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Incunabula #1

by Susan Daitch

 " Incunabula #1" was originally published in Storytown: Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, 1996) 


      In 1789 the number of Frenchmen who could sign their name was one in two. The number of women who could sign their name was one in four. So someone else signed for you. One party was hired to commit forgery, but the substitution was considered entirely legitimate. Since over half the population required signatory stand-ins, some grew rich in service of the illiterate. The signers could act as doubles, could represent without bearing responsibility for the consequences of what was being signed. It was, for the stand-ins, a kind of ready-made disappearing act. 

        During the early part of the next century, more citizens became capable of signing their names, but only those who could pay eighty francs a year for subscriptions read newspapers. The average worker in Paris, according to records kept by government and private agencies, earned less than eighty francs a month, so this part of the population relied more on what they heard than what they read by chance. Information, after a certain number of repetitions, might grow increasingly distorted, but bits of paper found lying around in the street didn’t always contain the whole story either. Rumor and half-truths, hearsay and gossip gained tremendous currency. There was no other choice. Historians later wondered if this meant that one class lived in a blur of mistakes, while members of another conducted their lives in an atmosphere of accurate judgments and predictability. (The dilemma of the historians reflects their trust in print.) 

       Written civilization was held hostage by the near uniqueness and expense of all printed matter. Frozen in the ambiguous status of semi-precious object, books didn’t circulate and were often displayed but not read by their owners. Most thieves couldn’t read and thought books useless rather than objects of rarity and value. Printed matter was therefore relatively immune from theft. There are records of affluent people who turned their cash, jewelry, gold, lottery tickets, and paintings into vast libraries. Unknowing robbers who broke into these rooms turned away in disgust. 

       When the practice of printing books was transformed from small-time guild operations into businesses engaged in mass production, what had once been rare and available to only a few became something ordinary and taken for granted. Eventually, almost anyone could break into the territory of written civilization. Citizens didn’t have to own a castle in order to own a book. Thieves still closed the door on libraries in disappointment. It wasn’t just that books became less castle-like in expense, but also in meaning. Less remote, more accessible. But if citizens hoped to effect a kind of social advancement through literacy, they had to know what to read. In other words, to think of literacy as a way of improving your lot could be a mistake. 

       Those books/avenues didn’t necessarily lead anywhere. One would not, for example, get far reading the kind of cheap novels described as industrial fiction. The audience for such writing was referred to as vulgar readers, and it was felt that they threatened to swamp the marketplace with their desire for pulp, pornography, and general gossip. 

       As literacy and print production increased, two kinds of reading developed: narrative and non narrative. Reading books was one thing; reading leases, loan agreements, maps, catalogs, almanacs, and letters another. For a long time one rarely mixed with the other. Narrativity was considered the mark of feminine interests, and its absence signified the presence of more masculine pursuits. 

       An inventive strategy for selling books was the introduction of the serial. Episodic fiction popularized print. Readers wanted to know what happened next. . . . 

     Year                                          Number of titles published in France 

       1789                                                                                 2,00

       1889                                                                                 15,000 

       1914                                                                                 25,000 

       The anarchists wrote for each other. They didn’t involve themselves in the mass production of texts, nor did they engage in the tricks of procuring a large audience. They were excluded from legitimate publishing and so operated on their own small scale. 

       It began when a prefect of the police in the eleventh arrondissement needed a dependable source of information. Anonymously, through a series of mediators, he solicited writers and a printer and duped them into founding an anarchist magazine. Copies were delivered to the prefecture and the anarchists’ meetings were recorded. The magazine was so successful, many imitators were encouraged to try to duplicate it. The prefect’s office soon became filled with incriminating journals, newspapers, diaries, and apocrypha. Computer-coded copying machines were installed, and corridors became lined with file cabinets. Each morning the prefecture would be crowded with imitation anarchists, twins (identical and fraternal), photographers and their assistants, homunculi, actors, tearjerkers, iconoclasts, duplicates, replicates, twins of twins. Along the walls were stacked photocopies of photocopies going back hundreds of generations, and even the last blurred copy was filed somewhere. Wings had to be added to the prefecture, and extensions added to the wings. New archives were built. Card catalogs were put on microfilm. More personnel were hired: the duplicitous and the genuine. There were distinctions between the two, but the distinctions were often contradictory. The director of the bureau of internal plagiarism resigned, and his office was converted into headquarters for the repairmen of the photocopying machines, now on permanent staff. They soon developed their own archival system. The archives contained fragments mutilated by the machines but upon whose forgotten usefulness the repairmen thought a promotion might hinge, and so these were saved.

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