Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fear of Oblivion

Prolific French historian Roger Chartier’s new book, Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), considers the tension between preservation and obliteration in literary texts. Chartier starts the book with this assessment: “The fear of obliteration obsessed the societies of early modern Europe. To quell their anxiety, they preserved in writing traces of the past, remembrances of the dead, the glory of the living, and texts of all kinds that were not supposed to disappear.” Chartier continues, “This was no easy task in a world where writing could be erased, manuscripts misplaced, and books existed under perpetual threat of destruction” (p. vii). In other words, it was a period much like our own.

Those interested in the archival impulse will find references in his literary analysis that are of interest, with considerations to the use of wax tablets as the main means of writing in the medieval period, the emergence of autograph signatures and the use of scribes, the availability of printed almanacs with blank pages for personal recordkeeping, the use of handwritten newsletters, and the rise and impact of printed texts. What Chartier discovers is that a great deal of writing was designed to be transitory, erased when they were no longer needed or when the content had been copied to other sources. Chartier’s scholarship is always worth some examination by those interested in textual transmission, documents, and the development of printing.