New book, old letters

Some comment related to an upcoming book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 years, Tom Standage.   A you might guess from the title, a historical take on social networks, which he defines as

two-way, conversational environments in which information passes horizontally from one person to another along social connections, rather than being delivered vertically from an impersonal central source. This exchange of information allows discussion and debate to take place within a distributed community whose members may never meet each other in person.


I’m a hair skeptical about the “social media” angle and am curious to see if it really coheres or is simply a book that would have been written under some different title in years past.  Something to do with information networks in the 1990’s or in the 1950’s Public Culture and Epistolary Culture…

The book starts with and seems to emphasize the late Roman Republic and in his previews of his book so far he’s heavily emphasizing Cicero’s letters.  My full take on wax tablets as iPad analogues will have to wait until I’ve had a chance to see the full volume, but I am very happy to for the reminder to revisit these letters.  Cicero’s letters to Atticus are an especially humane artifact of Classical culture.  And more rather than less so due to their cerebral, self conscious qualities.  The Latin, by the way, is pretty hard, harder than his speeches, a breezy mix of high/low: like you chat with your smart friends.  Here’s an exemplary bit from one of them.  Sophisticated chatter about feelings and politics from a highly influential yet perpetually intellectually roving man.

To Atticus (January 20, 60 BC):

My house is crammed of a morning.  I go down to the Forum surrounded by droves of friends, but in all the multitude I cannot find one with whom I can pass an unguarded joke or fetch a private sigh.  That is why I am writing and longing for you, why I now fairly summon you home.  There are many things to worry and vex me, but once I have you here to listen I feel I pour them all away in a single walk and talk.

Of private worries with all their pricks and pains I shall say nothing.  I won’t commit them to this letter and an unknown courier.  They are not ­very distressing (I don’t want to upset you), but still they are on my mind… As for the state, I am ready enough to do my part, but time and again the medicine itself injures the patient.  I need only summarize what has taken place since your departure for you to cry out that Rome is doomed.  I believe it was after you left that the Clodian drama came on to the stage, I thought I saw there a chance to cut back license and teach the young folk a lesson.  So I played fortissimo, put my whole heart and brain into the effort, not from any personal animus but in the hope, I won’t say of reforming our society, but at least of healing its wounds.

Then came the calamity of a bought, debauched trial. Mark what followed.  A consul was thrust upon us whom only philosophers like you and me could look at without a sigh. There was a blow!

[There follows much interesting detail about events of the time. Which were very interesting indeed.  Aforementioned Clodian drama and its aftermath prominent here.   Fascinating stuff, but there are an awful lot of proper nouns and elliptical references and therefore I excise.]

You see now what heavy seas we are in, and if between these lines such as they are read other things which I leave unwritten, rejoin us at long last.  The conditions here to which I am asking you to return are such that anyone might wish to run away from them, but I hope you value my affection enough to want to get back to that, even with all the accompanying disagreeables.  As to being registered in your absence, I shall see that a notice is published and displayed everywhere.  But registration at the very end of the census period is real businessman’s style.  So let us see you as soon as may be.  Keep well.

[This all from the fantastic Shackleton Bailey translation]

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Posted in history, literature

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