Autographs

A manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s theological works written in his own (difficult) hand, Vatican LIbrary, Vat.lat.9850

The world is full of books. That is to say, full of copies. Whether printed or made by hand, what sustains a book culture is not the original books, the archetypes, the autographs, but their multiple copies, and an autograph’s success is measured not by any intrinsic value, but by its ability to produce copies. Its success lies outside of itself.

As the manuscript written in the author’s own hand, an autograph represents ground zero of an editorial project.

In the age of print, autographs don’t circulate. They go straight to the author’s archive and later, if they make history, they might find a place in a public library or exhibition. In the age of scribes, however, autographs always circulated. Sometimes a book was its autograph, and most books written in the Middle Ages weren’t copied.

The long tail of the market was made up of autographs devoid of copies. These are the books most unlikely to have reached us. It is those who didn’t make it through time, where the friction of each age pulled their life expectancy down.

Discovering an autograph manuscript is like coming home, like rewinding the tape to the start of the roll. But for all the books of the ancient world, there is no homecoming, as the autographs have been lost. The books we have today, the manuscripts and the printed books produced through the ages, are mere glimmers of those books that started the journey, miles and centuries ago, beacons of light the world and carry humanity on their shoulders, wrapped within their covers.

1 thought on “Autographs

  1. The phenomenon that you’re talking about is curious. I think about this in terms of how the pure arbitrary Ness of any particular text reaching, not only are present time, but my eyes to my thoughts, is really an example of the expression of the fallacy behind the method of assembling any of those texts which have reached us into some sort of coherency, whether it be of progress, or of genre.

    In our moments, I often think in the context of people making music. I extend the potential of people making music back, say 150 years. The way I see it is that not so much as there was just a few talented people who, due to their talent, as extending through the magnitudes, recorded albums, of those albums became famous, of those people that became famous are still famous today — The way I see it is not that there were just a few talented people and these people were exalted such that we have these great representations of something that is authentic or whatever you would want to call it.

    I see it more as there was an equal number of talented people at any time. And it is just through a vast number of complex coincidences and accidents that the particular people who are well known and or our famous right now just happened to become an example of what we consider good or classic or whatever you would want to call it. And I also points to the fact that five years from now there’s going to be a different categorization of relative famous artists etc., whether it be of the past, considered classic, considered foundational, or whether it be just our contemporary example of who is a really good rock band or who is a really good singer.

    And so what comes to us or what comes to me through time, as we might be extending it back to texts 1000 years ago or whatever, is not an example of great ideas, it’s more of just an example of the pier contingency of random events. Such that just because something is old, we think that it has somehow more substance more intellectual value, more depth and understanding whatever again you would wanna call it.

    And again coming back to our contemporary musical times. Due to our digital media nowadays in our ability to record anything, there is a multiplicity of talented people who are able to make really good recordings now. At no time is any one of these people who are recording music or writing books anymore important in themselves than any of the others. But further, it is not that one author is saying some thing that is more significant than any of the others, such that they might become referenced more than others, or may be a New York Times bestseller. I’d say that there is a multiplicity of other factors that extend way beyond whether they have any talent whatsoever that are contributing to our assessment of that piece of work as “talented“ having merit etc. etc.

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