The Magazine


The translation of the printed word into cyberspace.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By JAMES GARDNER
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To remedy the deficiencies (relatively speaking) in Project Gutenberg’s foreign language offerings, it helps to go to sites linked to the national libraries of the languages in question. Even if you can’t read a word of Spanish, you ought to feel awe before the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. The 17th-century dramatist Lope de Vega is in all likelihood the most prolific dramatist in human history: He is estimated to have written over 1,800 plays, of which the site offers 425—because only 425 of these plays survive. The site offers similar depth for authors like Tirso de Molina and Quevedo, who were scarcely less prolific than Lope. And there are sites every bit as good for German, Catalan, Italian, and French literature. Even if you don’t read Russian, it is nice to know that every surviving syllable of Tolstoy, that prolific titan, is available on one website, from his novels and journalism to his diaries and correspondence.

Regarding dead languages like Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, things are even better. Every scrap of Latin that survives from antiquity is available online, as are most medieval texts. Meanwhile, the estimable Dana F. Sutton of the University of California, Irvine, has assembled the Philological Museum which, over the past 10 years, has assembled links to more than 33,000 Latin texts written during or since the Renaissance, an astounding number given that it probably represents half of all the texts ever published in Latin in that period.

Taken altogether, the result of this torrent of texts is a revolution in the interaction of the individual and world literature. Now the great corpus of world literature, rather than being something you purchase in single, costly installments, becomes a kind of glowing mass that is out there in the ether, available to everyone everywhere, at all times and at no cost, a thing as freely available as air or water or sunlight.

Many of these texts, it is true, are in PDF files which, to date, e-readers have been very bad at accommodating. That is a shame, since all of the texts scanned by Google Books are in this form. The issue, however, has largely been solved by the newest version of the Amazon Kindle, whose screen is far larger and looks much better than the earliest version. And now the iPad is the first e-reader to offer color, a major step in their merging with newspapers and magazines.

Another overlooked glory of the e-reader is that it permits you to create your own personalized edition of the work in question. You can append an introductory essay or the author’s entry from Wikipedia, add annotations that are also available online, or add whatever other texts and commentaries you please.

There are those who will lament the gradual passing of the physical book as an institution and work of art. And there will also be some who will decry the e-reader on the grounds that it cheapens the act of reading. It is true that the more difficult it is to obtain a text, the more we cherish it once it is acquired. When only two copies of Lucretius existed in 14th-century Europe, and when you had to trek across an entire continent just to read it, surely you valued the opportunity more than most of us can imagine today. But that must not detract from the infinitely greater service to culture and to the study of world literature that comes from the prospect of having these works available to us for free at any moment and in any land.


James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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