From Homer to Homer

Being a regular contributor to a literary blog myself I have noticed a great deal of pessimism and assorted doom-saying all over different online journals in what concerns reading and publishing of books, appreciating great literature and the supposedly gloomy future of our culture in general. Peoples’ opinions differ on exactly what are the reasons for this decline, ranging from twitter-induced shortening of the attention span and the emergence of e-readers to the global squeeze of newspaper budgets that has led to axing of book and culture columns.

One recurring lament is that of a disastrous decline in the standards of literary merit in what gets published these days, as internet has made it possible for pretty much everyone to broadcast whatever they have in their minds at any given moment (a.k.a. does-the-internet-make-us-stupid-question). According to the followers of this particular line of argument, there is simply so much garbage around that it drowns whatever little good stuff there is out there, numbing our minds and clogging our ability to read and appreciate Proust and Pessoa.

While I do agree that it is certainly easier than ever to tell the whole world what you thought of the Sex & the City 2 or what did you have for breakfast, I see nothing particularly sinister about it. People have always had trivial thoughts about their trivial experiences, and they have also always written about them. And likewise, there have always been those who have found this to be detrimental to the intellectual well-being of the society at large.

In order to put this into perspective, let me bring you some quotes from the last two millennia. First in our line of concerned voices is that of Edgar Allan Poe, who strikes a distinctively contemporary chord in his observation that could as well be addressed at the popularity of Wikipedia:

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.

Apparently Poe thought that things had been much better in the past. However, in early 16th century, we find Martin Luther complaining along the same lines that

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.

It was of course precisely thanks to the printing press that Luther’s ideas spread so rapidly all across the Europe — and subsequently this is what made the Reformation possible. The endless proliferation of mindless ephemera was also a great concern to Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, who wrote to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471:

Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.

However, it would be a mistake to regard Perotti’s concern as something new that only got sparked by Gütenberg’s innovation some twenty years prior. Fourteen centuries before him we find Seneca writing to Serenius:

What is the good of having  innumerable books and libraries, whose owner can scarcely read through their titles in his whole lifetime?  A great number of books overwhelms  the learner instead of instructing him; and it is much better to devote yourself to few authors than to skim through many.

It would thus seem that if the plentitude of sub-par writing were to make us stupid, it probably would have happened already a long long time ago — and while it is certainly possible that iPad or Facebook is the last straw, I personally find at least some solace in the fact that we have made it thus far quite all right.

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