The Theatre of a Renaissance Book (Part 3)

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

So we have had the grand procession of sages.  Surely it is time to start the treatise.  And we appear to, with an address to the reader, which is followed by a 12 page guide to deciphering Roman numerals.  A what?  I find it hard to see aesthetic merit in this insertion.  Utility seems to be winning out – this is a book about numbers, and you need to know the number systems you may meet.  In fact, buried in an unpaginated section of Numerorum Mysteria, I recommend this guide to anyone struggling with post Classical Roman number notation.  This is a top tip.  You heard it here first.

So now the treatise?  No.  Now the bibliography. Here I think the modern academic has something to learn from Bongo.  We like to put the bibliography at the back – ‘here are all the books which went into my book.’  When did bibliographies move to the back in any case?  The final position reflects the official purpose of the bibliography as an extra reference work, a place to look up books referred to in the text.  And if you are using standard referencing systems, putting the full title of the books you have referred to somewhere at the back saves space.  It is all about utility and economy, purposeful, professional.

Of course, bibliographies can be used in that way, but everyone knows that that isn’t what they are for.  Bibliographies are a form of display.  Even in my lifetime, they seem to have become more and more huge, and often need to be split into several subsections.  If these were headed truthfully, they might read ‘Books I actually read’; ‘Books I dipped into’; ‘Books I nicked quotations from out of other books’, ‘Books I pretend I used to get information I actually found in Wikipedia’; ‘Books I didn’t use at all, but found in someone else’s bibliography’.

Clearly no-one can string two words together on any subject without having memorised all the existing literature on the topic, and a great deal of literature which has almost nothing to do with the topic at all.  Why?  Because it isn’t worth listening to anyone but an expert, and clearly an expert knows about all these books.  The best experts know about the most and best books.  It is important not to leave any important predecessors out, even if you didn’t find them particularly useful on this occasion.  If I ever do bring out my article on Stoic ethics, I will be sure to cite the seminal book of Max Pohlenz, written in 1940, in magnificent but impenetrable scholarly German.  As his work was ground-breaking, his scholarship lives on in writings I can actually read without crying, but leave him out of the bibliography? Only an imbecile wouldn’t acknowledge Pohlenz.

So the bibliography turns out to be part of dramatising the author’s expertise, and Bongo rightly puts it here at the front.  The other function of a modern bibliography is to enable fellow scholars to augment each other’s kudos and marketability by accumulating citations.  Please cite my book 51DakMTrmtL._SR600,315_PIWhiteStrip,BottomLeft,0,35_SCLZZZZZZZ_

Bongo has his own way of ensuring citations which we will come to in the fourth and final part of this post.  If he wanted to endorse his colleagues, he would presumably write Latin verse about them in their own books.  The purpose of his bibliography – which is more properly a list of authorities, is to show that he has mastered all relevant authorities from ancient to modern times.  No change there.

And has he?  The entries are alphabetical, giving the name of the authority only.  Bongo makes sure he has entries for every letter of the Latin alphabet.  In the true spirit of modern bibliographical display, there is no distinction of relevance, extent or quality.  Did he read all these authors?  Clearly no more than usual.  Already I have found a few ‘tells’.

Firstly some of the authorities are not authors at all, but just ancient authorities mentioned or described in the literature he has read.  So Aegyptii sacerdotes does not mean that he has been reading Egyptian texts any more than Zoroaster, filling out the Z section means that he has secret knowledge of the lost works of Zoroaster.  Bongo also rejoices in quotation, and often sources quotations within secondary works, enabling him to quote both the original source and the source where he found it.  A good example of this is the Apollinis oracula.  The quotation Bongo uses from this ‘source’ on p. 97 is actually from Eusebius.  Marginal references are rarely complete, and sometimes fit quite badly with the substance of the point they accompany, suggesting that Bongo is actually dependant for both on some other work; on p. 100 his account of the story of the Vestal Claudia contains elements inconsistent with its appearance in the supposed source, Herodian.  He also misattributes on p.97 (to Aratus) a quotation from Arator, accidentally depriving himself of another authority; perhaps another indication of indirect acquaintance.

However, Bongo is by no means grasping in his search for the perfect range of authorities.  He cites, for example, Theocritus, but not Callimachus, whom he also quotes.  I suspect this type of inconsistency is typical.  Bongo also refrains from bulking out the list with the titles of all the different books which appear in his text and marginalia.  As long as he demonstrates knowledge of all the ancient greats and the Italian moderns, he is satisfied.   Nor is there anything to help you locate any of the specific books – he has read them so you don’t have to.  In fact, given the difficulties of book distribution even after printing, you will be mercifully unable to get hold of many of them.  His aim is to become a new authority, and his bibliography tells you which books you don’t have to read, if you read his –  at least on the topic of Numerorum Mysteria.

Pietro Bongo teaches us that bibliography is largely symbolic.  His approach assures you of the expertise of the author and, rather than suggesting further reading, represents the new book as the culmination of all previous scholarship.  This is not a model which fits with the modern proliferation of books, which is more that of an infinite conversation, and should, theoretically, lead to infinite bibliographies.  I suggest scholars learn from Bongo.  Perhaps we can ditch the exhaustive bibliographies.  Maybe we could just keep one huge cross referenced bibliographical index online and actual, meaningful references within books could link to it.  And as there won’t be any need for a unique bibliography in each book,  maybe each new author could solemnly declare on her title page that she has read all the proper authorities (or ‘as many as may be useful and sufficient’) and get, say, the Queen to sign it off.  There could be a University Crest and the Royal Coat of Arms and curly writing.  And of course, a few of your colleagues could write poems about how impressed they are with you.  I think this would be extremely reassuring, aesthetically pleasing,  and just as useful as what people do now.







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