On Ancient Texts

On Ancient Texts

A few years ago, I gave away my electric razor, and purchased a double-edged safety razor. Using an electric razor every morning, though quick and easy, is a chore that needs to be done – a banality in a life riddled with banalities (i.e. waiting for the bus, feeding a pet, washing one’s hands, looking for the right key to a lock, et cetera). I have found that the process of warming my brush, lathering soap, and gently running my razor against my skin has turned this mundane task into a ritual of sorts (plus, I get a much closer shave, which certainly doesn’t hurt). Though the amount of time it takes me to shave has likely quadrupled, I think that, in a very small and subtle way, this transition has enriched my life.

I find a similar phenomenological transition (albeit, reversed) to be apparent in the digitization of ancient texts. I am in no way disparaging the practice of digitizing ancient texts, as the practice’s many benefits are self-evident. However, the experience of holding a text in one’s hands is significantly distant from the experience of reading the text’s words on a screen.

Time passes, is passing, and has passed, stretching back an immeasurable length. As obvious as this is, there is a certain reverence one feels when holding with one’s own, bare hands a tribute to time’s magnitude. Of course, a digitized representation of an ancient artifact doesn’t necessarily obscure the artifact’s ancientness, but such a representation limits one’s experience phenomenologically; such a representation can cause (or allow) the reader/viewer to avoid the care, nervousness, surprise, frustration, and, importantly, reverence that one experiences when holding a testament of time.

Dragon Prayer Book:

  • The drop cap on the first page of the book not only occupies about a fourth of the space of the page, but is filled with images (the “titular” dragon, for example) and intricate designs. Overall, it is much more ornate than the Ovid book, P. Ovidii Nasonis Amatoria. Though largely faded, the backdrop of the drop cap seems to have covered most of the page that was not occupied by text. My first instinct was that this suggested something about the historical period: perhaps that the images and aesthetic choices in a book were considered much more valuable than they were when the Ovid book was printed. However, it is equally likely that, considering it is a prayer book, the images were intended to instill a certain mood (e.g. a sense of calm) before and while reading the book. With this in mind, the fact that the Ovid book is less intricately designed makes sense (as well as other factors that I will address when discussing Ovid).
  • The drop cap decorating the beginning of a paragraph in the ‘middle’ of the book spoke more to the book’s organization than the first drop cap. After our readings (and other online materials) and class discussions, I was prepared when approaching the Dragon Book to recognize the tremendous planning and organization that went into the book’s production. Every individual step of the book’s production (the parchment’s preparation, the transcribing of the text, the illustrations, the binding, et cetera) was a daunting task in itself, and, in order to ensure that no mistakes were made, each design had to be carefully planned. However, even had I not studied the process of creating such a book (or known that the pages were scored/ruled), I would have noticed this degree of required planning. The first page’s drop cap ostensibly required less planning in this sense, because the text could have been included after the design was completed. Here, however, the drop cap is in the middle of a page, and yet the text itself continues flawlessly, without, for example, excess spacing between lines.
  • Lastly, though not a specific page in the book, the side of the book (specifically, the slips of paper indicating the location of certain pages) is of particular interest to me. The book, unlike the Ovid, lacks page numbers, so its reader(s) were forced to insert their own markers in order to find specific pages. The small tabs were initially red, but the parts of the tabs protruding from the books had the color rubbed off, likely from use.

Ovid, P. Ovidii Nasonis Amatoria:

  • The first page of P. Ovidii Nasonis Amatoria is categorized by text, as opposed to images (like the Dragon Prayer Book). The drop cap is modest in comparison, and is fixed within a perfect square. This, again, could point to the book’s purpose, or to the book’s history. A book of poems, its focus is unsurprisingly on the text, as opposed to the Dragon Prayer Book, which likely focuses on religious experiences through the experience of reading it. However, in this case, the history of the book likely played a larger role in this difference. Being printed, the printers were more limited in their ability to express themselves artistically than a scribe or illustrator would have been.
  • A ‘middle’ page in the book suggests that my above hypothesis regarding the drop cap is correct. The lines are formatted perfectly, alternating between indented and non-indented lines, and the pages are numbered. The numbered pages reflect the book’s being printed because, prior to print, page numbers would be useless since it would be impossible to reference pages in unidentical handwritten books.
  • On one of the book’s last pages, the drop cap signifying the beginning of a new chapter further demonstrates the book’s focus on its text rather than on the visual experience of reading it. The first letter, ‘D,’ is simply larger than the other letters, with no other distinguishing features.

Digitized Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an:

  • The Qur’an appears to be bound in leather (though exactly what the material is is difficult to ascertain from the image), decorated with beautiful gold calligraphy and images. The book was written over 700 years ago, but the image suggests that it is in very good condition. Holding the book in my hands and examining the cover would, of course, offer a very different introductory experience to the book than the one offered by the digitized version. The overlaid text offers an overview and a history of the book, giving me an informative introduction as opposed to one characterized by nervousness and reverence, as above-described. Although I do realize that the book is beautiful, its beauty doesn’t instill awe as it likely would in person; I instead recognize its beauty the way I recognize the beauty of the Nasir Al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz, Iran.
  • Though it was written between 1304 and 1306, at least 150 years prior to the Dragon Prayer Book (given that the Dragon Prayer Book was written after 1461), and though it was written in Cairo, likely not where the Dragon Prayer Book was written, this Qur’an bears some similarities to the Dragon Prayer Book. The first page of this Qur’an (as well as others throughout the book) features a gorgeous illustration before leading to the text on the following pages. This, though rooted in a different religion/culture than the Dragon Prayer Book, similarly suggests that the experience of reading the book was valuable to the book’s producers. Pages 10 and 11 contain only text, written in a large and clear manner. The explanation superimposed over the text explains that the pages’ heading states the name of the chapter: knowledge that would have been impossible for me to ascertain were the book not digitized. It is here (of course, inter alia), that the book’s digitization shows its value.