In all of the nostalgia-drenched debates over the ebook versus the physical book, we rarely talk about the tyranny of form. The container in which a book rests, whether paper, vellum or megabytes, changes the way you write and the way readers approach the book.
The ebook is as fragile as vinyl records, compact discs, cassette tapes: none of us can guess today whether we will end up with personal libraries in a constant state of digital disintegration. But the ebook speaks directly to the generation that bypassed handwriting and prefers to read on screen.
Perhaps the biggest shift, for readers who grew up in the digital world, was subtle: it allowed readers to access books at any level, without coming first through a long apprenticeship of reading the classics in any tradition. There had always been mass-market bestsellers, but fan fiction and writing forums spurred the growth of a very modern phenomenon: the writer who was in no way a reader himself or herself, and who therefore appealed to readers who didn’t have a history of reading, but who were looking for stories that didn’t talk down to them.
In his magnificent book, The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt offers a partial history of reading. He does so while exploring the survival of an idea, against all the odds, a poem written by Lucretius that disappeared for a millennium and then returned. The ideas Lucretius put forward in his poem, On The Nature of Things, were lucid, incendiary, and utterly modern: there is no divine plan, only the universe engaged in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction, and only the atoms are immortal.
It is, as Greenblatt explains, a miracle that this poem — which contains the most complete articulation of an entire philosophical tradition — survived the centuries in which any idea or human who threatened God or the Church was ruthlessly hunted down and torn apart.
The factors that might have destroyed not just the last copies of Lucretius’ poem, but even the remembrances of those who had read the poem, were many, and were all connected to the form of the book in medieval Europe. Manuscripts were kept in monasteries; scribes dutifully copied and re-copied their contents. Often, like cassettes that were erased and taped over, parchments might be carefully scraped clean with knives, smoothed down and written over.
As Greenblatt writes, monasteries were the only institutions that cared about books, and monks were the librarians to the Western world. It took a bibliophile called Poggio to prise the book out of a scriptorium and have it copied, and Lucretius’ dangerous ideas were released back into the world, like a virus.
It wasn’t until I had read The Swerve that I began to understand how complex the apparently simple process of writing and reading are — a distribution system for knowledge, ideas and challenges to human thought, sometimes of the most exhilarating, liberating but dangerous sort. Greenblatt is riveting in his descriptions of the battle between those who sought to burn books (and heretics), and those who sought, like Poggio, to release books back into the world just because they were beautifully written.
In this century, the easy availability of the paperback has shifted the lines of battle slightly. Instead of burning all copies of, say, the Unabomber’s Manifesto, the easier option is to bury his philosophy with better, stronger rebuttals — or to bury him, alternatively, under a flood of cheap entertainment. Stephen King, Dan Brown and celebrity memoirs probably do more to choke off potentially destabilising ideas — the next Mein Kampf — than any earnest, academic rebuttal.
In contrast, Greenblatt’s book on Lucretius is likely to thrive and survive for a curious reason. The wave of pulp fiction often masks other literary trends, and in the last five to ten years, we have seen a great deal of intelligent writing both about how ideas spread, and about how thought works.
Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow could be read as a companion piece to The Swerve, because it helps us understand (among other things) why the human brain holds on to certain ideas and not others. A chapter in Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s Resilience suggests that emotions (and ideas) spread rather more like diseases or epidemics than we realise; ideas might be, literally, contagious.
In the days of the parchment and the scriptorium, Greenblatt’s book might not have become as widely discussed as it is today. It would have trickled down to only a few commentators. In the early days of the paperback, his ideas might have spread to only one or two continents — readers were far more restricted by geographical boundaries in their reading habits than we now realise. But at this specific point in history, The Swerve finds its place, online and offline, among a community of similar thinkers. And Lucretius’ ideas are once more spreading like a virus, after lying dormant for the best part of a century.