Category Archives: daily

Clockwork awe

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The awe-inspiring astronomical clock in Prague ©

Nothing is ever new. The astronomical clock in Prague was installed in 1410. By the mid 14th century, mechanical clocks were being mounted in Europe’s leading cities. Burghers and visitors would marvel at the curious but accurate and useful contraption – many in disbelief, most simply in awe. Europeans had conquered time.

In the 21st century of smartwatches and atomic clocks, crowds still gather at the foot of the Old Town Hall in Prague to look at something most don’t fully understand – the complications of an astronomical clock have long become useless, as the modern world no longer needs mechanical devices to keep track of planetary movements or zodiacal dances in the sky. Yet the crowds still marvel. They find it hard to understand what moved 14th-century engineers and their masters to devise such intricate devices. And how could they, anyway, medieval and close-minded as they were?

The crowds still gather, smartphones in the air, to capture a glimpse of the elusive past. A gesture full of longing.

Our sense of awe cannot escape our culture’s tilt towards museification. What used to be the preamble of a prayer to God is now a self-directed interrogation about worlds we know preceded ours but which we no longer understand.

Silk Roads

A mappa mundi, a representation of the known world – Asia is at the top, separated from Europe (6-9 o’clock) and Africa (3-6 o’clock), Tours, Bibliothèque Municipale, 973 (15th century, France)

There was no single road connecting Asia, Africa and Europe known as the Silk Road. Instead, there was a network of roads, like blood vessels in a body. There were Silk Roads, carrying ideas and goods across the vast expanses of the three continents.

Culture and technology circulated up and down these roads, providing exchanges between faraway lands. Languages travelled both ways, more fluently than their speakers. Ideas flowed more rapidly than silkworms spun their cocoon.

The Silk Roads were the first construction site of the global village, a vast project of connecting disconnected points through cultural rhumb lines.

Books are miniature silk roads, moving ideas back and fro, pushing reason and imagination against the four cardinal points. The networks we weave across our green cocoon can be smooth as silk or rough as rope.

Cultural exchange is the result of trade, but occasionally it can exist in the absence of established trade routes. When contact is forced despite the natural or human obstacle, new networks follow in its wake, new silk roads are formed.

More than you can eat


The beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel (Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, 1190, 9th century France)

Great cultural shifts occur when supply outstrips demand. When eat all you can produce becomes more than you can eat, when read all you can find becomes more than you can read. 

The steady growth of literacy in the Middle Ages produced such a book culture that by the 15th century it was no longer a question of reading all you can find – as it had been the case before -, but find more to read than one has time in a lifetime.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the secondary modernity caused by the digital turn has revolutionised cultural markets to such an extent that the offer now outruns individual consumption. Take music. Listeners used to pay a premium to get a seat at one of the few concert halls (few relative to total population). Then came recorded music – supply grew but it was still limited by distribution. Streaming overcame that limitation, but it also introduced listeners to a consumer’s dilemma – what to listen to when the supply seems (though it is not) unlimited.

The same applies to movies, books, and scholarly publications, especially as the scientific community is increasingly more committed to digital publication.

As supply becomes limitless, our time is the new battleground for those who seek to claim it. New games call for new rules.


Audiobooks in context

A singing donkey that could also be a donkey recording an audiobook, Abbeville, BM, 3 (13th/14th-century France)

The Times reported this week that the audiobook market is growing at the expense of ebooks; that the arch-enemy of the printed page is not the digital page, but the audio file. And that is due to wireless headphones, advances in technology, particularly sound quality and ease of use, and famous actors turned storytellers.

This explanation is as compelling as it is misleading. The deep cause of audiobook popularity is not technology or famous-voice readouts, but reading contextualities. Our lifestyles are far less sedentary than they used to be, and the book market has been slow in acknowledging this cultural shift. We spend far more time moving than previous generations, while books have kept telling us that we need to stop being moving targets to enjoy them. We haven’t stopped, and they cannot keep up with us. Enter audiobooks.

Audiobooks fill the space between our new needs caused by new lifestyles and the inability of traditional reading (forget the printed/electronic books divide) to put us in reading mode. Long commutes lend themselves to visual reading, but only if you have a seat, are in relative comfort (not sandwiched as we are in London at rush hour), and the book is easy to hold. Otherwise, the moment is lost, and reading is deferred to a better context, perhaps home, but then exhaustion takes its toll.

We want books read to us while we cannot visually read them. We want books read to us during those moments when the possibility of reading flickers dimly in our mind. Audiobooks are a nice experience, but they can only claim a foie-gras-share of the market. Don’t mind what they say about famous voices enchanting listeners: you wouldn’t spend 20 hours or more listening to your favourite actor just for that reason.


A diagram of Italy showing the major cities in a 15th-century manuscript, Aix-en-Provence, BM, 1452

The Italian Renaissance cannot be understood without the Italian humanist movement. Humanism was, in the fewest possible words, a rediscovery of the classical past and a desire to transform the present by confronting it to Latin and Greek antiquity. Humanism was about new tastes, new desires, new activities, the unwitting fashioning of a new world while trying to recover a lost one.

Humanism was born in Italy and then spread to Northern Europe. Most scholars highlight a paradox here: Humanism was born and grew in the unlikeliest soil. Medieval Italy was not the breeding ground for the classical culture which Humanism and then the Renaissance required in order to have the impact they did. The first generation of humanists did not move within a rich book culture. Historians point out that the Italian literary landscape, compared with France, England or Germany, was much poorer and underdeveloped. Italy did not have the centres of scholarship like those existing in Paris, Oxford or Avignon. If you wanted to read the classics in the 12th and 13th centuries, you wouldn’t go to Italy. And yet, humanism did not sprout in Paris or Oxford or Cambridge, but in Padua, Florence, Venice, Mantua and Rome. The first humanists were not the Petrarcas and the Boccaccios of the 14th century, but the lawyers, notaries and document-handling civil servants of the 13th century, whom urbanism, secularism, rhetoric, civil governance and high literacy pushed to look forward to new horizons by peeking back into the past. Italian Renaissance humanism flourished because of seed falling on unlikely soil.

When Petrarch, who’s generally but inaccurately regarded as the father of humanism, joined the game, the humanist project was way underway: the taste for the classical past was growing strong, Ciceronian style was turning viral and more and more ancient Latin authors were being studied for their own sake. Western Europeans were slowly beginning to feel the distance between themselves and the ancients.

The humanist project was founded by an unlikely crew – figures crossing the worlds of politics, business and letters. Albertino Mussato, a Paduan born in the 1260s, epitomizes this entire development. A statesman and a diplomat, Albertino was also a remarkable man of letters. His play ‘Ecerinis’ was the first tragedy written since ancient times. His words gave the best motto Renaissance humanism could ever have: ‘Veterum vestigia vatum’ – [to follow] in the footsteps of the ancient poets. This is also the title of a book by Ronald Witt, one of the best intros to Renaissance humanism.

The great innovation of the Renaissance begins and ends with careful cultural backtracking, a picking up of old scents, which are nothing more than the beautiful paradox of wholesome cultural change: by stepping backwards, one moves forwards.

The unauthoritative advice of a medieval reader for the modern age

Chantilly, Musée Condé, 388, f. 5v

Reading defines our modern culture, whether we read electoral banners, adverts, comics, novels or scholarly articles. Although reading was not invented in the modern period, there are important differences between reading in the ancient and medieval times and the way we read today. We use the same words, and they mean similar things, but somehow they are different.

Medieval readers and writers would find our reading practices today odd, just like modern scholars find pre-modern reading habits strange and often otherworldly.

If medieval readers ever met us, they would have some curious insights to share. Among these:

  1. Cultivate your memory and rely on it as though all the books you’ve ever read will go up in flames and be no more. Memory is a precious repository.
  2. Read every paragraph several times, ruminating it like cud in your mouth.
  3. Don’t ever skip to the next paragraph or turn the page until you’ve made the knowledge your own through perfect assimilation.
  4. Remember that reading is transformative: your substance may not change, but your accidents and your moral frame will change, so pick your reading wisely.
  5. Wrestle with the text as though you were chewing rubbery meat. Best outcomes come from putting a lot of pressure in the right place.
  6. Don’t judge a book by its covers, its title or its author. Remember that most books have spurious authorship, misleading titles and are not even bound properly. Instead, judge a book by the treasure or dung it preserves – and proceed accordingly.
  7. Remember the responsibility behind reading a book. If it’s a good book, make the wisdom therein your own. If it’s a bad book, berate it in a review, prefacing your own book with it.
  8. A bad book should never go unnoticed. Be ruthless. Remember that piece of meat rotting behind your desk which you only start to notice when the air has become filthy. Avoid letting bad books go bad. Review them out of circulation.

Mechanical standardisation

Nearly everything around us today is produced mechanically by duplication, from what we eat to where we live. Handmade, home-made, handpicked, etc, are words of strong, deep resonance that attempt to resist the inextricable effects of the mechanization of our lifestyle. It’s worth remembering though that the first industry to become mechanized was publishing. To duplicate mechanically is to standardise production, to gradually remove human input, the uniqueness of personal involvement. Books were the first to take the hit. There was no coming back. One industry after another suffered the effects of standardisation. Humans used to make copies of items before the age of mechanisation, but those copies were more similar in the sense human siblings, rather than photocopies, are. The deepest effects of standardisation are deeply cultural and affect our worldview fundamentally. We tend to value things more when we know they’ve been the result of direct human effort than if a machine made them.