Blurbum Romanum

Tip o’ the pileus to Nigel Webb (via Twitter) for pointing us to an item on the history of book blurbs at The Millions … inter alia, of course, there’s the link to ancient Rome:

If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.

Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.

… to which we might add an excerpt from a piece written by Mary Beard on the same subject a few years ago for the New York Times (which I don’t think I linked to), again, inter alia:

All the same, there’s a lot in the Roman literary world that seems quite familiar two millenniums later: money-­making booksellers, exploited and impoverished authors, celebrity book launches and career-making prizes.

Like Martial, most Roman writers knew that the profits of their writing ended up in the pockets of the booksellers, who often combined retail trade with a copying business — and so were, in effect, publishers and distributors too. At best, the author received only a lump sum from the seller for the rights to copy his work (though once the text was “out,” there was no way of stopping pirated copies). Horace, the tame poet of the emperor Augustus, made the obvious comparison: booksellers were the rich pimps of Roman publishing and authors, or even the books themselves, were the hard-working but humiliated prostitutes. He refers to his slim volume of poetry being “on the game, all tarted up with the cosmetics of Sosius & Co.,” his publishers. Not that Horace did so badly from his writing. In the absence of royalties he was, like most of the best-known authors in Rome, taken under the wing of a patron. In fact, Maecenas, Augustus’ unofficial minister of culture, set him up in a house.

Bookstores in Rome clustered in particular streets. One was the Vicus Sandalarius, or Shoemakers Row, not far from the Colosseum (convenient for post-gladiatorial browsing). Here you would find the outsides of the stores plastered with advertisements and puffs for titles in stock, often adorned with some choice quotes from the books of the moment. Martial, in fact, once told a friend not to bother to venture inside, since you could “read all the poets” on their doorposts.

For those who did go in, there was usually a place to sit and read. With slaves on hand to summon up refreshments, it would have been not unlike the coffee shop in a modern Borders. For collectors, there were occasionally secondhand treasures to be picked up, at a price. One Roman academic reported finding an old copy of the second book of Virgil’s “Aeneid” — not just any old copy but, the bookseller assured him, Virgil’s very own. An unlikely story maybe, but one that persuaded him to part with a small fortune to acquire it (rather more, in fact, than the combined annual wages of two professional soldiers). The risks on cheaper purchases were different. A cut-price book roll would presumably have fallen to pieces as quickly as a modern mass-market paperback. But worse, the pressure to get copies made quickly meant that they were loaded with errors and sometimes uncomfortably different from the authentic words of the author. One list of prices from the third century A.D. implies that the money needed to buy a top-quality copy of 500 lines would be enough to feed a family of four (admittedly, on very basic rations) for a whole year. If you settled for an inferior job, you could get a 20 percent discount.

Even if ancient writers did not make money from sales, many still wanted to announce to the world that their new volumes were now on the shelves. The Roman launch party took the form of select readings from the work, given semi-publicly or at exclusive invitation-only events, perhaps in the home of a rich patron. These could be just as frustrating for the author as the modern book launch where only half the expected guests turn up, drink a polite glass of wine and beat a hasty retreat without buying a copy. Pliny, writing in the early second century A.D., complained that in Rome “there was scarcely a day in April when someone wasn’t giving a reading,” and that the poor authors had to put up with small audiences, most of whom slipped out before the end anyway.

… and just for fun, we’ll end this post with the incipit of Lucian’s address to an illiterate book collector, who likely relied on such blurbity to choose the works he collected for appearances’ sake (via Sacred Texts: REMARKS ADDRESSED TO AN ILLITERATE BOOK-FANCIER … the whole thing is good for a larf):

Let me tell you, that you are choosing the worst way to attain your object. You think that by buying up all the best books you can lay your hands on, you will pass for a man of literary tastes: not a bit of it; you are merely exposing thereby your own ignorance of literature. Why, you cannot even buy the right things: any casual recommendation is enough to guide your choice; you are as clay in the hands of the unscrupulous amateur, and as good as cash down to any dealer. How are you to know the difference between genuine old books that are worth money, and trash whose only merit is that it is falling to pieces? You are reduced to taking the worms and moths into your confidence; their activity is your sole clue to the value of a book; as to the accuracy and fidelity of the copyist, that is quite beyond you.

And supposing even that you had managed to pick out such veritable treasures as the exquisite editions of Callinus, or those of the far-famed Atticus, most conscientious of publishers,–what does it profit you? Their beauty means nothing to you, my poor friend; you will get precisely as much enjoyment out of them as a blind lover would derive from the possession of a handsome mistress. Your eyes, to be sure, are open; you do see your books, goodness knows, see them till you must be sick of the sight; you even read a bit here and there, in a scrambling fashion, your lips still busy with one sentence while your eyes are on the next. But what is the use of that? You cannot tell good from bad: you miss the writer’s general drift, you miss his subtle arrangements of words: the chaste elegance of a pure style, the false ring of the counterfeit,–’tis all one to you. [...]

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One thought on “Blurbum Romanum

  1. Probably easier to find today than the classics I’m looking for. However, I admit to being particular, I’m looking for the Airmont Classic reprints. BTW, I played with the Greek heroes, Atalanta and Hercules, in my book, “Heroes of Ancient Greece”, which was a fun book to write.

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