Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The teeth of time

Knowing my affection for Lucretius, daughter Margaret gave me Steven Greenblatt's Swerve: How the World Became Modern for Christmas, quite independently of my earlier comments on this blog. The book centers on the rediscovery of Lucretius' long philosophical poem On the Nature of Things in the early 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini and its reintroduction into Europe -- a vision of the world dramatically at odds with the supernaturalist Christian worldview that had reigned more or less unchallenged for centuries.

I will have much more to say about the book over the next few days, but for the moment let me focus on the chapter called "The Teeth of Time," in which Greenblatt describes the forces working against the survival of classical manuscripts, including book burnings by persons of intolerant faiths, the recycling of writing surfaces, wars, fires, and of course bookworms, a generic name for insects that feed on papyrus and parchment.

When Robert Hooke in the 17th century described the tiny insects he observed under his newly-invented microscope, he called bookworms "one of the teeth of time." Of these voracious enemies of books, I have some experience.

I've mentioned before our constant battle against termites here on the island. So far, they have left our books alone, but in the long months we are away they have helped themselves to virtually everything else. Meanwhile, my wife volunteers as assistant to the librarian at the island high school, and there books are the main course on the termites' menu.

The high school is a cluster of prefab buildings set on the highest point of the island, with spectacular views to the sea on both sides. The termites have no interest in the view; they live their glutinous lives in the dark, chewing up the lifeworks of writers like me. Each winter when my wife arrives, bug-ridden books go out in the trash. I'm kept busy ripping out and replacing shelving that has been reduced to powder. The "teeth of time," indeed.

Given the long neglect of "pagan" authors during the Christian era -- all those papyri and parchments left moldering in uncared-for piles, is it any wonder that so little of the Greek and Roman authors survived, and of those that did only as hand-written copies of the ancient books.