Category Archives: daily

Like a closed book


The printed book opened cultures to wider and deeper networks of knowledge, while at the same time reducing the wide variety of forms spawned by the book cultures before the advent of the printing press. Scholars usually refer to this as the ‘closedness’ of the printed book. A printed book is formally complete or achieved, it has a beginning and an end, a set number of pages, a title page, an end page, and it always circulates in a bound format, ‘spined’ and covered.

It’s hard to think that books can be otherwise. Yes, they can be unfinished, yes, they can be open-ended, yes, they can lack a title page and an end page, yes, they can be unbound – but they are not considered books. They may be notebooks, cahiers, loose leaves in a folder.

The printed book represents the apparently complete conquest of the written form and the dominance of one medium over all others.

Book cultures did not begin with the printed book. If anything, the printed book is an upgrade of previous forms, especially the handwritten book, the late-antique codex which really comes into its own in the medieval period to become the medieval manuscript book.

Medieval manuscripts were not closed, even though they tended to become closed as one drew closer to the 15th century. Yet, by its very nature, the medieval manuscript cannot be closed, however sophisticated a straightjacket one may trap it in.

Most books written in the medieval period never lived to find themselves bound together nicely with spine and covers. The books which survive from the 6th to the 15th century have also survived because they were bound and therefore less susceptible to damage and destruction.

A medieval manuscript book may have been written, but it was not always necessarily complete. Books were bound and rebound all the time, more leaves (multiple pages) were being added to existing quires (folded leaves). Many written works were also being updated, amended, enriched, excised, their form evolving over time, sometimes in the same binding.

The manuscript page is also more open than the printed page – but more about this in a next post.

Genetic indeterminacy

Screenshot 2020-01-22 at 23.59.54

Medieval manuscripts are books. A book is a written artefact. What is written is the opposite of what is spoken, which is oral. Writing is about literacy, speaking is about orality. Therefore, a book is a literate object, anything spoken is an object of orality. That’s a neat distinction. And it’s wrong.

A medieval manuscript is a genetic indeterminacy. It sits on the edge of orality and in the borderlands of literacy. The premodern book is neither here nor there, neither totally within the world of books as we know them, nor completely without. The medieval codex manuscript, just like the even more alien products like the scroll, the tablet, the tree bark, the leaf, etc, is a hybrid of two cultures struggling to keep balance on a pinhead. These are the cultures of the spoken and the written word, respectively.

The medieval book is as oral as is literate. The words on the parchment are as written as they are meant to be spoken – and most of the time, in the culture which produced them, they are uttered, articulated, verbalised.

There are many books. The medieval book is the last book of the noisy world of oral culture – a world of written words in the service of the spoken word.

The modern book preserves this genetic indeterminacy, which means that at any point it risks breaking the silence of the silent reader and making a ruckus in the street, where it belongs. The popularity of the e-book is due to the suspicion many of us have that some books are in a state of captivity, always ready to be released into the world of outside noise by the noise which forms part of their genetic makeup.

Vehicle of freedom

A printed and hand-illuminated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, printed by
Vindelinus de Spira in Venice in 1477) Cambridge, Trinity College, VI.16.20

Printing has a long history, but long histories aren’t always about deep and widespread cultural impact. Chinese woodblock printing existed since the 2nd century AD, but it did not turn anything around, except perhaps some printers’ fortunes. It made communication and dissemination of culture easier, production more affordable, and it saved time, but it did not generate anything substantially new nor did it disrupt the history of literacy.

Movable type is different from woodblock printing. China and Korea invented movable type centuries before Gutenberg, but by the 16th century, printing had not changed the face of the Asian continent. In Europe, however, printed books changed the face of culture in the 200 years after Gutenberg’s invention.

In Europe, printing started as a conservative project but soon afterwards became the face of renewal and change. It did not remain local, but quickly spread to other countries and soon became ubiquitous, disrupting old forms of communication and cultural production and reproduction.

European printing was the vehicle of free speech. The growing forces of censorship in Europe could shut down a press here, but another one would open next door. Clandestine and anonymous, printing promoted dissent, heterodoxy and kept a non-violent channel open for expressing opposition to established ideas and institutions.

A vehicle of freedom, printing did not belong to anyone, even when authorities sought to control it. As such, it proved to be one of the most disruptive forces in early modern Europe – and also shaping the world we live in today.


The death of cursive script

A letter from Joan of Arc to the burghers of Reims from 5 August 1429, written by her secretary in a common cursive script

Until about half a century ago, to write meant to write in a cursive script. The distinction between typographical and cursive styles of writing was kept alive by the custodians of national education.

It was inconceivable at the time to allow typographical styles to invade the handwritten space. To write by hand was achieved with minimum penlift, whether it was calligraphic – like so many specimens from the 16th to the 20th century – or not.

Cursive script began to decline in English-speaking countries first, while more and more people started to write in ways resembling printed text.

The choice between cursive or type is a zero-sum game: what cursive achieves in speed, it loses in readability. Cursive is a fast script but it may not be readily legible by most people. Typographical letters take longer to draw but everyone who’s read a book will recognise them instantly.

Cursive is difficult to read, but it is also more personal than what the imitation of printed letters can achieve.

And besides, people are difficult to read anyway, so why should their writing, one of their most intimate practices, be any different?

Duplication and control

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Something new is afoot. Something new has always been afoot. In 2019, Professor Shoshana Zuboff denounced a new paradigm she calls surveillance capitalism whose objective is the effective and irresistible control of consumers seen as the extraction ground for a new generation of businesses. In the late 1980s, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze predicted a post-millenial society of control, based on consensual servitude in the name of convenience and communication.

An earlier example of industrial control may be found in the printing revolution. Before the information revolution fulfilled Deleuze’s prophecy, the printed book created the medium through which information and knowledge were captured, controlled and submitted to the approval of established authorities.

The printed book was the first form of control and domination of the manuscript.

The printed page controls the text, the press controls the exact duplication of each copy and a host of interested parties make sure to control the production, distribution and consumption of books.

What is written, stays written. What has been printed stays the same for thousands of copies. As photography is the control of visual reality and the mise en captivité of imitative, figurative painting and portraiture, so is printing the subjugation or, as Michel Foucault would have said, the enfermement of the written word in the pre-established, unmovable asylum of type, standard and structure.

Written ideas



An Italian manuscript containing 27 of Cicero’s speeches. Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 101

An idea may reach another person or groups orally. But while it is may be airborne, its scope is pretty limited. A speech may infect an audience, a harangue may embolden an army, a sermon may excite a congregation, but fertilisation happens there and then. Classical rhetoric described the conditions of persuasion as decorum – the fitness of a persuasive act to its environment, the audience, the timing, in other words, the context.

The way to overcome the limitation of here and now is through writing. Writing breaks the immediacy, creating the conditions for epidemics of ideas. This in turn leads to mass communication, which evolves non-scriptural types of diffusion, like audio recordings and videos.

But back to writing. Demosthenes, Aeschines and Cicero may have been the most brilliant speakers of their times, but without the benefit of the written record, their ideas and rhetorical feats would have died with the audiences they moved and inspired. More than a thousand years later, we are still moved by their brilliance (if you’re not, go grab a Penguin). Half a millennium earlier, they shaped entire generations and provided the humanist impetus which ushered in the modern world.

Writing is neither here nor now. It can be everywhere and has the power to avoid natural death. Besides, script has a much higher lifespan than sound, which needs constant resurrection on other people’s lips to survive. Soundbites need script to become memes.

Written ideas generate epidemics on a much larger scale than spoken ideas and are not restricted in time. They may lay dormant for generations and then jump up to life.


Dante and Virgil walking past the point of no return into Hell. One can’t return from Hell just as one can’t unsee and unhear something seen and heard. The way goes on, hopefully upwards and out, but never back. London, British Library, Egerton MS 943

Yesterday, the Italian government instituted the Dante National Day. From this year on, 25 March will be known as Dantedì – Dante Day – the putative day in 1300 when the Florentine poet started his downward pilgrimage into Hell.

Dantedì is probably meant to be more than a commemorative day in the calendar. The word itself suggests that its claim to public and national relevance goes straight to the heart of the Italian week. After Monday (lunedì), Tuesday (martedì), etc, to Friday (venerdì) – Dantedì proceeds to the conquest of Italian time. This is not at all inappropriate, as Time is a central feature in the construction of the Divine Comedy – the oppression thereof in Inferno, and its thinness in Paradiso.

Dantedì is Dante’s Day, but it is also a celebration of the human mind’s last historical attempt to seize upon the totality of available knowledge in one tour-de-force and one man’s desire to rise above, go beyond and describe what cannot be put into words.

Dantedì deserves a place in all calendars, not just the Italian, and a platform whence one may again one day scrutinize the heavens in search of truth and beauty.