The Grail Code 
Words on paper, and how they get there

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.

3 Responses to “Words on paper, and how they get there”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » Words on paper (the second part) Says:

    [...] 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. [...]

  2. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » One year Says:

    [...] Wells, H. G. [...]

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