Unsafe spaces

Books have always been unsafe spaces. Spaces of risk, a risk to others and to themselves. A risky book could and still can ruin a life, though a bad book will ruin a generation.

A book may have ruined the Roman poet Ovid’s life.

Words are dangerous, but books are explosive.

The Reformation started as a war on words, but it quickly turned into a book conflagration. During the early modernity, as much paper burned as timber and human flesh. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but enough ink went up in flames for us to ignore the fact that many wars were fought in the name of printed truth or claims thereto.

We don’t talk enough about book wars. If we did, we’d hold books in higher regard, and handle them like jerry cans of petrol.

The page itself is an unsafe space. This was truer of medieval manuscripts than it is for printed books. The margins are often unstable, the lines of defence of the ruled page can’t stand a chance against the keenest readers. Reading comes from above, but also from the margin, like a well-staged attack.

Neither is there strength in numbers. Prolixity was not a medieval ideal, but it was a reality. Writers rivalled each other in protestations of brevity, but these were signed with a longwinded enthusiasm that seems otherworldly to us today.

And finally, there was the unsafe space of book storage. An epochal anxiety that may perhaps explain the verbosity of so many medieval authors. Only by filling the universe with words can order be attained. An objective that lies at the very foundation of our culture.

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