Seductiveness of the Blank Book

What is the seductive appeal of a blank notebook?  Whenever I see them offered for sale, whether in a traditional legatoria in Florence or on the shelves of that discount store ending in Maxx, I have to stop myself, remind myself that I already have at least ten unused ones at home. (Actually, on the one occasion in my life so far that I found myself in a bindery in Florence, with marbled papers and leather spines and age-old craftsmanship all around, I did not in fact stop myself. I bought, after ages of agonizing decision between ravishing marbling here, or tooled leather there, a notebook which is, of course, too beautiful to use. So it is more truthful to say that when I see them on sale, I am tempted, always. And manage to resist, usually.)

It's to do with several things.  First, the shape of the book itself, the codex form. The way lifting the covers is like lifting the lid of a treasure box. The way the pages are nested, with the gatherings stitched safely into the spine, yet the leaves are free to move. They can be turned, forwards, backwards; when reading a book, you can see from the stack of pages ahead, how much longer you have to remain in that world. You can turn back to an earlier part of the story, re-enter the past, or anticipate the future, as we cannot do in life. The book holds past, present, and future in a capsule. 

And there is more, there is so much more one could say; I have said some of it in an essay exploring the evolution of the codex from the book-roll, and the importance of nursery rhymes, and the delights of early reading, and why we love books, their physicality, their heft. An essay rather longer than is usual in these sound-bite days (it's available for publication….anyone out there interested? Anyone?  Ah well….) because there is so much richness in the subject of the codex book.

The essay is a love letter to the codex book, and so is my novel Inscription. So it's ironic that I am currently in an agony of impatience because it is taking longer than expected at the printer's for the words to undergo the transformation into a physical volume, on paper, with pages, that you can hold and read, and pass (in my dreams!) from hand to hand.

Part of Inscription's story takes place at the end of the first century AD, around the time when, in Rome, a new object appeared in the shops: a gathering of parchment pages, literature on leaves of skin instead of in the traditional scroll. As Martial said, this made a good Saturnalia present; easy to travel with, long works compressed into a small space. Before that, there had been (it seems, though the mists of history obscure all this) parchment notebooks used by artisans; but a scroll was the proper place for any decent bit of writing. The codex did not catch on immediately, but over the next few centuries it grew more and more popular. (All this refers to the story of the book in Western Europe, of course; elsewhere, it is different). Now the codex has been our preferred book form for almost two thousand years. But for how much longer?

To return to the blank book, it's also seductive because it invites the act of writing. Writing by hand. There is such a physical pleasure in taking a pen, forming the letters, the little curlicues and upstrokes and dots and loops that mean something; in making something, in progressing through the pages. But the unwritten book, the book of the imagination, the book I think I will write when I contemplate the porous blank field of the page, that unladen ship that is a blank book, is always far superior to any scrawlings I actually produce. In fact, quite often I hesitate to mar the pages at all.  I open the book, riffle them a bit, and then (as I say in a poem about that moment, which, since this is an informal blog post, I can shamelessly, or almost shamelessly, haul into the discussion) I let the covers scallop shut.  Which is why I have so many unused notebooks.



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Ponza: island of history, and mystery

Off the coast of Italy, in the Tyrrhenian sea, there is a small archipelago: the Pontine Islands. They are Ponza, Ventotene, Zannone, Palmarola, Santo Stefano, and Gavi. The largest is Ponza. I first visited it in 1979, when the man who soon became, and still is, my husband planned a surprise trip there from the central Italian city where we lived.

I hesitate to tell what a magical place this is…..even to my small but loyal (!) readership. White volcanic cliffs, clear blue-green waters; pale-washed houses climbing the steep rocks, church with its cupola at the heart of the main town clustered round the harbour.

We returned many years later, along with two of our children, now almost grown up. On this second trip, I was looking at it differently. By then I was thinking about a book.

Ponza and Ventotene (then called Pontia and Pandateria) were, in Imperial Rome, places of exile, where emperors sent family members who annoyed them, or political enemies. Today, an island in the Mediterranean is a holiday dream, but in ancient Rome these were dreaded destinations. To be banished from the Empire's heart, in utter disgrace, living on a parched and primitive rock with fishermen, under supervision of soldiers, fearing every moment the emperor's assassins—this was a terrible fate. Augustus sent his daughter Julia to Ventotene; Caligula's mother Agrippina the Elder and his brother Nero (not the emperor) were exiled to Pandateria and Ponza respectively, and died on those islands, probably murdered or forced to starve themselves to death; and the list goes on. Among the names of famous exiles in the ancient world is that of Flavia Domitilla.

But there is confusion about Flavia Domitilla; ancient sources contradict each other. She is variously a mother of seven children sent to Ventotene, a young girl sent to Ponza, a Jew, a Christian; exiled for this reason, or for that. And from some kernel of historical truth there arose, over centuries, the hagiographical romance of Saint Domitilla, virgin martyr, one of Ponza's two patron saints, still celebrated with festival and flowers and the loyalty of the islanders. A loyalty that is recorded since at least the fourth century AD, and probably goes back to the first.

On Ponza, you can still see Roman ruins; parts of the old imperial villa, the remains of the fish-pools where the Romans raised fish (interconnected with sluice gates that could be dropped and lifted between the ponds), cellars that were once Roman houses, and Roman tunnels, including one that goes right under the island's rocky spine, at its wasp-waisted narrowest point, from one side of the island to the other.

Climbing the island's narrow paths, for it is a steep place with the main town clinging to the cliffside, I tried to imagine myself two thousand years ago, when Domitilla was sent here by an emperor who hated her, for reasons history has not made clear.

To walk down the Roman tunnel under the island's rocky mass, seeing on the tunnel walls the diamond-shaped traces of Roman brickwork, opus reticulata, reticulated or "net-like" work, is to dive back into the the past.

For years I traced the interconnected filaments. The book that came out of all this probes the places where history and hagiography meet, explores the gaps, and finds a way to reconcile the conflicting stories of the two exiled Domitillas. And from long ago emerges a companion for the exiled Roman girl, a woman with strange blue tattoos and unusual green eyes, a woman originally from distant Britannia. She has worked as a scribe (for there were some female scribes who took notes and acted as secretaries in ancient Rome.) On Ponza, in the heat and dryness of exile, she writes for comfort's sake, using parchment pages, an early version of the codex notebook.  And what she writes has survived…as the Nag Hammadi codices survived...or as the lists and letters written on thin wooden tablets were found two thousand years later in the mud of northern England at Vindolanda.

The scribe's parchment pages are read two thousand years later by a modern person, a woman who had also been to Ponza; a tiny scrap of land in the blue Mediterranean connecting them across the centuries. And as the modern woman reads the story of that long-ago scribe, she finds there is much more that links their lives. So much more that the voice from two thousand years ago has power to change her now.

A place can, sometimes, be a catalyst, even years later. One day I will go to Ponza again, and give thanks for the twisting paths—narrow, rocky and difficult, like those of the island itself—that finally led to a finished book, Inscription.