Saturday, January 21, 2017

You Are What You Read

Image from Jeffers, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy

In the Renaissance, when books were quite scarce and each one a precious object, owning a library was a sign of either wealth or eccentricity. Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) assiduously tried to assemble, piece by piece, most of the forgotten learning of the Greek and ancient world before it was irretrievably lost. As he explained in a letter, 

“I tried, to the best of my ability, to collect books for their quality rather than their quantity, and to find single volumes of single works; and so I assembled almost all the works of the wise men of Greece, especially those which were rare and difficult to find…They must be preserved in a place that is both safe and accessible, for the general good of all readers” (Jardine, Worldly Goods).

For Bessarion, there was a difference between many books and good books: he was willing to exhaust his time and coffers to find “quality” rather than simply amass a library. Even a Cardinal knew they needed a richer, more varied diet than 15th century Europe offered to the masses. If every dish represents a culture, then so, too, each book represents a whole history of ideas, preserved in careful thought and language. By reading the great works of the ancients, he hoped to bring about a true Renaissance of learning, as if books alone could resurrect the academies and agoras of the ancient philosophers.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Would You Rather Read or Play a Novel?

In an old episode of Star Trek: Voyager (“Future’s End, Part I,”: Season 3, 1996), the crew travels from the 24th century to late 20th century Earth, there to encounter the wonders of ‘modern’ civilization, including soap operas. As Neelix (the crew’s cook) tries to explain the intricacies of a specific episode, Ensign Harry Kim is puzzled, remarking “how strange to watch a story you don’t interact with.” He is of course referring to the Holodeck, where the crew literally becomes part of their favorite stories, be it Beowulf or a desperate defense of the Alamo. In the 24th century, stories are meant to be lived in and through—not as passive intellectual entertainment. In a sense, it is the ultimate merging of literature and video games, where classic stories can be re-lived and re-imagined, a basic story template upon which a ‘reader’ can play different roles that lead to unexpected outcomes.