The first draft of this post started as a dull procession of facts about manuscript books—a natural danger, perhaps, of research based work. But the point of this is to generate new ideas. Here’s a not new idea that seems appropriate:
“Production not reproduction.” [Phillip Zimmerman]
How is scribal production (essentially the slow, embodied, re-production of a text) an act of production? Does the copying out of a text allow a reader to participate in it differently? Beyond copying and staying within the text, how does rendering it visually (incorporating images and “decorated” letters, designing/typesetting) and threading it through the structure of a book (a reproducible time-structure) change the way in which we read? Is the term “read” even appropriate anymore?
The hand-mechanical activity of the scribe is devotional, meditative. But the content matters less (to me) than the action itself. It’s about understanding a text physically, bodily, experientially. Not moving through a building as a temporary occupant, but actively participating in its construction, living and working in it, becoming a shaper of space and time, of knowledge and experience.
If possible (and it’s usually just a matter of time) I like to completely retype a text that I am working with (if I didn’t write it in the first place). Is this a waste of time? An obsessive habit? An invitation to “scribal error?” In my experience, the re-production of a text letter by letter allows me to understand it more thoroughly, more minutely, than “simply” reading. It’s like studying a text on an atomic level, like taking apart and rebuilding a machine in order to understand how it works. Hand typesetting provides the same kind of experience. It is a kind of reading that does not posit the text as before the reading, but a kind of reading that actively creates the text here and now, as an immanent, ongoing construction. Not eternal and unchanging, but experienced always in the present through constant change and repetition.