Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating St. Patrick and William Gibson

You'd have to be living the life of a total recluse to not know that today we celebrate the life of St. Patrick. Maybe it's just an excuse to drink green beer and to eat the Irish food you'd usually never let yourself consume.

But in a piece in today's The New York Times, Thomas Cahill argues that we should celebrate the life of St. Patrick by reading a book. He talks about the collapse of Rome, and the role that the Irish played in saving books:

"The glories of Christianity — particularly its books — fascinated the Irish. They came to love the Roman alphabet that Patrick and his successors taught them, as well the precious illuminated manuscripts that he presented to them. There was indeed nothing in their intellectual heritage to block their receptivity to the Christian faith.

There was also nothing in their heritage to draw them to master the intricacies of the Greco-Roman tradition. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, for the ancient Irish never embraced classical cynicism or the gloomy Greco-Roman sense of fatedness.

Instead, they remained in many ways remarkably unjaded, full of wonder at the unexpectedness of human life."

Cahill also talks about the delightful development of illuminated books under the hand of the Irish. That made me think about the new turns that mediums take as they become something different, yet at the same time a more intense version of the original.

Today is also the birthday of William Gibson, who is probably most famous for coining the term "cyberspace" and for his book Neuromancer. I first read his name after I read Marge Piercy's He, She, and It, and she mentioned him in the acknowledgements section. Piercy's vision of a connected world didn't seem impossible to me: I hung out with some computer geeks as an undergrad, and I had a glimpse of the future which we're emerging into these days (an intense sense of community with far-flung people whom you've never even met in person--cool!). But when I presented a paper about the book at a conference in the mid 90s, my English major colleagues expressed disbelief that so much life could be lived in this place--what did you call it?--cyberspace?

It would be interesting to read those early books about cyberspace again, to see how accurately they predicted our world. It would be even more interesting to imagine where we'll be in ten or twenty years.

So, celebrate March 17 by reading an old-fashioned book, and thank the Irish. Or go to cyberspace, where many of us read such an assortment of materials, and thank the early sci-fi writers who dreamed this world of electric sheep and Turing machines (O.K., it's a botched series of allusions in that last sentence, but I like it, so it stays).

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