Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.01.18

From the Editor's Disk

Ancient Greece has never been more accessible.
So speaks Walter Englert of Reed College on the promotional flyer for PERSEUS, the new multimedia hypertextual system for Macintosh. BMCR hopes to have two substantial reviews of this system at an early date, and what I have to say here is not by way of a review of the system: I'm happy to stipulate that it is excellent, and happier still to state unequivocally that it is the wave of the future. More, better, faster please: I'm in that way of computer-zealot myself. But something about those words of Prof. Englert (who is a Bryn Mawr Commentator himself, by the way, and so a sort of unindicted co-conspirator in Hamilton Enterprises, Inc., a non-profit alternative to the hairshirt) set me adrift. Access to Ancient Greece is what we've all been dreaming about, in a way, ever since the Alexandrian librarians cooked up this cockamamie profession, and the passion has burned more or less brightly in different places ever since. I wonder, just wonder mind you, if we aren't nearing the point when access becomes overkill. Suppose the advance of classical philology and communication technology becomes so successful that anybody, just anybody, can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch the glory that was Greece, from an armchair in Bryn Mawr or Portland. Are we prepared to lose what we will lose then? Have not the remoteness and the difficulty been part of the attraction? Will we not all, on having the favors of our long-wooed mistress so readily available, grow bored and pass on to other curiosities? Will we all be turned into tourists, all passion spent but plenty of dollars left to see whatever else is there for our jaded curiosity? Perhaps these thoughts would not have arisen had I not just this same day had lunch with an older colleague, a man of manuscripts and incunabula, just back from weeks in the library at Wolfenbuettel, exultant with discovery. I was pipedreaming for him a way to take an old established scholarly undertaking now headquartered in Europe and juicing it up for the new age. Would not, I argued, this particular project be betterproduced as a computer database? Could one not read the bound pages of the existing volumes as data crying out to be automated? Richard Rouse argues that the west invented printing when it needed to and when it had already been trying to do with manuscript page-layout and the like things that were better done with the mechanically regular printed page. Is this project, I vaporized, not in the same boat? Would it be appropriate to make a discreet approach to explore ways and means of making it more, better, faster? Well, sure, my colleague said, and we fantasized a bit. But then walking back from lunch, he had the caution to add: electricity is not forever; these old books that I use in Wolfenbuettel stay around in spite of the incuriosity of their owners, and they treasure their secrets until someone comes along asking for them. Will the computer be the same way? Well, the short answer, the hasty answer, is sure, of course. Archiving, backup, long-term storage, we'll work these things out. The old film Alain Resnais made about the Bibliotheque Nationale that he called 'Toute le Memoire du Monde' -- we can outdo that; we'll forget nothing. But perhaps that's the good news and the bad news all at once. If the supply of information is infinite, the theoreticians point out, then the value of each bit will be infinitely small. Too much, too easy, too accessible -- yawn, who cares? Why isn't there anything good on TV, anyway? Will the new age, in which we blithely imagine old scholarly projects going into eternal glory, turn out to be the age in which the human attention span shrinks to nothing? Where memory will all be externalized and where the fantasy of eternal present that Augustine identified with heaven turns out to be the hell, or at least the purgatory, of the here and now? Hmmm. Well, this is all by way of saying that Perseus and its brethren, including any similar projects I get involved in myself, are powerful and mysterious new friends, and the implications of playing with them remain to be seen. When I am in my e-zealot mode (which is most of the time nowadays), friends sometime wonder aloud why I am not more nostalgic, more of a dinosaur, more inclined to maunder about the pleasures of the leather-bound volume in the firelit study. The answer is that I think every good e-zealot does have that nostalgia-buff locked up somewhere inside, and when pressed isn't quite sure whether to charge off into the new world or just go quietly home and read a good book. I quote, till my friends turn away in distraction, an old German I read about in Sandys (and who, with my luck, will probably now turn out to be a figment of my imagination: Eustace Tilley can check me; I had alluded to this more briefly in an earlier Ed.'s Disk), who had a letter from a friend (this was about 1830 I think) inviting him to go to Greece for the winter (a sort of 19th century Perseus project, if you will). What? he exclaimed. Go all that way, just to see a few old statues with broken noses? No, sir, he said, I will stay here, sitting by my stove, reading Greek scholiasts, which is the proper business for a man. He's got the right idea, I say to myself, even as the clock creeps around to midnight and I have only another half hour of e-mail to get through before crashing for the night ...