Why do we care about old writings?

A few years ago when I was in college, one of my professors organized a small group of interested students and took us up to the Cleveland art museum. The purpose of our visit, a touring exhibit of religious artifacts from medieval Europe, was interesting, but that wasn’t what lured me there. It was the museum’s permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts.

These manuscripts date from the Middle Ages. Every page was carefully copied by hand, and they didn’t just stop there. Illuminating a manuscript with (real) gold, silver, and bright colors in illustrations and elaborate first letters turned them into works of art. The sort of books you took the time to create like this were held in high value (many are religious texts).

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo of Cleveland’s “The Glory of the Painted Page” collection

It’s no secret I love books. But most of the books on my shelves are, in the strictest sense, disposable and replaceable. They were impersonally mass-printed in a factory. Any meaning that particular copy has is unique to me. But for the handwritten manuscripts each copy is unique. They’re irreplaceable. And they were created with love.

That’s also true of the ancient writings I saw yesterday. The Ancient Hebrew Scroll Project is one of only 2 or 3 complete sets of the Tanakh (Old Testament), and it’s the only one you’ll ever have a chance to see. It tours in public and there’s never any admission fee. The oldest scroll is a 600 year old Torah. Others are around 250 years old, with the exception of some scrolls too rare to obtain old copies (those are newly commissioned). Several survived the Holocaust, including a Haftorah that was bayoneted six times by Nazis.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The beginning of Psalm 119 on a scroll written in 2009. Notice you can see the lines are written in sets of 8, each starting with the same Hebrew letter (that’s why it’s divided alphabetically in your English Bibles; because of the type of poem/song it is)

Every single Bible scroll, the new and the old, was created the same way. Two Levites stand holding a completed scroll open before a scribe. The scribe reads one word aloud, then writes it using a pen made from a turkey feather dipped in ink made from gall nuts, gum-Arabic, and ash. He does this for every single word with the exception of the YHWH name of God. For this word, he will not speak it aloud and before writing it he washes his hands and takes up a pen only used to write the Name.

Once the scroll is finished, the scribe counts every letter to make sure it adds up to the correct number for that scroll. If it passes that test, he gives it to another scribe for re-counting, spell-checking, and format inspection. If that scribe gives it the go-ahead, it’s given to another scribe. Only after two scribes double-check the first scribe’s work is the scroll kosher.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Latter (aka “Minor”) Prophets. Scroll written the late 17th Century

“So what?” some people ask. Who cares about hand-writing things like this in the age of computers? And yet this is how the Bible was preserved intact and unchanged for thousands of years. It’s the only way any writing from pre-1440 got passed down to us. There’s something about the process itself that lends meaning to the books and scrolls created with such careful attention.

New, fast, and disposable isn’t always better. There’s value in taking time to pour love and great care into something that will last. That’s one of the lessons the old writings teach us. They give us a chance to stop and ponder what we value. Something preserved in this way has to matter or it’s not worth taking the time.

Why care about old writings? (or, On Torah Scrolls and Illuminated Manuscripts) | marissabaker.wordpress.com

If there were no computers or printing presses any more, which writings would you value highly enough to copy by hand letter by letter so nothing was lost?

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Not Wanting To Write

It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon Sunday as I write this. Usually by this time I’m either proof-reading a completed post for Monday or wrapping-up my work on a finished idea. What’s worse, I don’t even I care that haven’t written a post yet. I mean, I’d probably care tomorrow when I wake up and realize I failed all of you readers, but at this point I’ve had too little sleep and too much Netflix to function as my normal self.

Well, perhaps not entirely. At least I’m writing about not wanting to write. It’s a start. I’ve been writing professionally long enough to know you can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike if you want to get a blog post, article, story or book written. People who do that aren’t writers.

Not Wanting To Write | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo credit: “Content writer” by Ritesh Nayak, CC BY-SA via Flickr

If you aren’t a writer you can get away with not writing when you don’t want to. Hobbies and pastimes are voluntary. But when writing is what you do you don’t just stop. In fact, if you’re doing things right, most of the time it feels like you can’t stop writing. For writers, not-writing should feel stranger than writing.

There’s a myth out there that writing is easy (“Oh, so you’re a writer? That’s cool. I might write a novel in my spare time some day”). It’s not. Yes, there will be days when the words flow out and you’re convinced what you’re writing is pure genius and you just know these words have the power to touch people’s souls. But mostly you have to sit down everyday with your pen or your laptop or your typewriter and make the words move from brain to fingers.

 

Struggling to write is perfectly okay just so long as you don’t give up. I suppose it’s that way with most things, actually. Anything worth doing is going to be hard at some point. What’s important is that we don’t stop, at least not for long. By all means take a break, eat a little chocolate and watch some anime (my sister hooked me on Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood), but don’t stay there.

It’s about 7:30 in the afternoon as I finish writing this. Look at that — we’ve got a finished blog post, even with the distractions of searching for quotes about writing and playing Star Trek Online. And you know what? I think I just might keep writing. My short story collection needs one more story, and there’s a character named Taline just waiting to be discovered …

 

Guest Blogging – “Be A Fruit Loop”

I’m guest posting today over at Affirmations Coffee. A friend of mine runs it, and he and several other writers regularly post encouraging articles. Click here to read my guest post and check out his website.

When Cody asked me to write a guest post for this site, I drew a blank. I knew I wanted to write something encouraging about finding yourself in God or being true to who you are, but couldn’t seem to come up with a specific idea until I saw a fruit loop  on Pinterest …. read more.

The Power of Fiction

Fiction affects society, for good or ill, often as much or more than real-life situations. If Charles Dickens had lectured about the plight of real-life orphans in London, would it have had the same effect as writing Oliver Twist? Or to use an example I see as very negative, would as many people have been obsessed with an essay about BDSM as they were with 50 Shades of Gray?

Fiction is powerful. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but all in a positive light since I was arguing that fiction has value. It can also have a more negative influence as well, which is why I think both writes and readers have a responsibility to self-censor. It’s not up to someone to tell writers not to write a certain kind of book or discuss a specific topic, or to tell readers what they can and cannot read. But it is a good idea (particularly if you’re a Christian) to think carefully about the reading and writing choices we make.

Writer Responsibility

On March 31, 1750, Samuel Johnson published what has become one of the most famous statements in regards to the potential of fiction. While I don’t agree with his arguments against imaginative invention of the fantastic (I write fantasy, after all), this passage intrigues me:

if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.”

I think what Johnson is saying is that authors have a responsibility not to use the power they weld to influence their readers negatively. Responsible authors exercise a form of self-censorship, which doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t talk about complex or even “bad” ideas. But fiction can be enormously influential, and authors should be conscious of the fact that what they are writing has the potential to fill their readers’ minds.

Writers of fiction set out to create a story that draws readers in, and once this happens the readers are under the writer’s influence. Johnson thought that, “the best examples only should be exhibited” so that there is nothing “mischievous or uncertain” in fiction’s effect. I don’t think we need to go that far, but we should be mindful of the power we have to influence readers.

Reader Responsibility

As readers, we should also be mindful of what we expose our minds to, remembering that we’re giving our reading material the opportunity to change or influence our thinking. I came across a great article titled “Self Censorship Better Than Book Banning” a few weeks ago about teaching your children how to make good decisions about their reading material instead of trusting the schools or government to ban “inappropriate” books (which will be defined differently for each individual).

This is pretty much what my mother did, though I wasn’t required to talk about every book with her after reading it (I usually did anyway, so she didn’t really need a rule). The only time I remember my mother taking away a book was when I broke down sobbing one day and confessed that I was having trouble dealing with the main character losing her father to cancer. There were a few other books that she strongly recommended I give up, and I usually (eventually) agreed with her. Harry Potter was “banned” in our house when it first came out, and that’s the only book I can remember being specifically told not to read.

It seems to have worked for the most part. There are books I wish I hadn’t read (and a few I’m sure that I really I shouldn’t have been reading), but for the most part I’m glad I had that freedom. It helped teach me to think for myself, which, to reference John Keating from Dead Poets Society, is the goal of good education.