Adam Smyth · Impossible Desires: Death of the Book

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Inroom 55 of the British Museum, tucked high beneath the dome of the Great Court, is a display case containing a broken clay tablet about the size of your outstretched palm – like a phone, when phones were big. The front of the tablet is divided into two columns, as if displaying two pages, and is covered with nearly a hundred lines of intricate indentations. This is cuneiform, the earliest known writing system, the wedge-shaped characters marking out syllables produced by a cut reed pressed into moist clay (the Latin for ‘wedge’ is cuneus). The tablet dates from the seventh century BCE; it’s a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem that is even older, about the adventures of the historical king of Uruk, who ruled in the 27th century BCE. The indentations on the tablet report that the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, and that one of the gods, Ea, warned Utnapishtim, king of Shuruppak in southern Iraq, who built a boat to preserve his family and the birds and beasts he took on board. The first bird released after six days of floods ‘flew to and fro but found no resting place’. The similarity between this text and the narrative of the Flood in Genesis caused a sensation after the tablet was excavated by Hormuzd Rassam at Nineveh in northern Iraq in the early 1850s. According to the Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, when the British Museum assistant George Smith first read the cuneiform in 1872, he ‘jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself’.

The tablet was one of more than thirty thousand that formed the Royal Library at Nineveh of Ashurbanipal (669-631 BCE), the last great king of the Assyrian Empire: a library containing epic poems, legislative documents, financial records, hymns to gods, reports from spies, medical texts, guides to astronomy and lists of Near Eastern rulers. The baked clay and the inscriptions few can read give this object a gripping materiality: it is a text, but it is also a strange, broken object that draws us in, a thing of jagged depth, its characters a series of peaks and troughs. It seems to turn inwards and outwards at the same time. At the heart of Brian Cummings’s Bibliophobia is a sense of the book as a ‘liminal object’, by which Cummings means that the book is both vessel and object, something that carries and something that is: ‘a transaction between physical and mental universes’. Sometimes we ignore a book’s material presence: absorbed, ‘good’ reading is often figured as a forgetting of the material conditions of book, body, room and time, even though these conditions affect how we read. With certain other books it makes no sense to separate text from object: part of the power of the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels or the artists’ books of Dieter Roth or Ed Ruscha is precisely that they raise and then refuse a distinction between literary and material form.

When Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE, the flames that swept through Ashurbanipal’s library baked the clay tablets harder, causing them to be preserved. The library became a symbol of the desire for knowledge, not just its potential destruction but also its miraculous preservation. Such entwined stories of loss and preservation run throughout Bibliophobia. Cummings covers a vast chronological and geographical range – six continents and nearly four thousand years of the book in culture – but the guide rope we’re offered threads together the desire and fear which societies have invested in books: a doubleness of longing and loathing.

We see these paradoxes most clearly when books are attacked, damaged or destroyed: the urge to hold the book close, and the urge to fling it away. The Stainton Missal is a small folio, printed in Paris in 1516, which survives today in York Minster Library. At some point in the mid-16th century, its pages were violently cut: a diagonal slice at the opening of the Te igitur – the first prayer of the canon of the Mass, illustrated with a woodcut image of the Crucifixion hand-coloured in red, blue and green – and another on the facing woodcut of God the Father Enthroned wearing a papal tiara, this slash many leaves deep. Like lots of Catholic books in mid-Tudor England, this book carries the scars of Protestant anger, but it is also a deeply ambiguous object: the attack expresses not a dismissal of the book, but a recognition of its power; and the cut of the dagger or razor, over or through the image of the Cross, registers a kind of reading. There is a similar mixing of desire and fear on display in a copy of The Descrypcyon of Englonde (1502) held by the Society of Antiquaries in London. Page after page of this history of Britain is covered with blocks of black ink that delete, or nearly delete, every appearance of the word ‘pope’, from Peter the First on. The deletions are meticulous and they read like controlled rage: a careful and unswerving attempt to erase a memory. They were made in the early years of the Protestant Reformation; in 1535 Henry VIII demanded that his subjects strike out all references to the pope in their prayer books. This was book damage not as transgression but as legal prescription. ‘All manner [of] … books … wherein the said Bishop of Rome is named … [are] utterly to be abolished, eradicated and erased out.’ What’s fascinating is how imperfect these efforts at deletion usually are: we can easily still read ‘pope’ through the ink, and the effect of these blots is – with lovely irony – to draw attention to, rather than erase, the sustained presence of the pope in British history. The redactions become their opposite, and the book becomes a site not of erasure but of memory.

Cummings takes ‘book’ in its widest sense – clay tablet, paperback, smartphone, codex, scroll. What is defining about the book is not a particular physical form, but rather the idea, as Cummings nicely puts it, ‘of a text with limits, which can be divided into organised contents’. This inclusivity enables Bibliophobia’s signature trait, which is its rapid vaulting across centuries of mark-making. Take the short span between pages 28 and 35. Cummings notes that in the Heroides, Ovid’s rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope writes Ulysses a letter, saying don’t write back, just come. This relationship between writing and presence takes us from the web of Penelope to the web of Tim Berners-Lee and Shoshana Zuboff’s theory of the ‘two texts’ of digital media: the search we type in on Google produces a mirror image in the form of a record of the searcher. And then, via Aristotle’s De interpretatione and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique on writing’s relationship to speech, we’re on to the Greek and Roman alphabets and the relationship between inscriptions in stone and state power, and Freud’s theory of the double (‘an insurance against the extinction of the self’). At moments along the way, Cummings might provide a breathless history of alphabets or Islamic calligraphy. Several reviews of Bibliophobia have expressed an admiring bafflement. But mostly the results are explosively interesting: things far apart in place and time are joined together, as Cummings’s collage-as-criticism shuns linearity in favour of more resonant kinds of connection.

One effect of all this is that local transformations are exposed within a much wider historical frame. Gutenberg didn’t invent print: woodblock printing took place in China from the seventh century; movable type was introduced by Bi Sheng in 1041 CE. And before Gutenberg’s printing press, texts might still be copied in near identical states – in Florence in 1337, the notary Francesco di Ser Nardo da Barberino produced and sold a hundred copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy (he used the money to provide dowries for his daughters). Claims that the revolutionary capacity of Gutenberg’s 1450s printing press ‘mechanised’ book-making are, Cummings says with a wave of the hand, a ‘fabrication of Western vanity’. He is particularly pleased to point out earlier moments in media history that expose the fiction of our exceptionalism. The story of the death of the book is an old tale, told many times – a ‘death’ that, as Derrida noted, ‘manifests itself particularly through a convulsive proliferation of libraries’. In 1913, Filippo Marinetti enthusiastically predicted the book’s demise, and fumed against the ‘idiotic and nauseating concepts of the outdated and conventional book’. The front cover of The Future of the Book in the Digital Age, a collection of essays published in 2006, shows a pile of hardbacks triumphantly topped with an iPod – a device, Cummings notes, ‘nobody now uses’.

According to Genesis 11:1-9, a humanity speaking one language built a tower to reach the heavens, to ensure they wouldn’t ‘be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’. God’s punishment for this overreaching (‘And the LORD said, “… This is only the beginning of what they will do”’) was to divide humanity between many languages and to disperse the people. The tower was called ‘Babel’ from the Hebrew verb בָּלַל (bālal), to confuse or jumble.

Paintings of the cloud-topped tower became popular in northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries; in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 version, we see a tilting tower, half-finished and badly built, with the arches misaligned. Tiny figures carry sacks filled with lime to make mortar: the doomed ascent is still present-tense. It looks like the Roman Colosseum as a collapsing wedding cake. In the background Bruegel placed contemporary Antwerp, yanking the biblical story into his own world. Sixteenth-century Antwerp was a booming port city of confident humanism and printerly ambition, the place where the great French publisher Christopher Plantin printed his Biblia Polyglotta (1568-73). This Bible was a landmark in the realisation of book-making ambition: eight volumes, with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and Aramaic, and translations and commentary in Latin – a wonder of mise-en-page. If, as Cummings has it, the Tower of Babel story expresses a ‘yearning for perfection and the will to oblivion’ – a mingling of knowledge and paranoia which ‘could not be more modern’ – then Plantin’s beautiful pages present a multilingual riposte.

One way to read Bibliophobia, though Cummings doesn’t frame the book like this, is as the concluding third in a trio of vastly inclusive studies of the book, written across more than two hundred years. In 1809, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an Anglican clergyman and prolific, if erratic, bibliographer, wrote his masterpiece Bibliomania: or Book Madness. Dibdin’s joking-but-not-joking study anatomises the ways in which bibliophilia becomes a disease – a ‘pestiferous malady’, an uncontrolled craving, ‘both general and violent’, for ‘large paper copies’, ‘uncut copies’ (‘a passion to possess books of which the edges have never been sheared by the binder’s tools’), ‘unique copies’, ‘copies printed upon vellum’, ‘first editions’, ‘true editions’ and ‘a general desire for the Black Letter’. Dibdin’s book is itself typographically unhinged (many pages are 90 per cent footnotes), and it’s as much paean as excoriation – a hymn to the sins it decries. Dibdin was the founder of the Roxburghe Club of bibliophiles, established after the 46-day sale of the huge library of the Duke of Roxburghe in 1812, and here he is, delighting in collectors who cannot stop:

To possess a series of well-executed portraits of illustrious men, at different periods of their lives, from blooming boyhood to phlegmatic old age, is sufficiently amusing; but to possess every portrait, bad, indifferent and unlike, betrays such a dangerous and alarming symptom as to render the case almost incurable!

A century or so later, the British journalist and small-press publisher Holbrook Jackson wrote The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930), a comparably digressive celebration of books. Jackson, an almost comically prolific author (I count 46 titles, but there may be more), has a seemingly total range and charges across many of the topics Cummings explores: libraries, collecting, catalogues, books as charms and amulets, books as bodies, prison reading, burying books, book eating, fires and destruction. Jackson is particularly good on ‘Whether to Read Quickly or Slowly’ (it depends on the book); on ‘The Proper Time for Reading’ (‘Samuel Pepys rose at four o’clock in the morning to read Cicero’s Second Oration’); and also on the ‘long but mostly unrecorded history’ of ‘reading during the ritual of the toilet, especially that part of it devoted to the coiffing’. Where Jackson has Arthur Quiller-Couch and Seymour de Ricci, Cummings has Lacan and Derrida, but the sense of the Möbius strip of bibliophobia and bibliophilia – love as disease but still love – runs through all three books.

On a certain level, there is simply too much here, or too much to be contained within one volume. But that, too, is Cummings’s point: we bring to books impossible desires, and this often personal book is a love letter to that form, even if the subject is the violence books have endured. As Cummings peers close at the pocket-sized Gospel of St John in the British Library’s Ritblat Gallery, ‘the hairs stand on the back of my neck.’ The manuscript book was buried in a tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne soon after he died in 687; it was found when Cuthbert was disinterred in 1104 at Durham Cathedral, where it served for a time as a relic (placed in a leather bag, it was hung round the necks of eminent visitors), before passing after the Dissolution of the Monasteries through the hands of unknown collectors. The Latin text still has its original red leather goatskin binding: the earliest Western bookbinding to survive, containing the oldest intact European book, and the whole thing in such astonishingly good condition that it seems to flicker between vertiginous pastness and being alive right now. Bibliophobia is the most stimulating book I’ve read about how we can account for this twin sense of loss and presence.





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