Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent Worldby Nicholas A. Basbanes
In A Splendor of Letters, Nicholas A. Basbanes continues the lively, richly anecdotal exploration of book people, places, and culture he began in 1995 with A Gentle Madness (a finalist that year for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and expanded in 2001 with Patience & Fortitude, a companion work that prompted the two-time Pulitzer/b>/b>/b>
In A Splendor of Letters, Nicholas A. Basbanes continues the lively, richly anecdotal exploration of book people, places, and culture he began in 1995 with A Gentle Madness (a finalist that year for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and expanded in 2001 with Patience & Fortitude, a companion work that prompted the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer David McCullough to proclaim him "the leading authority of books about books." In this beautifully packaged edition, Basbanes brings to a close his wonderful trilogy on the remarkable world of books and bibliophiles.
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A Splendor of Letters
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World
Marbles and Names
Ye who in future pass,
will see this inscription,
which I have had carved in the rock,
of the human figures there --
Efface and destroy nothing!
As long as posterity endures
preserve them intact!
Darius I At Behistun, C. 500 B.C.
O Egypt, Egypt, of your religion only fables will survive, unbelievable to posterity, and only words will survive inscribed on stones that narrate your pious accomplishments.
From the Asclepius Tractate, C. A.D. 350,
Found Buried At Nag Hammadi in 1945
At the core of a high-stakes political speech that has survived the passage of twenty-four centuries is a caustic aside on the merits of safeguarding written testimony and the need to archive documentary material. Cleverly framed as part of a devastating attack on a detested opponent, the biting comment was delivered in 330 B.C. by Aeschines, a renowned orator active in the daily affairs of Athens, and the sworn enemy of Demosthenes, the greatest public speaker of antiquity. The two men had become bitter rivals during a protracted effort to prevent Philip II of Macedon from consolidating control over all of Greece, with each championing different strategies for containment; both approaches had failed resoundingly, and now a legal proceeding had been convened to assess the blame. At issue was whether a proclamation awarding a gold crown of glory to Demosthenes six years earlier should be rescinded on the grounds of incompetence, or allowed to stand. Aeschines knew that if he had any hopes of humbling his charismatic rival, he had to reinforce his views with facts, not heated speculation. Addressing a legal assembly of citizens known as a graphe paranomon, he built his attack around this tart observation: "A fine thing, my fellow Athenians, a fine thing is the preservation of public records. Records do not change, and they do not shift sides with traitors, but they grant to you, the people, the opportunity to know, whenever you want, which men, once bad, through some transformation now claim to be good."
To support his allegations, Aeschines asked that several documents housed in an official repository known as the Metroon -- the sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods -- be brought forth and read before the court of five hundred citizens that had gathered in a common meeting place at the base of the acropolis called the agora. In On the Crown, a brilliant rejoinder considered by classical historians to be his masterpiece, Demosthenes defended his comportment by artfully avoiding any substantive discussion of recent events, and the decree honoring his character was overwhelmingly sustained. Humiliated by this embarrassing rejection, Aeschines left Athens in disgrace and spent the remainder of his days teaching rhetoric in Rhodes, but his pithy rationale in defense of systematic record-keeping endures, and it suggests how highly documents were regarded in ancient Greece, particularly in a graphe paranomon,where a preponderance of evidence, not prevailing public sentiment, was supposed to carry the day. It is worth noting that the graphe paranomon proceeding, or a public action against an unconstitutional proposal, was introduced by Solon, the sixth-century lawmaker whose moderate precepts replaced the unforgiving code of Draco, the creator of laws so harsh they were said by Plutarch to have been written in the seventh century "not with ink, but blood." Regardless of the medium Draco used to document his pronouncements, the laws that bear his name marked the first time that Greek legislation was formalized in writing.
From a preservationist's point of view, the enduring lesson of the Aeschines-Demosthenes confrontation is that while the plaintiff 's argument in praise of archiving has been passed on to our time through the miracle of textual transmission, the actual documents extolled in his speech -- words written in their time on papyrus scrolls -- have long since disintegrated. Paradoxically, all that has been unearthed from a first-century A.D. reading room located near the agora where Aeschines argued his point so heatedly is a rule inscribed on a marble tablet that governed access to its holdings: "No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. The library is to be open from the first hour to the sixth." Like most other classical writings that survive in their original physical form, this edict endures because it was carved onto stone for display in a public place. But even then there were never any guarantees of permanence, as the Roman statesman, teacher, and occasional poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius (c. 309392) suggested seven hundred years after the two Greeks had settled their scores in the shadow of the Parthenon. Remembered today largely for his lively correspondence and witty dedications in verse, Ausonius enjoyed poking through the shards of past cultures. In On the Name of a Certain Lucius Engraved in Marble, he considered a worn inscription marking the grave of some long-forgotten dignitary. He noted in this rumination that the deceased's forename began with the "single sign" of an L, and that it had been chiseled in front of what he believed to be an M, but which was incomplete, "for the broken top is flaked away where the stone is cracked, and the whole letter cannot be seen." So what, he wondered, was the name of this once prominent man whose identity had been buried in the dunes of time?
No one can know for certain whether a Marius, or Marcius, or Metellus lies here. With their forms mutilated, all the letters are confused, and when the characters are jumbled all their meaning is lost. Are we to wonder that man perishes? His monuments decay, and death comes even to his marbles and his names.
Further evidence of that gloomy certainty comes in The Antiquities of the Jews, a sweeping history of the world ...A Splendor of Letters
The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. Copyright © by Nicholas Basbanes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Nicholas A. Basbanes has worked as an award-winning investigative reporter, a literary editor, and a nationally syndicated columnist. The author of five books, he also writes a regular column for Fine Books & Collections magazine and lectures widely on book-related issues. He and his wife, Constance, live in Massachusetts.
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