Books are fragile containers of knowledge, and that fragility leads inevitably to loss. Whether due to natural decay, accidental harm, or deliberate destruction, many of the books from the first millennium are simply no longer accessible to us. Yet this absence is itself worth examining, both as an aspect of reality and as a conceptual model. Historically, books were lost, burned, and dumped for various reasons, and the lingering remains of their manuscripts tell a story about what they signified. At the same time, the idea of lost books has maintained a powerful hold on our cultural imagination—and not only in negative ways. Absent books are generative, as they invite authors to write them into being; moreover, the act of forgetting can be viewed as an act of renewal, clearing the space for new things to be preserved.The series continues in May and June.
This panel will explore the constellation of questions that arise from absent books. What can books known only by title tell us about narratives of loss and about first millennium book culture? What role does gender play here? Are books attributed to women more likely to disappear, like the Cumaean Sibyl's burned volumes, and are narratives of loss more often connected to books ascribed to a female figure? To what extent are males constructed as the saviours of books? How can we understand historical impulses to censor and even burn books? And to what extent should our scholarly feelings of mourning or longing for absent books balance with an appreciation of the new productivity that results from their absence?
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