Beyond all trace

A fragment from a 5th-century Gospel book found in the inside boards of a 9th-century book and used to strengthen the binding of the latter, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, Cod. Sang. 123 (F-uia0).

It’s easy to destroy something but nearly impossible to destroy something completely, to make it disappear without trace.

Traces are the evidence that order is not an accident of existence, but its very fabric. Chaos is the exception, that which shouldn’t be.

It takes more energy to create than to dismantle, to do than to undo, but if the history of the book can teach us anything is that something is always left over when everything’s been done to cancel out of existence.

The world’s libraries are full of manuscripts which have burned in the fires of destruction. The deserts are filled with papyrus remains that have always found ways to resist destruction. Even oblivion. But that is never complete, as books hidden, buried or neglected somehow surface once again.

Every book burning achieved two things: it destroyed the item but reinforced its memory. Every gesture of destruction carries with it the unintended consequence of creation – creation of a myth, of history, of a counter-reaction. Like the martyrs of all times, by killing one, you create a hundred others.

Many of the books of the ancient world haven’t survived. But the memory of most of them is still with us. Some survive in fragments, others as traces and quotes in other books. But it may be argued that everything that ever existed is not completely lost. Human knowledge and creation always creates something in its wake. Textual communities, blocks of memory, links of history.

Papyrus rots, and paper burns, and webpages get deleted, but the words endure. When a parchment burns, words don’t dissolve, they warp. They have this quality of endurance which is a metaphor for writing writ large. In the face of destruction, there is transformation, there is memory. And that keeps on going.

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