Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Notes And Comments

On the Need for Erasure

Wilfred M. McClay

THR photo illustration.

The written word remains.

The first time I ever saw the words Littera scripta manet, they were inscribed on an exquisite little poster hanging beside the desk of a typographer employed by one of the last letterpress printers in North America. The meaning in English is “The written word remains,” a declaration that had an immediate appeal for me. Attributed to the Roman poet Horace, and embraced by the great English printer William Caxton, this ancient saying bespeaks a quiet pride in the weight and dignity of the written text, and especially in the permanence, fixity, and distilled authority of fine printing. The spoken word depends upon the flickering and inconstant flame of oral transmission for its survival. Not so the written word. The page on which it appears is a tangible thing, an embodied thing, one that occupies an enduring place in the world, a distinct niche in space and time, a home on one’s bookshelf. As such, the written word is more fully in the world, even as it shows a greater capacity to transcend the world, to raise our gaze above the immediate, replacing the world’s ephemera with enduring objects of contemplation.

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