Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Edward Gibbon, Mythbuster

The Temple was destroyed A. C. 70; the attempt of Julian to rebuild it, and the fact related by Ammianus, coincide with the year 363. There had then elapsed between these two epochs an interval of near 300 years, during which the excavations, choked up with ruins, must have become full of inflammable air. The workmen employed by Julian as they were digging, arrived at the excavations of the Temple; they would take torches to explore them; sudden flames repelled those who approached; explosions were heard, and these phenomena were renewed every time that they penetrated into new subterranean passages. This explanation is confirmed by the relation of an event nearly similar, by Josephus. King Herod having heard that immense treasures had been concealed in the sepulchre of David, he descended into it with a few confidential persons; he found in the first subterranean chamber only jewels and precious stuffs: but having wished to penetrate into a second chamber, which had been long closed, he was repelled, when he opened it, by flames which killed those who accompanied him.
The passage above comes from Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and concerns Julian the Apostate's failed attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple. For much of Christianities history, the failure of this last pagan emperor to discredit scripture by attempting to contradict the word of Christ was seen as a miraculous vindication of the faith.

Two millennia later Gibbon, equipped with the tools of the Enlightenment, made perhaps the first secular analysis of an event earlier treated by Church historians with little scrutiny.

In the following excerpt he gives a more reasonable explanation that fits the accounts, and in the process reveals what a little time and knowledge of chemistry can do to bring down ancient perceptions:
It is a fact now popularly known, that when mines which have been long closed are opened, one of two things takes place; either the torches are extinguished and the men fall first into a swoon and soon die; or, if the air is inflammable, a little flame is seen to flicker round the lamp, which spreads and multiplies till the conflagration becomes general, is followed by an explosion, and kill all who are in the way. - G.
My intent in discussing the excerpt above and the footnote that follows it were not so much to display a great writer's powers of observation and irony so much as to display those qualities of the Enlightenment at work here in miniature.
Gibbon characterized himself as a “philosophic historian”. Much has been made of this title, which I won't go into depth about here, but briefly it is a change in the way in which historians did history. No longer were explanations for events to be sought for in the divine will or superstition, but evidence was to be judged and scrutinized without recourse to theology or fate. As with the birth of the sciences, explanation for phenomena were to be sought in nature and no longer simply passed over as mystery. For much these same reasons the writing of history would pass from the hands of educated gentlemen of leisure such as Gibbon, and become the sole province of the “specialist”.

Whether we have lost or gained by this arrangement I leave it up to the reader to decide.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tolle Lege

It has been well over two years since I purchased, what has come to be generically termed, an e-reader. I have written two previous articles on the topic, and since then, I have had little reason to modify my original judgment's. To a bibliophile of the first water it has become a simply indispensable tool in my daily life, has in fact become almost a part of myself, and with a minimal investment to purchase, has in the long-run saved me perhaps hundreds of dollars. Yet, cynics and misapprehensions remain so I wish to set about clearing them away.

One complaint I continue to hear is the fear of being “locked-in” to a device, as though one were shackled to it till the end of time like Satan in his adamantine chains. This is only true within a limited context. If you own for example, as I do, an Amazon Kindle, there are thousands of titles you might purchase directly through Amazon's online store. This is the contentious part as, once purchased, you cannot technically then read those books upon any other e-reader (although you can still access them through any computer with a free reading app) due to something called DRM or, digital rights management. This is a bit of encoding that prevents you from easily doing what ever you wish with what you have just purchased. I say easily for, whatever a man hath done another may undo. A copy of the book can be quickly enough downloaded to your computer, ostensibly for “manual” uploading to the device, but this copy can then be released from DRM's protective custody and make its way in the world.

Again, with the Kindle, its MOBI format is incompatible with any other e-reader but, there are multiple methods of getting around this by simply converting the MOBI file into some other format. The means of doing this are so numerous and effortless to employ that, if you have any trouble doing it yourself after a little practice it may be doubtful if you should have a computer at all.

Most of these points are largely moot to me, as I have purchased only a few books from Amazon as they intended. The overwhelming majority of books at any one time on my device are what are colorfully referred to as “bootlegs”. Due to the ridiculous price of many e-book titles and the enormous restrictions placed upon what you may do with your purchase once you've purchased it, many see it as a duty to spread the wealth wherever they can, much as the bootleggers of prohibition saw it as their duty to drink to protest an unjust law---right.

As to the ethics, or lack of such, for this practice I have few qualms. As a writer who has never expected any payment other than a few patient readers, the dream that someone would wish to possess my words by going to this trouble to obtain them would be worth more than the few cents I would receive in royalties.

Finally, after all of these technical considerations I would like to talk about the medium of reading as a medium. As someone who considers himself to be a scholar, books are more like the paint one might use on a canvass than the canvass itself. A painter could care less about the appearance of the container in which the paint arrives, although they may quibble about the merits or demerits of a brand. Many bookish people, often ultra-liberal in other things become downright old-fashioned conservatives when it comes to the printed codex. I myself was at one time so enamored with it in this way I forgot its the paint that matters and not the tube its dispensed from.

In another essay I briefly detailed my old method of carrying a small, to put it lightly, library with me wherever I went. For anyone who reads as deeply and widely as a scholar must, any such arrangement becomes terribly circumscribing, and finally unsatisfactory. Besides the problem of portability, there is the factor of cost. The vast majority of my reading is naturally taken up with academic books and, for anyone who has gone to college even briefly can testify, they are not cheap. And so, unless one lives near a well-supplied academic library, or can afford to buy the needed volumes on demand, the amount of work one can do becomes increasingly limited. Texts beget texts as no scholarship arises in a vacuum, and the very frequently free digital copies of otherwise cost prohibitive tomes I can make away with, makes life just a little sweeter, and the scholarly drudge can use all the sweetness he can get.

What is more, as my title for this essay suggests, to have your library in a single space and at your command at any hour wherever you may be encourages an intensity and frequency of reading I had rarely known previously in my life. You no longer simply read books, you devour them.