The Day the Universe Changed for Writers

“In a world where few could read or write,” such as the world of medieval Europe, “a good memory was essential,” writes historian James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed, the companion volume to his 1985 television series of the same name. “It is for this reason that rhyme, a useful aide-memoire, was the prevalent form of literature at the time. Up to the fourteenth century almost everything except legal documents was written in rhyme. French merchants used a poem made up of 137 rhyming couplets which contained all the rules of commercial arithmetic.” Other languages employed their own mnemonic devices; in Old English, for example, alliteration was the more common device used to aid memory: Hwaet we gardena in geardagum, / theodcyninga thrym gefrunon, / hu tha aethelingas ellen fremendon! Or so begins Beowulf.

As Burke observes, with printing, however, the need for memory diminishes as texts become common and literacy increasingly universal. Why come up with a clever rhyme for complex mathematical operations when one can simply consult the book? For Burke, the advent of the printing press is one of those days on which the universe changed for a number of reasons: the increased specialization of knowledge, the reduction in the likelihood of textual corruption, the transmission of skills through means other than that of the lengthy apprenticeship, and the proliferation of news of distant lands across far wider areas, just to give a few examples.

However, there is one crucial transformation wrought by the printing press which I would like to expound upon here. Before the advent of printing, there was very little originality present in the act of writing. In the medieval world, if you were capable of reading and writing, chances were that your life might be devoted to the very necessary copying of texts, as with the scribes who labored in monasteries across Europe, copying the Bible and Aristotle and other books deemed crucial to the education of the medieval man. The creation of something new, something original, was not seen as necessary, or even desirable, in a world where all knowledge had already been revealed in the scriptures–everything else was either commentary or heresy. We possess innumerable plays and poems lacking in authorial attribution; indeed, we know the name of the scribe who copied the surviving manuscript of Beowulf–his name was Cynewulf, a name hidden in the text of several Old English works–but we do not know from whom the work itself originated.

With the advent of printing, there emerged a cult of the author, if you will. (Or, rather, the re-emergence of a cult of the author, for William A. Johnson makes it clear in his 2010 book Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities that elite readers were expected to be able to differentiate between a true volume of Galen, for example, and some second-rate knock-off copy of the text.) It was not enough to know that such-and-such a book had been worth printing, for printing consumed much less time and energy than did copying, and so all sorts of things were put into print. No, questions began to arise: Who is this person? What are his credentials? The author eventually became a crucial component of the work. And with the rise of the author to a position of prominence comes the rise of the author’s demands. William Shakespeare may not have been paid by the play–he was part of a troupe whose success depended upon the performance of his works–but Charles Dickens expected proper royalties for the sale of his writings and, for the longest time, refused to visit the United States, being angry at our lack of copyright laws, which allowed his books to be reprinted here widely without him earning a dime.

The book eventually becomes a commodity, valuable not only for what it might provide the reader (knowledge, inspiration, entertainment) but also for what it might provide the author (money). Too, with printing, the idea of the writer comes into existence. Oh, people had written stuff previously, of course, but they were not “writers.” Galen was a healer who wrote up his knowledge as a means of providing instruction to his students. Many works of Roman history were written by government officials, just as many works of Christian theology were produced by bishops or monks. No one in the medieval period earned royalties from chronicles or romances. But now, books had writers, and writers had needs–most notably the need for cash so that they could spend even more of their time writing.

All of this relates to the slow movement of writing from a gift culture to the culture of the market. Lewis Hyde, in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, offers an extensive analysis of the two cultures, but it suffices here to note that a gift culture is one in which something is offered freely with the aim of creating bonds between individuals or populations; a gift is something “used up,” consumed, and the act of gift-giving is repeated by the recipient. A market culture, by contrast, is one of the exchange of equivalent values, one in which goods and services are offered only with the expectation of proper remuneration, and the fruits of this exchange are saved up, hoarded, stored, rather than passed on and allowed to circulate within the community.

Those old scribes, laboring in their carols across Europe, painstakingly copying out texts in order to illuminate a world with knowledge, were part of that gift culture, but then so were many those days who put pen to vellum or paper for the sake of sharing what knowledge they had on any particular subject. But I cannot help but wonder if we are witnessing the reemergence of some form of gift culture in the project of literacy. Oh, it’s always been there–very few people are paid for academic papers or even books, after all. What is different now is the bottom falling out of the market across the board. The rise of the internet and the ease with which people might self-publish their own works, combined with the increase in piracy and file-sharing, are all making publishing a less profitable venture these days.

In this world, will we see a return to the ethos of gift-giving in people’s literary worlds? Have we gone so far west that we are east again?


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