Updated: Jan 13, 2021
Another unedited excerpt from an upcoming novel:
Burned literature. Here’s an idea I’ve always been fascinated with – hear me out.
When I was maybe 9 years old I can recall the fascinating discovery of – get this – a piece of cardboard. A simple piece of cardboard. Well, I guess that I can recall the discovery of lots of pieces of cardboard, but I recall this one in particular. The reason for this vivid recollection lies in the simple fact that it had a little section cut out of the middle. I discovered that this little section could act as a stencil that I could use to create a series of cool little characters out of - my sister and I called this the "supertooth", as the stencil somewhat resembled a molar. I used the hell out of that little piece of cardboard – I remember bringing it to school, showing my friends how to use it and just you know using it until I couldn’t use it anymore. Then one day, it was gone. Just gone, and I never could draw those little characters the same way again. I wish I had a picture to show you what this little supertooth character looked like, but alas they are all gone as well.
It's likely that I spent hours playing with that little piece of cardboard with a piece cut out in the middle - so much fun I had with it, in spite off it just being, you know, a simple piece of cardboard. A single piece of paper-like material that only held value because I ascribed value to it. And bright early one morning on a recycling day under the cool blue breeze it was gone forever.
I think that it is reasonable to say that books, scrolls, etc. can be looked at in the same manner – single works of art scribbled upon paper-like material that have value ascribed unto it by an individual. Examples of the subjective nature of value: an English-reading person is not likely to ascribe too much value to even the most well-structured of Russian novels, and an illiterate person is unlikely to ascribe value to any book at all. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I think this idea stretches far beyond that.
For any book you can pick out of a contemporary library, you can be certain that it is likely to exist in hundreds, thousands, or even millions of copies around the globe – we can thank Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press around 1440 AD, for that one. Boiled down into one sentence, the printing press allowed for mass printing, and mass printing allowed for the spread of knowledge on a scale never before seen in human history.
Before that, I mean shit - can you imagine having to rewrite an entire book by hand every time that you wanted to create a copy? Tell me that wouldn't change the prerequisites for becoming a "New York Times Bestseller". Even with the help of stamps and other writing-assisting mechanisms contemporary to the time, each copy would still take ages to produce. I’d love to have a realistic estimate on the amount of cumulative time monks have spent writing, and rewriting, and rewriting Bibles in the pre-printing press era. Never mind the struggles associated with translating a book – the task would be enormous if one hoped to keep the integrity of the original print. Remember, this is way before Google Translate was a thing. Just the sheer hours, and effort, it would take – it’s enormous.
For this reason, I’m fascinated with the idea of all of the knowledge that has been lost over time. Before the invention of the printing press it must have been so easy to write something and just have it disappear soon after you die. There was no "finding this old book in the local bookstore", there was no "look at this obscure manuscript that came up on the 18th page of my Google search"... there was "guess we're out of firewood so lets toss this on the fire". Or, there was "wow - that guy sure has some crazy ideas - let's kill him and burn every copy of every book he's ever sold".
Western civilization has largely grown within the confines set by the Roman Empire, and we’ll use them as our example. I can imagine that - during the time of the Roman Empire - only mere hundreds of copies of the most loved books existed at any given time. Further, I can imagine that under the governance of such a powerful empire it would not be hard to round up every single copy of a book that exists if the great Emperor so desired. Thus, If one sought to rid the entire known-world of any particular work, it wouldn’t be too hard. Contrast this to modernity, where it seems as if once a single copy exists of a work its as if an unlimited amount of copies exists... we can thank the increasing prominence of the internet, electronic storage systems and the ease of printing for this.
Let's apply the same thought to cartography (i.e. maps). Imagine a frontier town in the Old West in which only one world map existed in the entire town - can you imagine what it would be like to have to visit the library just to get an idea of where England was? Even further, let's imagine being the very first frontiersman to discover a town in the Old West - now imagine being the first to draw it on a map. How long until that information reached back east? Say you discovered the town in 1794... how long until that information reached back to England?
I can recall an episode of Friends - filmed in 1994 - where Phoebe rushes into the apartment in a panic wondering where some far-off eastern European country was. And what do you know - there was no globe or map in the apartment so no one could give her an answer. Recall that this is 1994 - the time before cellphones. Flashing forward to today, any individual has all of the information in the world in a little magic box in their pocket - what an incredible example of how freely information flows in the technocratic era.
Extend this thought to dictionaries – how are you to know how to spell any difficult word if no one in the room knows how to spell it and the nearest “dictionary” is the next town over?
The limits to this kind of thought are endless, but the principle stays the same – in the world before the printing-press, the transfer/retraction/retention of knowledge was a fragile cycle. Today, we live in a world of unlimited resources – we can pop on the internet and have near-immediate access to any TV show, film, book or work of literature that has ever been published, dating back thousands of years. I urge you to really think and appreciate how incredible this is.
Flashback now to sometime around the year 48 BC, during the reign of Julius Caesar. We can find ourselves in Egypt, watching a great fire rise over the Egyptian city of Alexandria - a fire set by the hands of Caesar himself. At the heart of these flames was the Library of Alexandria – established around 283 BC, this library housed the most important works of the contemporary world. It has been estimated that as many as 500 000 scrolls – or the equivalent of 100 000 books – were housed within its walls... recall that this is the time before the printing press! In one fell swoop so many of these works were lost to history - works of ancient Egyptian magic and Greek religion, works of primitive man, legends and history all lost to time. Without a doubt, much of the knowledge burnt to ash on that day is still left undiscovered in modernity - I have spent hours some nights thinking about what might have been lost. Many of these works - particularly the oldest manuscripts - existed in their entirety only at this library. Over subsequent centuries, the Library would continue its decadent fall towards ruin, catching fire at least five other times.
Enter the hands of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned over Rome from 284-305 AD. Sparing the history for another post, suffice to say that he led the largest and most ruthless persecution of Christians in human history during the 10 years between 303 and 313 AD. Again, sparing the history (and the brutal details), these persecutions involved straight-out executing Christians and burning all of the Christian literature that he could find. While this persecution was obviously unsuccessful, one is only left to wonder how many works of original Christian literature were lost to time. Diocletian became the first Emperor to willfully abdicate his throne in 305 AD, and - get this - only a mere 8 years later the new Emperor Constantine would legalize Christianity within the empire altogether under the Edict of Milan.
Taken altogether, we see the craziness of the Roman Empire as we go from ruthlessly persecuting to willfully endorsing Christianity within the span of 10 years. This isn't a matter of just differing opinions of the Emperor - this was a matter of changing the entire mindset of each individual within the Empire (estimated population in 300 AD of about 55 million). It should be noted that Constantine, as Emperor of Rome, flipped Diocletian's script to purge the empire of knowledge that was in contradiction to Christianity. As Christianity gave way to Catholicism, we observe the key role of the Pope as leader of the modern world over the subsequent 1000 years. In the time before the rise of humanistic and nationalistic thought, the Pope really had unchallenged power around the known world. Who is to say how much knowledge that was contradictory to the Pope's beliefs (at the time) was lost? In the world before mass-printing and electronic storage it was almost too easy to erase knowledge to not do it.
I mean, is it realistic to believe that Charles Darwin was really the first person to draw the comparison between apes and humans? Do you really think Galileo - in the 17th century - was the first person to note how old the stars were? I think not - I think that these are thoughts that likely arose time and time again throughout human civilization. Curious it is that these observations only reached the common public once the power of the Pope was limited by the emerging ideas of humanism and nationalism which were becoming evermore pervasive among society.
I mean, I can really only speak for myself but if I were the reigning 14th century Pope in charge of converting as many people into Catholicism as I could then I would be tempted - almost a priori - to erase all evidence of a world that wasn’t 6000ish years old (the estimated age of the world based on the Bible). Mesopotamia and Egypt - these are the two oldest civilizations referred to in the Bible - this is fact. If ever evidence arose that indicated the presence of an older civilization then, as reigning 14th century Pope, I would certainly be tempted to burn it.
Just imagine all of the information lost – all of these weird connections between ancient sites on the globe, all of the knowledge of human nature, our origins and the stars. The wisdom of ancient Egyptian priests – the wisdom of those who came before. The answers to what happened before the Ice Age. The answers to what happened before 7000 BC. Why do the pyramids of South America resemble those of ancient Egypt? What's up with Easter Island? All of these crazy conspiracy theories - from the blue eyed gene to the Cro-Magnon - who's to say that their truths weren't present in the Library of Alexandria? Who's to say that their truths didn't burn as a result of not fitting in with the contemporary narrative? Anyone who spoke out of turn – in the time before mass printing and technological records - all of their works and thoughts could be wiped out in a single blaze.
The questions of where we came from - the questions of what we are here for - I believe that these are questions who's truths burned in that fateful flame at Alexandria.
Burned literature. One can only wonder how much knowledge man is left to rediscover. One can only wonder how much knowledge will be lost forever. Discarded slivers of humanity littered amongst centuries.