The Grail Code 

Archive for March, 2007

Chaucer’s rotten scribe

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

After I had finished writing about medieval writers and their intimacy with the words they wrote, I remembered I tiny poem by Chaucer that might seem to contradict me a bit. In a spirit of honesty, I reproduce it here (from Dr. Skeat’s edition):

Chauceres Wordes Unto Adam, His Own Scriveyn.

Adam Scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle

Boece or Troilus to wryten newe,

Under thy lokkes thou most have the scale,

But after my making thou wryte trewe.

So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe,

Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape,

And al is through thy negligence and rape.

The poet whom Spenser called “Dan Chaucer” (I always thought his name was Jeff), “well of English undefiled,” is complaining that his careless scribe defiles quite a bit of his English. The poor old poet has to go through every page of Troilus and Criseyde and laboriously scrape and rub away all the errors—a labor that is all the more laborious, as any scribe will tell you, after the ink is dry and settled deep into the vellum.

So the poems of Chaucer were not written by his own hand in their final form; Adam the scribe must have taken them from his master’s rough copy. Other writers dictated their works; Thomas Aquinas kept four secretaries at once taking his dictation, so that he could work on four books at once.

So it’s not always true that medieval authors wrote their own books with their own hands It’s equally true that, even when they did, their autograph manuscripts have seldom survived to our own day.

Still, what I said about the care it took to prepare a manuscript is true. Most writers didn’t have the luxury of a secretary, and even when they did, the rough copy went more slowly than it would with today’s handwriting. Scriveyn or no scriveyn, it took a lot more care to write in Walter Map’s time, and I still think that care comes through in the construction of the romances.

The Second Revolution

Monday, March 19th, 2007

When the great romances of the Holy Grail were being composed, writing was a very different business. In fact, it wasn’t a business at all.

There was no printing in those days, at least not in Europe. (The Chinese had figured it out. They had also figured out tea, the fountain of true civilization.) The writer produced the book; the marks he made with his pen on the page were what the reader saw.

Gutenberg changed all that. Now there was a sort of gate between the writer and the reader—a gate that was guarded by a third party, namely the printer. The writer produced a certain number of words, but it was the printer who decided which of those words would appear before the public, and in what form.

That’s still true today, but the number of gatekeepers has multiplied. The writer deals with an agent; the agent deals with some specific editor; the specific editor answers to a general editor; the general editor answers to a publisher; and the publisher answers to God, who usually takes the form of some oil magnate.

We’re so used to that model of publishing that we hardly ever ask ourselves whether we’ve outgrown it. Yet it came about mostly because of technologies we don’t use anymore. Printing was a skilled trade that demanded specialization. You couldn’t be expected to manage it just because you were a fairly clever writer, and anyway you could hardly find time both to print and to write.

The first generation of word processors was designed to work within that old system. I might even say that those old word processors were specifically designed not to produce copy ready for printing. Instead, they were made to be more capable and efficient typewriters, machines for producing that intermediate stage of copy that passed from writer to editor.

The word processors we use today, or at least most of us, are fundamentally different, and they come from different ancestral stock.

All the word processors in common use today come from ideas thought up at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), which famously developed all the basic ideas that went into the Macintosh and Windows but utterly failed to turn those ideas into anything marketable.

While the rest of the world was just waking up to WordStar, the boffins at PARC had already imagined a world where what you saw on the screen was exactly what you would see on the printed page. And that page could look like anything you wanted. You could use different sizes, different type styles, pictures—any variation in formatting that was possible in a professional publication should be possible on a computer. All the intermediaries could be swept away. Just like old Walter Map, the writer could create exactly the page the reader would see.

Xerox didn’t make anything out of those ideas, but Apple did, and Microsoft took them up a few years later. Their victory has been complete. Everyone who works in the writing business uses software that incorporates those world-transforming ideas.

But they haven’t transformed the world—or at least, like most of us, they haven’t lived up to their potential.

If you work in a corporate office, you know what the most obvious effect of those ideas has been. Memos and schedules and other documents that used to be typed in dull gray text are now adorned with every trick of formatting, decoration, and color that can occur to the mind of a department supervisor.

None of these decorations make the documents more legible or beautiful. The intermediaries we cut out—the typesetters and designers—were the ones who knew how to do that. And no one is being educated to take their place. Schools still teach writing as a matter merely of arranging words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, with no acknowledgment that everyone who writes a memo needs to know some basic principles of design. That’s like teaching someone to drive a Hyundai and then handing him the keys to a jumbo jet. Of course there are going to be catastrophes if we do that.

The question becomes even more complicated when we admit to ourselves that the printed page probably won’t be the final destination of most writing in the future. It probably isn’t now. This article isn’t on paper, and the number of words written for the Web probably far exceeds the number written to be published on paper.

Here the revolution really is happening, with all the chaos that usually goes along with a revolution. Any schoolchild can design and publish a Web site, and millions of them have done it. But there’s not yet any body of conventional wisdom that says what kind of design is good or bad. Some Web sites—including some paid for by major corporations—are very badly designed; you know it and I know it, but by what standard?

What we have to do now is understand that we’re really back in the world of the medieval scribes, where writing was more than just coming up with words. We’re all going to have to care about how the words look, too, because in most of the things we write there’s no one else to look out for that aspect of the business anymore. And perhaps the care we take with how the words look might lead us to take a bit more care with the words themselves—almost like Walter Map, whoever he was.

The two revolutions (and me)

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

Last fall’s issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (which I’m just now getting around to reading) was devoted to the history of word processing, and it made me remember what interesting times I’ve lived through. Most people in the history of the world don’t get to live through one fundamental revolution, and here I’ve lived through two. I’m exceptionally blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it.

When I was growing up, writers wrote with typewriters. As I mentioned earlier, I was an early and enthusiastic partisan of computer word processors, but I was odd that way. You could write with a computer, but you’d better not let anyone know you hadn’t used a typewriter, or your tenth-grade Social Studies teacher would give you an automatic F even though he hadn’t mentioned anything about that rule when he gave you the assignment. (A note to all the young people out there: The people who tell you that you’ll remember your school days for the rest of your life are absolutely right.)

I’ve already talked about the revolution that happened when writers switched from pens to typewriters. But in at least one important way, writing with a typewriter is exactly like writing with a pen. Both the pen and the typewriter write in only one direction. You can go forwards, but not backwards. You might cross out what you’ve written, or you might crumple up the whole page and start over, but you can’t just not have written it.

Computers changed all that. Now you could just say, “I wish I hadn’t said that,” and the WordStar fairy granted your wish.

Something really big happened there, and I don’t think we appreciate yet just how big it was. It was almost like breaking through into the fourth dimension.

Since before the invention of writing, composition had always moved in one direction. Editing what you wrote was hard work, because you had to rewrite everything you wanted to change. Change, in other words, was costly.

With computers, though, change is free, or at least very cheap. If you didn’t like a word, or a sentence, or a paragraph, you could make it vanish instantly, and it was as if you’d never written it.

The word processors most of us use today can do the same thing, but in every other way they’re completely different. That’s why I say I’ve lived through two fundamental revolutions.

Some of you may remember those early word processors. You stared at green or amber words on a black screen. How they would look on paper was anybody’s guess.

Just as you can find writers who are nostalgic for the days of typewriters, so you can also find writers who are nostalgic for those early word processors, and for some surprisingly good reasons. A science-fiction writer I know told me he misses the intense concentration on the words themselves. You didn’t see different fonts; you didn’t see margins or page breaks; you didn’t see anything but the words you were writing, glowing in the darkness. That did, as my writer friend points out, force you to concentrate on the words, and maybe they were better words for it.

But those black-screen word processors had only about ten years to rule the world. Another revolution was coming—one that would take us right back to the time of Walter Map.

Words on paper (the second part)

Friday, March 9th, 2007

Now, where were we? We had just been talking about how much work it took to make words appear on a page at the time of Walter Map, and we were probably about to draw some sort of conclusion from that observation.

The article you’re reading now occupies no paper at all. Practically speaking, there are no limits to how long it can be, which is to say that the theoretical limit runs into so many millions of words that it’s not even worth calculating.

It’s easy to see the effect of that boundless horizon. I digress as much as I like, follow asides wherever they lead me, and take as long as I like to get to the point. If I don’t like what I’ve been writing, I can rearrange it, or revise it, or just delete it and start over. The computer forgives sloppiness so easily that it actually encourages sloppiness.

But suppose I had just one sheet of paper to work on, and that was all I got. How would that change my writing?

I might start thinking before I wrote. I might even decide that I had to make every word count, and that I should use just as many words as I needed to make my point, and no more.

Are you beginning to wish I had only one sheet of paper instead of megabytes of Web space?

Walter Map obviously had more than one sheet of paper to work with, but his resources were precious. As we already saw, every drop of ink represented quite a bit of work.

When we looked at Walter Map in The Grail Code, we dwelt at length on the meticulous construction of the Grail romances. Not a word is wasted; as Etienne Gilson pointed out, you can’t find ten lines together written merely for the pleasure of storytelling. Everything is a small cog in the great machine. Like a perfectly designed clock, the Lancelot cycle has nothing missing and nothing superfluous: no details for their own sake, but everything for the larger purpose.

In other words, we might say that the meticulous work involved in the physical act of writing expresses itself in the meticulous construction of the romances. The mere fact that writing itself was so much labor must have encouraged the writer to labor as much on the structure of the work.

We might say, in fact, that one of the reasons Walter Map’s romances are so profound and so full of meaning is the simple fact that it was a lot of work to write in those days.

Which leads me into a discussion of the revolutions in writing technology—a discussion that will be even more self-indulgent than usual. You’ve been warned. I’ll bet that single-sheet-of-paper idea is starting to sound pretty good to you.

Words on paper, and how they get there

Monday, March 5th, 2007

The scene: a little tavern somewhere in the ancient Near East. A small group of old scribes has gathered around the bar to laud the old days and lament the decline of civilization.

“These young people will never be real writers,” the oldest scribe says. “Not with all these modern conveniences.”

“You’re right,” another agrees. “There’s nothing like a quickly drying clay tablet in front of you to focus your mind and give you a sense of discipline.”

“Let’s face it,” says a third. “Real literature is dead.”

Meanwhile, back at the office, the young scribes are using their marvelous new ink-on-papyrus technology to get twice as much work done as the old scribes ever did.

Yet the old scribes were right, at least up to a point. The end of the old way of writing meant the end of the old way of thinking. Marking papyrus with ink is a very different sort of act from marking clay with a wedge, and it would be surprising if the difference in physical action didn’t seep through into the style of the composition.

If you spend a lot of time among books of all ages, you must have noticed that, at a certain moment in time, writers all seemed to discover ellipses at once. Anthony Trollope could have lived his whole life without ellipses; H. G. Wells could hardly get through a sentence without leaving a trail of dots.

What happened? I think I know the answer: writers started composing at the typewriter.

Making a legible period with a pen is actually a bit of a challenge, and making three of them is work. But nothing could be simpler than tapping the period key three times…

I mention this trivial example because it’s an obvious one, and I think it illustrates a principle that’s been scandalously neglected in literary criticism. Graduate students, get your notebooks out: the germ of more than one thesis is coming right up.

Writing is a way of thinking. One doesn’t usually form an idea completely and then write it down; one thinks as one writes, and the way one thinks must be guided at least partly by the way one writes. The writing instrument doesn’t just determine what marks appear on paper: it also has more than a negligible effect on what the writer decides to say.

When Walter Map, or the small romance factory operating under that name, was writing the Lancelot cycle, just making written words appear was a considerable accomplishment. You couldn’t just hop on the streetcar and ride downtown to get your pens and ink the way I do. You had to cut your own pens, and you probably had to boil your own stinky ink, too, from galls and various noxious chemicals, with a little eye of newt added as a stabilizer.

Once you had your pens and ink, what were you going to write on? Here in the twenty-first century, we just take it for granted that there will always be paper to write on. That wasn’t true in Walter Map’s time. You had to make do with what you could find. If you had a big budget, you could get fresh vellum, which you’d have to prepare laboriously before it would take your ink in any legible manner. If you weren’t so lucky—well, maybe there was an old manuscript of Archimedes sitting around that you weren’t using anymore.

Even after you had all your materials together, there was still the writing itself to do. Writing was generally done a good bit more meticulously in those days. Each letter was composed precisely from a certain number of strokes. It’s true that a good scribe could work at surprising speed, but still nowhere near as fast as most of us write by hand today. And yet how many of us, even with our speedy modern scrawl, would undertake to write out a whole book by hand?

Now, if it really is true that the mechanics of writing have an effect on the style of writing, then certainly all this meticulous work must have been reflected in the literature of the time. But how? That’s what I’m going to talk about next.

Grail Code conquers Germany

Monday, March 5th, 2007

The German edition is in print and ready to go, and it looks like this:

The new German translation joins the English, French, Portuguese, and Italian versions, which are already in print. There’s also a Croatian edition coming out soon. It’s getting harder and harder to find an excuse not to read the book.

Chasing the Holy Grail of writing technology

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

Writing a little while ago about the Holy Grail of typewriters made me think a little about how I used to write and how I write now—how I found the Holy Grail and how these days I sometimes toss it aside again.

Personal computers and I grew up together. I was about fourteen when we got our first real computer in the house, and I immediately saw its potential for solving the problem of the typewriter.

The real deficiency of typewriters (I used to think when I was in junior high school) was their stubborn insistence on remembering all my most embarrassing mistakes. Once you had typed something, there it was. You could try to erase it (you were probably typing on something called “erasable bond,” surely the most egregious example of consumer fraud in the history of marketing), or you could cross it out, or you could dab it (and your sleeve and your pants) with correction fluid, or you could just retype the whole page, which was what you’d end up doing anyway after you’d made a mess trying everything else.

The Holy Grail of writing technology, it seemed to me, would be some sort of editable typewriter: something that would let you see and change what you had written before it ever hit the paper.

That was just what we got with the Atari 800, a marvelous machine that had color graphics, believe it or not, and 48K of memory. People told my father that he would never need more than 16K, but one thing he had learned from working on computers since the Whirlwind was that you can never have enough memory.

In high school I did almost all my writing assignments on that computer. Not quite all, because there were a few teachers who gave an automatic F to any assignment written on a computer, on the very practical grounds that school was supposed to prepare us for the real world, and in the real world we would all have to use typewriters.

I have to admit that there was another good reason for objecting to these early efforts at word processing, which was that the output from a 9-pin dot-matrix printer wasn’t very pretty. The Holy Grail of writing technology, it seemed to me, would be something that had all the capabilities of a computer word processor but the output quality of a really good typewriter.

A daisywheel printer solved that problem. Now I had output as good as what I could get from the most expensive typewriter. But I still had some complaints. Often it took me several tries to get the formatting right. One mistake in the formatting codes, and the whole document would end up printed in bold face. The Holy Grail of writing technology would be something that showed you on the screen exactly what was going to print on the paper: what-you-see-is-what-you-get would be the ideal.

The next generation of computer, a Macintosh imitator called an Atari ST, solved that problem. Now everything showed up on screen exactly as it would on paper—italics, different fonts, every baroque complexity of formatting you could think of. The only problem was that you had to go back to a dot-matrix printer.

An inkjet printer was the next Holy Grail, and so on and so on, until here we are at Microsoft Word, with which I can do just about anything in print. I can even use a font editor to design my own type, and I’ve built up a large library of early-nineteenth-century American type styles, because nobody else seems to be doing it.

So why, after chasing a long succession of Holy-Grails-of, am I sitting here writing a draft of this article on an Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter?

That sounds like sheer perversity. And maybe it is. But over the years I’ve discovered a few things about the way I write and the way I think. Much of what I wrote for The Grail Code was first written with an Esterbrook No. 910 Cashier’s pen dipped in sepia writing fluid, which probably sounds even more perverse than an 85-year-old typewriter.

The wonderful thing about the Web is that you can be as self-indulgent as you like. In the next installment, I’ll talk about me some more. But I’ll also talk a bit about Walter Map and H. G. Wells and other people who aren’t here to defend themselves anymore. The other wonderful thing about the Web is that you can string together any set of seemingly unrelated thoughts, and no one will stop you from publishing it.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey