Monday, March 25, 2013



David Konstan, "Excerpting as a Reading Practice," in Thinking Through Excerpts: Studies on Stobaeus, ed. G. Reydams-Schils (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 9-22 (at 9-10, footnotes omitted):
Excerptors, generally speaking, have a bad name. As mere compilers, their own thoughts, if they had any, are concealed behind the wisdom of others. They are essentially derivative, secondary; at best, they may be classed with authors of synopses and abridgements, or with scholiasts, or even, at a stretch, with commentators, writers who take it upon themselves to make important works composed by others (or sometimes by themselves) more accessible to the general reader — what Markus Dubischar calls 'auxiliary texts' (Auxiliartexte). Of these, excerptors seem the most anonymous and impersonal, even mechanical: they cut and paste, and so lack any voice of their own. We are grateful, of course, when they preserve fragments that would otherwise have been lost, and in this respect we particularly value their dutifulness as copiers: we do not want them to tamper with the extracts they reproduce, but to leave them exactly in the form in which they found them (and can only hope that they chanced upon reasonably good manuscripts). The less creativity they exhibit, the better.

What is more, excerptors represent, according to the common view, a decadent phase of civilization. They copy out bits and pieces of works that are no longer available, or that no one is willing or able to read, any longer, in complete versions. Culture is in decline, and literature must be pre-digested, simplified, abbreviated. In a sense, the excerptors have assumed the noble task of preserving something of the great tradition that has now diminished to a trickle, but their very activity is a sign of loss and diminishment. There is a fin-de-siècle, or fin-d'époque, quality to their enterprise, evoking a sense of nostalgia and even melancholy, something like Gustave Flaubert's last novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, with its curious appendix, Le dictionnaire des idées reçues. When John Stobaeus wrote, the classical world had reached its end, and the future was dark: literacy itself was threatened with extinction, an impression that some people of a scholarly temperament have of the intellectual state of affairs today.
In the rest of this very interesting essay, Konstan dissents from the "common view" and persuasively argues that Stobaeus continues a "long tradition of excerpting that goes back to the very beginning of Greek and Latin literary culture" (p. 11).

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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