Deep in the stacks of the New College library at Edinburgh University, I came upon a book in the open shelves with a date of 1611. Once the staff had been notified, this book, which had simply aged in place over the centuries, was quickly moved to special collections. It is the dilemma of many a writer that books seldom see the light of library reading lamps. This episode came to mind as a friend shared an interesting story about doodles. Historian Erik Kwakkel has one of the most enjoyable jobs in history (seems appropriate). His research takes him to old books, and by “old” I mean handwritten, to look for pen trials—how pens were tried out before serious writing began. A lot may be learned from not just the words, but how they were formed. A different friend I knew was working on the forensic study of the order of stylus strokes in cuneiform writing. It was completely fascinating. With the right tools, you can find out in just what order strokes were made in clay, their depth, and a host of other information such as the right- or left-handedness of the scribe. Writing reveals the writer. In any case, Kwakkel has a great excuse for looking at doodles.
One point in this fun story, however, struck a serious note with me. Scribes were, in final copy, expected to be completely anonymous. Their labor was to go unremarked through history. We owe them some of our greatest treasures, and in a bizarre back-formation, modern scholars give these anonymous scriveners names such as “the tremulous hand of Worcester,” in a vain attempt to recover them. In rare instances we are given the names of scribes. Some may have been creators as well. Most will remain forever nameless. Those who love books may be excluded from them by their very love.
There once was a joke that went around that asked “what do you call a writer who actually has a job?” The answer? “An editor.” In the old days, anyway. Now you can earn university degrees in publishing and editors very quickly vanish into the background, like the ninjas of literacy. Like those ancient scribes who, perhaps bored by the rote task of copying out somebody else’s words, left little doodles behind in the margins as their own attempt at immortality. In many ways this blog is my chance to offer a few doodles to the world. I used to be (and still hope to be) a content producer, but now I understand that content has no room for doodles. The serious business of publishing is all about showcasing the author whose ideas are worth spreading. Oh, there’s a subtext here, all right. A palimpsest, one might say. However, like the anonymous doodlers of history, many of us scribble away awaiting future discovery, long after our names are irrecoverable.