Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

This is how we read books, once upon a deprived childhood. First, we read a chapter excerpt in an English textbook. Then we read an abridged S Chand version. Then we read other abridged versions, and finally graduated to reading the originals, the sequels and the spin-offs. I spent some time in my adolescence thinking about whether I would kiss Becky Thatcher if I was alone in the cave with her. (The answer is yes)

Little Women is perhaps my first feminist novel, even though I did not know it then. Sometimes I feel like the book is a bit too traditional, but then I reread it and – seriously, it’s so fucking progressive.

4. Stephen King – The Shining


When you are traveling with friends on a 2-day train journey, and find yourself sitting in the upper berth unable to breathe, occasionally shivering in the middle of July, and wanting to make sure that there are people around you every now and then, you are a very very bad traveler. Or you are reading this book you picked up on a whim from this pavement seller in Delhi. You don’t know it yet, but it will determine a lot of your tastes in the next decade. You will yearn to find terror in words, and you will realize that it takes a very special writer to produce works that inspire dread, and much later, you will discover his son, who does the same.

(The book is dedicated to “Joe Hill”. Hill’s book NOS4A2 features references to multiple King characters, including a fleeting mention of the True Knot, who appear as the antagonists in Doctor Sleep, the cool-but-somewhat-tepid sequel to Shining)

5. The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories – Edited by Stephen Jones


These “Mammoth” books proliferated in bookstores around India, and introduced me to a fair amount of new writers that I hadn’t heard of before. This particular volume contained a poem by Neil Gaiman, which made me look up and understand the difference between fixed verse forms, specifically sonnets and sestinae – memory fails me, but this was perhaps the first bit of non-comics Gaiman work I ever read. It had a story by Clive Barker, which pointed me to the wonderful Books of Blood. Brian Lumley’s contribution made me look up his Necroscope books. I had just read the original Dracula, and Stoker’s excised chapter ‘Dracula’s Guest’, included in this volume, made me feel like a happy child (which I was!). And finally, the novella ‘Red Reign’ by Kim Newman, which later became the Anno Dracula series, was my first introduction to a shared fictional universe. Good times!

6. Walter Moers – the Zamonia novels (13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear/The City of Dreaming Books/Rumo/Labyrinth/Alchemaster’s Apprentice)

I don’t talk about the books I like a lot. The cynical part of me worries that someone I recommend the books to will talk disparagingly of them, and then I will have two options: hate that person forever, or rethink my opinion of the book. Because obviously we cannot all be mature adults respecting each others’ opinions about the books we love, man. So yeah, Walter Moers. If you haven’t read these books, you are missing something. If you don’t like them, don’t tell me, because we are not meant to know each other.

Two regrets: I do not know German well enough to understand how good/bad the translations are, and I did not have an Awesome Uncle to present these books to me when I was younger. Had one existed, the world would have seen a version of me that had Optimus Yarnspinner tattoos and wrote bad Zamonia fan-fiction.

7. George Orwell – 1984


Before this current wave of young adult literature drenched in dystopian futures and all-pervading governmental control, there was Oceania and Winston Smith and Big Brother. It is strange how this book written in the middle of the last century hit on every aspect of modern life that makes us nervous in 2014. I love going back to it, and sometimes I worry that the future is already happening.

8. David Fisher, Anthony Reed – The Proudest Day / Dominique Lapierre, Larry Collins – Freedom at Midnight / Ramachandra Guha – India After Gandhi

These were the books that made recent Indian history interesting to me. History taught in our schools comes to a miraculous end in 1947. The British rule is essentially an Us vs Them saga where They were bad and We were good. These books un-deify the valorous and make them human, and give multiple hues to people who were just names and statistics.

(Also, the section about the first elections in independent India makes me cry, every single time)

9. CD Payne – Youth in Revolt (and its sequels)


This is a California book, and occasionally it becomes a Europe book. Every now and then, I look past the zany antics of Nick Twisp and his crew and contemplate their milieu, the small-town lives of the characters. I read about Nick’s Berkeley catastrophe while passing through Berkeley. Years later, I stayed in a motel in Ukiah while driving north, and it was only later that I realized excitedly that Sheeni grew up in that town. To me, Nick Twisp is the post-modern version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn combined, and unlike most books whose sequels let you down, these just make you fall in love with the characters even more.

10. Jaron Lanier – Who Owns the Future?


A book that made me question a lot of opinions that I had about the digital economy, particularly piracy and the culture of sharing. These are opinions that I thought were fairly obvious and set in stone, but Lanier’s arguments systematically decimates them and makes me feel like a fool. The book is quotable beyond belief, and has given me one of my favorite words: antinembosian, which means ‘before the cloud’. It is also the reason I would rather write this on my own blog, than on Facebook.