Archive for September, 2008

Free Association

September 28, 2008


Want to take a guess?

 Okay, here’s a quiz. Can you tell me the name of the earliest example we have of a printed and dated literary work?

Right, it has nothing to do with Guttenberg; we have to go to China, and it is something philosophical—but what? Something from Confucius? Nope. Maybe something Christian missionaries put together to spread the faith? No, sir. It’s the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist work that played a seminal role in the movement of Buddhism from India into China—‘transmission’ is the word that’s used, a spiritual transmission.  Housed right now in the British Library, this particular copy bears the inscription, reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long—so it appears to have been intended for mass consumption, sort of the Gideon Bible of ancient China. In terms of the European calendar, this is in May 868, roughly 600 years before Guttenberg printed his Bible in Mainz. The edition in question was discovered by a Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, in a cave in western China and then re-discovered (some say, stolen) by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, who shipped it off to the British Museum. The Chinese take on this turn of events is summed up by this catalog entry written in 1961 in Beijing, then known in the English speaking world as Peking: “The Diamond Sutra, printed in the year 868….is the world’s earliest printed book, made of seven strips of paper joined together with an illustration on the first sheet which is cut with great skill.” The writer adds: “This famous scroll was stolen over fifty years ago by the Englishman Ssu-t’an-yin [Stein] which causes people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.”  If this is true, they are not listening to the message of the Diamond Sutra.

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September 19, 2008

Robert Darnton

Do me a favor and read my summary of Robert Darnton’s opening paragraphs in The New York Review of Books on The Library in the New Age, and then follow the link below to read Mr. Darnton’s essay. We’re going to learn about the instability of information. You know: compare and contrast.

Here goes: Some 6000 years ago people began to write; it was a big step and it created and defined the civilized world until the third century when the book—as opposed to the scroll—was invented. The advance the book made tends to be under-appreciated. It lead to the emergence of the page as the unit of perception: paragraphs and chapters, and tables-of-contents followed. Think about how important an index is. When people say they don’t read on the Internet, it is the book they hold up. Guttenberg’s development of the printing press and movable type circa 1450 is the third and obvious advance—and no one doubts its importance. The world’s written information became available to the mass of mankind. The forth development ‘took place yesterday’: electronic communication. Electronic communication is the printing press on steroids—and while we know these steroids will produce great muscles, we are less sure about the long term effects.

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Literacy… and all the World’s Information

September 13, 2008

Take that, Wikipedia

You know the indictment: that the Wikipedia has no authority, no credibility; that you can’t trust it; that just about anybody can stick in just about anything they want in there; that, for example, some joker could say that Abraham Lincoln was born in the lap of luxury in Connecticut , went to Yale, and never split a rail in his life, that the whole log cabin thing was just electoral politics—and that those of us depending on ‘the wisdom of crowds’ for our facts just accept this stuff as the gospel truth while the scholars at the Britannica go neglected, waiting for someone to pay their fee…

And I bet you’re likely to have one of two reactions to this.  

The first one is, “Ho hum. This is not a new idea. The Wikipedia has mistakes and errors. It has willful deceptions, vulgarity. Thank you so much for pointing this out.”—and you use the Wikipedia all the time.

The second is to take it seriously. You don’t use the Wikipedia. When it comes up on Google, you pass on to some other (more reliable) site. You don’t use or twitter, or diigo. You’re not real sure what Web 2.0 is—‘And it’s George Bush who never split a rail in his life, right?’

A Synecdoche

Of course ‘Wikipedia’ is functioning as a placeholder for a much larger literacy/ technological issue, and in choosing to talk about it in isolation, we are in danger of coming to understand what may be only an eddy on the surface of the river. Five years from now, people might be saying, ‘Remember the Wikipedia?’ and it will be no big deal… but if the entire computer/ Internet/ Web 2.0/ Google thing is also history, we shall have passed a very dire five years indeed. ‘Remember electricity?’


A blown husk that is finished

                 but the light sings eternal,

 a pale flair over marshes

                where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change.

This is Ezra Pound at the fragmentary, sad end of the Cantos, still incendiary and still sagacious—at least in his own mind—and in the mood for a synopsis: Think mankind/ civilization/ Europe after 40 years of war/ literature…

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