Porous and cellular

A page from a 12th-century copy of The Song of Songs containing the ‘Glossa Ordinaria’, a collection of commentaries from the Church Fathers, evolving over time. Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 31

Someone writes a book and becomes an author. Another one picks up the book and becomes a reader. The reader meets the author on the printed page, but they remain distinct and unknown to each other.

The reader may wrestle with the book, but the book will keep being printed exactly the same. At least until a new edition comes out, as is the case with some books.

There are many ways to engage with the printed word – it may be copied, transcribed in a notebook, it may be highlighted, underlined, crossed out, circled. Yet, no amount of reader input will make that press stop churning out new copies over and over again.

That is because the printed page is closed. It is closed to the future of the book and to the relationship with the reader. The text in the first copy will be exactly the same as the one in the last printed copy.

The printing press is implacable, a mechanical god indifferent to the drama of reading.

Before there were mechanical gods, the world of words was ruled by scribes and ministered by human hands. The unerring press paid the debt of the age of fallibility. The minerality of the printed word buried the virid stem of the busy quill.

The manuscript page is always open, porous, cellular. It baffles our attempts to discern the author from the reader. Which author, which reader, anyway? The manuscript page is a plaque tournante, a negotiation table, a forum romanum of handshakes, osculations and stabbings.

On the manuscript page, the reader, meeting the author, becomes an author herself. It only takes a pair of hands to raise a reader’s comments in the margins of the page to the stature of an author. New works are born out of commentaries to old texts. The reader is always at risk of becoming the protagonist in the next episode.

The printed page scorns the margins, pushing them out. The manuscript page, on the other hand, is in a state of blessed encirclement, the wakeful expectation of disruption coming from the outer edges.

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