From Gutenberg’s Exile to the Bouquiniste

The bouquiniste peruses an edition of Voltaire printed in 1745.For many years I carried in my head an unfinished project that I called Gutenberg’s Exile. That phrase was shorthand for the complex relationship I have with books and reading. I was cut off from the printed word, expelled from the Gutenberg Revolution. A little twist of fate in my own DNA forced the expulsion. I felt the exile’s sense of loss and longing for a native land to which I could not return. I espied it from a distance, through a clouded lens. I listened for reports and rumors. Sometimes I swore defiantly to blow it up altogether, its barriers and its complacencies. Other times I mustered the exile’s resignation to move on and make a new life.

Throughout my wayward, molasses-like career in grad school, I entertained Gutenberg’s Exile as a dissertation topic. That doomed it from the start to the realm of avoidance and unmet obligation. In the margin of one proposal my graduate adviser wrote, “Where are you going with this — alienation?” The prospect of joining the ranks of the post-modern privileged who write impenetrable prose about cultural oppression didn’t light any fires for me. I did construct several sturdy essays exploring the literacy of blind readers. Literacy had a certain academic caché then, and the essays allowed me to ask more questions than I could answer. If time were but a stream in which I go a-fishing, I’d revisit and deconstruct every one of them. I nibbled around the edges of Gutenberg’s Exile but couldn’t swallow the whole enchilada. The closest I came to writing about it was a sketch about Soviet literature’s sardonic mistrust of the printed word. It mentioned Bakhtin’s thrifty recycling of an unpublishable doctoral dissertation on Rabelais, which he turned into cigarette rolling paper during the Nazi invasion. And there was Vladimir Voinovich’s hilarious dystopian vision of the future of literature in the novel Moscow 2042: writers then produced unread, self-erasing texts called paplesslit (paperless literature) so wood pulp could be turned into high-fiber processed food for a malnourished proletariat. The byproduct of this sustenance, too, was grimly conserved and recycled. My sketch approached the tone I wanted for Gutenberg’s Exile. It belonged in a blog, not a dissertation. If I can find a draft and convert its encoding, maybe I’ll publish it here.

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