Reading Between the Lines: How Texts Survive the Ages

Myna Aynslee

How often does a reader pause to contemplate their chosen reading interface? How often does the writer lift their pen or let their hands linger just above the keyboard to consider their writing substrate? In failing to consider the various modern and historic forms of information and communication technology, we fail to understand just how vital a role these devices and their evolution have played, and continue to play, in the preservation and transmission of knowledge across time and space.

Figure 1: An image of a poetry fragment written by Sappho in a collection of her works, entitled Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard. Image: Myna Campbell, 2020.

Several thousand years ago, the ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote the lines pictured above, and how very right she was about being thought of in another time. Sappho lived “at the turn of the seventh and sixth century [BCE]” (Kivilo 167). This means, of course, that she was not typing up her work. Given that papyrus was “the favoured writing support of the ancient world” (Clemens and Graham 9), Sappho would have been writing her poetry primarily on papyrus, as opposed to typing it up on a wafer-thin laptop. Indeed, even the lines pictured were not originally produced on such a device, as they are taken from a 1958 collection of Sappho’s works translated by Mary Barnard.

I first encountered these lines of Sappho’s in the summer of 2018. I can say with absolute certainty that, at the time, I was not pondering how this fragment of poetry from the 6th century BCE had managed to make its way to me in the 21st century. This question of how literature survives through the ages is less pondered than it ought to be, but it is an essential question to consider, for if we do not understand how it has happened, how can we assure it continues to happen?

Though “in the history of writing, every conceivable surface has been used to record the written word” (Clemens and Graham 3), there is no one writing substrate or reading interface that could have single-handedly preserved every historic text that survives today – no, not even your laptop. As modern individuals, we have a tendency to overestimate the power of the electronic gadget; though our new-fangled technology is usually very convenient, we seldom consider how truly fragile our modern devices are. One slip and that cellphone, tablet, or laptop could be rendered useless. The hard drive might be salvageable, of course, the life expectancy of a hard drive is only about 5 years (Liu, September 22, 2020). Conversely, a paperback book certainly cannot be smashed under normal circumstances, additionally, paper can survive anywhere from 20-2000 years depending on how it is manufactured and stored (Liu, September 22, 2020). Just be careful not to spill your coffee on either of these! A stone tablet may be able to withstand a coffee spill, but an electronic tablet? Not so much. That being said, stone tablets are durable, yes, but they are no where near as portable or spacious as electronic tablets. All forms of information storage devices have a set of vulnerabilities as well as a set of disadvantages and, together, these have prompted the need to constantly develop new forms of information and communication technologies.

The journey of Sappho’s poetry from the 6th century BCE to the 21st century is just one example of how vital the evolution of writing substrates and reading interfaces is in the preservation of knowledge. To further exemplify this though, consider the text of Homer’s Iliad, which has “survived transitions of medium from oral poem to papyrus scroll to hand-written codex, then…made the leap to the new technology of the printed book, and finally has become available…in digital form” (Lattimore 53). Indeed, I have both paperback and audiobook copies of Homer’s Iliad, both of which are relatively new forms of the text. Much like Sappho’s poetry, the Iliad, one of the most highly valued works in the literary canon, might not have been transmitted to us here in the 21st century if it had not been continually transferred onto the best and/or newest forms of information and communication devices as they emerged.

Figure 2: A image of a tablet displaying text seemingly plugged into a hardcover book; the image illustrates how new forms of information and communication technology were informed by the old ones. Image: Pixabay, 2018.

The very pages of your favourite novel and the screen on which you are now reading are the results of a technological evolution that has allowed, and continues to allow, for knowledge to be preserved and transmitted across time and space. They are part of a technological evolution that might allow for “someone in some future time [to] think of [you]” (Barnard 60). Knowing this, perhaps now you will more often pause to contemplate your chosen reading interface. Perhaps now you will more often lift your pen or let your hands linger just above the keyboard to consider your writing substrate. Perhaps now you will more often pause to, quite literally, read between the lines.

Works Cited

Barnard, Mary, translator. Sappho. University of California Press, 1958.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. “Writing Supports.” Introduction to Manuscript Studies, Cornell University Press, 2007, pp. 3-17.

Kivilo, Maarit. “Chapter 7: Sappho”. Early Greek Poets’ Lives: The Shaping of the Tradition, BRILL, 2010.

Lattimore, Richard, translator. The Iliad of Homer. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Liu, Yin. “September 22 Lecture: Writing.” Lecture. September 22, 2020.

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