Whoever loses a library loses the world

The discovery of writing will have the effect of producing forgetfulness in the souls of those who will learn it, because, trusting in writing, they will get used to remembering from the outside through extraneous signs, and not from within and from themselves: therefore, you have found not the drug of memory but of recalling to memory »… (Plato,“ Phaedrus ”). Writing is a “drug”, an instrument that oscillates between memory and forgetfulness, in the sea of ​​memory.

The great revolution of the alphabet germinated in Asia Minor, between the end of the second and the beginning of the first millennium BC, and took place in Greece. But who invented alphabetic writing? The answer is not unique. The myth agrees, however, on the centrality of Cadmus, at least in spreading the alphabet in Greece. Grandfather of Panopolis, born in Egypt, on the banks of the Nile, in the 5th century. AD, at the sunset of Greek culture, he recounts that Cadmus created “instruments capable of expressing the sounds of language”, which are “gifts provided with voice and reason”, which live in a “silence that is not silent”.

In Greece Cadmus brings the ordered and harmonic combination of vowels and consonants, which is the most complete mirror of the oral language. Alphabetical writing proves to be a synthetic and very effective tool. It is learned more simply and can reproduce the same areas of orality. Writing thus assumes its own “voice” which coexists with orality, but is not confused with it. And, the myth tells us, writing is a completely human world. The Greek gods talk, play, get passionate, but they don’t write, because they don’t need it, they live in an eternal present: they are happily illiterate. If writing is useless for the gods, men, having received it as a gift, will no longer be able to do without it; it will become a prosthesis of the mind, nature, as if it were a hand, despite being a prodigious technique.

Writing is also – Grandfather’s verses teach us – “silence that is not silent”. Writing makes alive and speaking what would otherwise be silent, or even dispersed in celestial spheres, among the gods, or in the whirlpool of the past that sucks everything up. Writing makes what is silent present, it brings what is distant from life, even the dead, even the gods, even the events that have occurred.


So: memory, forgetfulness and writing. And the book is the most successful child of writing. The book was the most effective “phàrmakon”, the most resistant to time, as Umberto Eco notes: “The book belongs to that generation of tools which, once invented, can no longer be improved, such as the scissors, the hammer, the knife, spoon, bicycle. The book is still the most manageable, most comfortable way to carry information ».

The book has two characteristics which the Greeks were able to immediately experience the great usefulness and which will remain identical over the centuries: it is “finished” and therefore reproducible without essential alterations; it may be longer than the individual’s memory is capable of remembering. A single book can create a parallel world, vastly larger than that which can be experienced by the single individual. And the set of books, therefore, can become the community’s encyclopedia, a second memory that is intertwined with personal memory. The book, therefore, is never alone. The book is always plural, it is always books too, it refers to a system on which memory is based.

«Our world rests on writings, on texts. Man possesses a world because of the writings in which he finds himself », as Emmanuel Lévinas writes in his reflections during his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp.
The destruction of a library is, or can be, the loss of the world. And in fact the history of humanity is dotted with the destruction of libraries and therefore of entire worlds. Culture “is a cemetery of books” (Eco). Books – perhaps Plato was right – have to do not only with memory, but also with oblivion. For this they are not only the foundation of our individual and collective memory, but also one of the reasons for our freedom.
A library, starting with the private one in our home, includes books that we have not read, that we may never read, but that we could read. The library is never what has been read or will be read in its entirety, but an always open possibility, a tool. It is never just knowledge, but the “guarantee of knowing” (Eco).
We do not have to read all the books (or rather: we cannot read and therefore we cannot read all the books that exist) also because others have read them for us and those books have entered the atmosphere we breathe: I can take an elevator, thinking about other, because before me, and in my place, others have assimilated centuries of books on physics and mathematics, which have led to the construction of an artifact that allows my weight to rise rather than fall down. Only because others have read (and written) can we, individually taken, dedicate ourselves to something else, choose to do something other than what others have done for us. The world’s library and the system of books liberate our possibilities. Books – and unread books – testify that we are never alone, that our life is intertwined with every other present, past and future life. For these reasons, the need to collect books was felt very early and has nothing to do with a habit, but responds to a primary need of humanity.


Does anything change when God “begins to write”? When do the Gospels, the word of God, found a new community, the Church? The Book returns to being sacred and determines the authority of a power (and therefore a criterion for selecting what can be transmitted). The book reveals a further meaning: it is alive, it has a power that does not belong to other objects, a power that can also be nefarious and that, therefore, must be censored. The aforementioned expression of Nonno di Panopoli, “silence that is not silent”, is now illuminated by an even more intense, even sinister light. Just because a book is a living and powerful thing, you feel the need to burn it, as taught by Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. The libraries of medieval monasteries continue their exercise of transmitting the knowledge collected in books; the monks, with ascetic rigor, copied the codes to defend them from destruction. Of course, despite the passion of the monks, not all books could enter the monasteries. The keepers selected them, keeping or copying some of them, others leaving them to sink and disperse forever.

In short, the library – the ordered system of books and knowledge – invariably continues, even in such a different world, to be an instrument of memory, between memory and oblivion.

The revolution of the book is indicated in 1450, when Johann Gutenberg prints the Bible in 42 lines, that is 42 lines per page, with the text in two columns. As has been noted, it is not an internal evolution in the history of the book, but a technical discovery grafted onto the world of the book. A new Cadmus produces the matrix with the skill of an engraver, inside which the characters are melted in lead and, arranged and inked, are imprinted on the paper. A new Cadmus brings together vowels and consonants in a coherent and harmonious order, tracing the “signs” of writing, giving life to movable type, which can be arranged and combined according to the meaning of the text and printed (with a simple press) on the sheet of paper.

The printer becomes an artist who keeps a treasure, the dies, the punches with all the possible “signs”. The printing process, more onerous and complex, gradually generates a fundamental distinction between published and unpublished books. The unprinted book will be an unpublished book, ultimately a non-book and will sink forever into the darkness of history. Printing also introduces a selection principle: the printer decides if and how many copies of a book to print.

The printer / publisher and then, more recently, the publisher alone, distinguished from the printer, are responsible for the selection of our “vegetable memory”, a term introduced by Eco to identify that part of the encyclopedia that refers to the world of books. The wider the panorama of publishers, the wider will be, at least originally, what enters the sea of ​​plant memory.
The revolution of the electronic book also belongs to the internal evolution of the world of the book, even if it is not easy to draw its future trajectory. There are no guarantees on its permanence: electronic media are constantly evolving, there is no certainty that those currently in use will be legible in a hundred years or that the cloud in which we save the memory of what we write, read, listen to will not evaporate. : time still seems to play on the side of the paper book.
Publishers, I think, will increasingly tend to focus on content, which will be able to have ever greater supports and possibilities for dissemination, each with its own actors and methods of promotion and publication. But, above all, books – in any form – will always have the task of stemming the risk feared by Jorge Luis Borges’ Funes: his prodigious memory allows him to remember everything, every nuance of every experience, and therefore makes him unable to elaborate new concepts. Funes (like the Internet) is a river that carries and holds everything, every wreck, every splendor. Internet does not think because it does not forget and does not remember, everything is in an eternal present moment. It is therefore not free. It is vital to know, that is, to remember and forget, to be free to seek and desire.
The civilization of the book, in all the metamorphoses that we have tried to synthesize, has responded to this primary need, has allowed us to be free.

Book” di Elisabetta Sgarbi è pubblicato nella X Appendice dell’Enciclopedia di Lettere, Scienze e Arti, ei Principia, II volume. © ️ 2020 Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia founded by Giovanni Treccani SpA, Rome.
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