Tea, Toole, and DIY Parchment: Or, the Story of the Retrogression of a Textual Medium

Madison Taylor

Does altering the form that a text assumes impact the way in which the reader interprets its meaning? It certainly seems illogical to say that a novel originally published as a bound book loses all significance if read on a Kindle; however, it is clear that every textual medium delivers a unique sensory experience unlike that of its predecessors or contemporaries. The codex, or book, as the modern reader knows it, is a tangible object equipped with its own weight, appearance, texture, and scent. Your average book will not sport a flashing neon sign on its cover detailing all of the themes, allegories, and deep revelations contained within its pages. These are things that readers must discover for themselves. Books are shy and unassuming creatures. They are unwilling to divulge their secrets or bare their souls to a reader who refuses to take the time to listen.

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How then does changing the medium of a standard book to something more blatant, something without the concealing power of a cover, affect the way in which its contents are received? To explore this idea, I have taken a paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and transcribed a passage from it onto a piece of makeshift parchment-style paper. The quotation that I have chosen is: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labours, I make an occasional cheese dip” (Toole 6). This quote contains the humour and underlying theme of the novel that I am curious to see transferred to another medium. The protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly, is essentially a modern Don Quixote. Toole inverts the concept of the picaresque narrative by making Ignatius into something of an antihero. On one hand, he is an obnoxious thirty-year-old slob who lives with his mother. On the other hand, he is a highly educated man who shows strong disdain towards contemporary culture and spends the bulk of of his free time reading medieval philosophy. Could the inherent humour and nostalgia of this character, and the novel as a whole, be better conveyed through a different medium?

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In order to emphasize Ignatius’ personality, I converted his words from their original paper support within a codex to a piece of loose, unbound “parchment” paper with a quill pen and ink. Why the quotation marks around the word parchment? Well, as you might imagine, it is a material that is incredibly hard to come by these days, so I endeavoured to make my own using Earl Grey tea and a barbecue lighter. By soaking a standard piece of paper in tea, letting it dry overnight, and then ripping and burning the edges, it is possible to create a piece of paper that can pass for parchment.

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The result, I believe, is an effective remediation. What was once a mere book is now a uniquely (though perhaps crudely) made piece of text. The words of the quote, particularly the part about the cheese dip, take on a whole new meaning when written on the support of “parchment”. In addition to the altered medium, the use of the quill pen adds an element of ludicrousness that I think benefits the text greatly. Ignatius goes to great pains to rebel against modernity and revert to a more classical way of life. By transcribing his speech with the tools of communication that were used in the period that he so admires, both his goal and mine are realized: gaining a more poignant experience of the contemporary world, particularly in regards to literature, by returning to the past.

Work Cited:

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980. Print.

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