When we walked into the classroom, seven candles floated in the dark. As my eyes adjusted, I took in the table, where the candles stood by leather-bound books, printed letters, and blank pages of cardstock, casting a glow across the surface of the table like little islands. Professor Cordell instructed us to sit down, pick a spot, and either read from a book for a time, copy the letter for a time, or a mixture of the two.
I noticed at once that both the book and my letter were from the nineteenth century. The book was Morse’s Geography, printed in 1820, while the letter was by Edgar Allen Poe, composed on June 4th, 1848. I decided to take up the task of writing first. The illuminated light from the candle threw light in a radius of six to ten inches, so that in order to write, I needed to move my paper and pencil closer to the warm radiating light at the center of my space. I was seized with my first decision- would it be better to transcribe the text as a simulacrum of the page itself, preserving line breaks, handwriting, etc.? I decided as I am not a photocopier, I would not try to reproduce the handwriting, and as for the line breaks, there were none. Edgar Allen Poeís handwriting was neat: only a few words were difficult to understand due to dim light and their placement near a darkened edge of the letter.
The lead of the pencil scratched softly against the cardstock, and my fingers, slippery with sweat, necessitated me to move my hand sporadically to adjust to the feeling of a pencil in my hands. I found myself craning forward in my seat in order to write clearly. It brought back memories of standardized tests and the journal I kept throughout my grade school years: two very different memories but not unpleasant ones. The light of the candle flickered at times, requiring me to blink my eyes in order to keep up with the roving flame.
I thought of Edgar Allen Poe, penning this letter about a matter of publication, a debate he was embroiled in with another editor. I wondered if he had written by candlelight- of course he had! Inspiration calls even in the darkest hours of the night, and in the nineteenth century, the technology best suited to answer to the task of writing late at night (or in dim hours of the day) was the candle, a beeswax taper that could be snubbed out when no longer needed or jammed into a holder when required. Of course, the attitude of sitting hunched forward brought my physical form into the equation as well- my body also served as technology, a human stand which would allow me to tilt the book towards the candle to best reflect the light at various degrees. The strain placed on my body did not tire me as thoroughly as the movements of the pencil did, but the connection between my hand and the medium felt nearly organic after about ten minutes. In Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book, the connection between media and the human becomes tenuous at times: “Some scrolls were wound around rods that extended beyond the top and bottom of of the roll to facilitate opening and closing. This umbilicus (a term that points to the rollers’ centrality but also suggests a Cronenbergian connection between the hand of this cord and the text at the other) could act as a weight if allowed to drape over the table’s edge…” (20). The connection between the medium and the human aspect of my body drew comparisons between Cartesian mind-body separation: the uneasy relation between the material of my body and the medium of the format of letter-writing.
As I perused the geography tome, the format of the book, with its browning pages, smelling of its own decay, was familiar to me. The linen rag composition of the paper afforded a soft finish to the pages, and I had to be careful not to crease the already-crumbling corners. I noticed on some of the pages that on the center of the pages, a number would appear, sometimes with an asterisk, sometimes without. I recognized these marks as signature marks, to mark on the page where the fold occurred. I could not discern whether the book was a duodecimo or an octovo, but it was small in size, easily held in two hands. It had been printed in 1820, twenty-eight years before the letter by Edgar Allan Poe had been written- and yet, just because printing existed as a technology, it did not replace letter writing as a technology. As Meredith McGill argues in her article “Format,” “Just as mp3 files imply a model listener as well as theories about the limits of human perception, so print formats indicate an ideal reader and some sense of the contemporary cultural uses of particular kinds of printed works” (675). Books like this geography atlas had an ideal reader: it was much easier to hold near the candle than a 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper was and it was easy to tilt in order to read. The human connection between this book and its reader, even by candlelight, was a close one indeed.
The technology of the World Wide Web was not accessible to the general public until 1991: I was born in 1994. I have never known life without the existence of web-based technologies. Today, many sites (Facebook.com, Twitter.com, etc.) do not include the www. prefix which indicates their presence on the World Wide Web- and yet, without the web, they would cease to exist - to be illuminated by the web, the web must exist. In our use, the web becomes invisible- until it malfunctions, grows dim, flickers. Countless memes trawl through the expanse of the Internet daily: meme is a shortened form of the term “remember.” No wonder memes have become a touchstone of internet culture- their proliferation allows for rapid communication, memory of events, and archiving of those events. Without the Internet, memes, too, would not be as rapid or as widely cycled as they are today. Even analog memes, printed out on paper and ink, are usually sourced from the internet. The Internet serves as an instant archiving machine, cycling scraps of information even after they have lost all kairos, all sense of timely meaning.
By the time the lab concluded, I was successful in reading the chapters on Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island in Morse’s Geography. I learned that in 1820, Yale had 300 students, Vermont University had four professors, and Harvard had a library of 8,000 books. I also successfully copied over the first page of the letter I was given to copy. By the time we concluded, forty minutes had passed, and my handwriting had become less legible. I also felt a closer connection with the media before me: the book invited a close human connection, while the letter required me to change my physical orientation in order to ease transcription. The candle-light invited a close, tactile approach to writing and reading, which utilized the entire body as one read or wrote.