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May 30, 2009

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Finally, You Too Can Be Marcus Aurelius

I am a sucker for long histories, especially when they’re summarized with simple schema. Phillip Greenspun wrote this for a talk on how the internet has changed writing, under the subhead “Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990”:

The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
  • the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
  • the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.

In the same essaylet, Greenspun has a subhead, “Marcus Aurelius: The first blogger?”:

Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 160 AD to 180 AD, kept a journal during a military campaign in central Europe (171-175). It was not available until after his death and not widely available until printed in 1558 as the Meditations

This was preserved because the author had been Emperor. How much ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked TCP/IP? [By 1700 BC, the Minoans were trading with Spain, had big cities with flush toilets, a written language, and moderately sophisticated metalworking technology. Had it not been for the eruption of Thera (on Santorini), it is quite possible that Romans would have watched the assassination of Julius Caesar on television.]

It’s not all since-the-dawn-of-civilization stuff — there are lots of examples of writing that really only works on the internet and more pedestrian things like the virtues of blogs over Geocities. “Webloggers generally use a standard style and don’t play with colors and formatting the way that GeoCities authors used to.” This shows how in the weblog, content becomes more important than form. (Psst— It also suggests that if Minoan civilization had survived and spread, Augustine’s Confessions might have been excerpted on a lot of home pages with lots of crappy animated GIFs.)

Via Daring Fireball.

Posted May 30, 2009 at 6:40 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Technosnark


I've long been enthralled by Aurelius and likewise by Michel de Montaigne, whom I believe is widely credited with creating the essay form. I never connected either to this notion of appropriate length or format, though.

Other getting lost gazing into a dark night sky, there is nothing so rapturous for me as reading something hundreds or thousands of years old that resonates perfectly with my life today. Surely this is one of life's richest pleasures.

Ooh la la , Les Essais! Double-M is the man. The Mountain Man. "Cannibals" is the one that gets the most ink in the academy these days, but for my money, "On Experience" and "On Books" are the two Montaigne daughters I'd take home with me.

There are a thousand and one fights to pick with Greenspun for lumping the entire print era together. I mean, early print was just WEIRD. It wasn't just like the late medieval book or totally like industrial print in the nineteenth or twentieth century. It was its own thing, as the sixteenth century juxtaposition of Montaigne and Marcus Aurelius suggests.

Greenspun says: "How much ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked TCP/IP?"

Sorta begs the question: How much modern wisdom will be lost because common citizens have TCP/IP, and don't print stuff out before the Internet succumbs to planned obsolescence?

Posted by: Dan on June 1, 2009 at 04:35 PM
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