A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
Nicholas A. Basbanes has a love affair going with the printed word.
Not just the book --- the printed word, be it chiseled on stone
2,000 years ago, scrawled on wallpaper, palm leaves or cloth, or
even imprinted on a computer screen the day before yesterday.
That is the main message delivered in this, the third of a trio of
books he has written celebrating the triumphs, tragedies, perils
and potentialities of print. A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS, a kind of
miscellaneous grab bag of print-talk, was preceded by A GENTLE
MADNESS (1995) and PATIENCE & FORTITUDE (2001). Truly, a man
obsessed with his subject.
A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is a book full of fascinating bits of
information on all sorts of subjects relating to the printed word.
This is at once its main attraction and its principal drawback.
Much of the information packed into these pages is interesting in
itself, but the book has no single overarching theme, seemingly no
real purpose except to display the author's enthusiasm and interest
for his subject.
Among the many topics touched upon in this bag of
scholarly/literary potato chips are the disappearance of many
important texts produced by ancient civilizations; the question of
whether a modern copy of an ancient book can or should replace the
original; the wanton destruction of valuable libraries in places
like ancient Carthage, Nazi Germany, Sarajevo, Cambodia and Tibet;
the morality of physically mutilating books in order to turn their
valuable illustrations into objects of commerce; the morality of
breaking up great library collections so their contents can be sold
off for cash to meet current needs; the best means of preserving
printed records for the longest time; and --- inevitably --- the
already looming question of whether electronic books will make the
familiar object we hold in our hands today a mere museum curiosity
Basbanes tries hard to be objective about all of this. He has
sought out people on all sides of every question he considers ---
but his sympathies obviously seem in the end to lie with the
preservationists and the physical book rather than with its
Every new development in the advancement of print has been greeted,
he assures us, by people who saw it as the end of literature. He
has resurrected a Medieval monk named Johannes Trithemius, who
urged his fellow monks not to stop copying manuscripts by hand just
because printing had been invented ("The written word on parchment
will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long
will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is
two hundred years..."). And even so modest a modern forward step as
the idea of equipping pencils with rubber erasers rang alarm bells
among educators ("the easier errors may be corrected, the more
errors will be made").
Basbanes seems thoroughly at home rummaging around in the distant
past to describe fascinating documentary finds in odd corners of
Egypt, Pakistan and similar remote places. His tales of great
modern-day book collectors are also interesting. And he devotes
much of the latter part of his book to the computer-vs.-physical
book controversy, reporting for instance that computer files are
proving to be a terrible means of preserving data because the swift
pace of technological advance in computerdom quickly makes obsolete
whatever machines could read them when they were created. And he
has uncovered a delightful quote from someone named W. T. Williams
back in the 1980s --- that is, in computer terms, back in
prehistoric times: "Man is the only computer yet designed which can
be produced entirely by unskilled labor."
A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS is informative and entertaining. The only
problem with it is trying to answer the question: What, exactly, is
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011