September 22, 2012
SUNY class explores evolution of writing
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland associate professor of English and professional writing David Franke speaks before showing a movie Friday at Sperry Center.
The ability to write meant power, centuries ago, for the few people who could put ink to paper.
People who could write — monks, mostly — were appalled when the printing press came along and masses of people could see ideas, information, opinions across a nation.
Their finances were ruined.
Now the same thing is happening with books and magazines, as online publishing grows and ideas can be transmitted across the nation and world via social media.
SUNY Cortland students in a course taught by David Franke, who have used a computer since they were children, are learning about this strange world and the debates that have appeared whenever writing found a new medium.
“They’re digital natives and I’m not, and they’re interested to find these convulsive moments in history,” Franke said Friday, as his 16 students prepared to watch a movie, “The Name of the Rose,” a murder mystery in a medieval monastery that is centered around books.
“The printing press allowed Protestantism to spread, and science itself, and technical writing,” he said. “All writing was legible. You didn’t need to know the author’s handwriting. Literacy grew.”
The SUNY Cortland course is offered in the professional writing major within the English Department. It is titled “Professional Writing 409: The Evolution of Writing.”
The students have looked at how writing began thousands of years ago, as ink on parchment.
The class will spend the day in New York City on Oct. 12, visiting the Center for Books Arts to watch books being bound; the Morgan Library, to look at ancient writing, and the Strand Bookstore.
The Morgan Library began with industrialist J.P. Morgan’s collection and grew, with thousands of volumes — some collected to show the history of bookbinding — and artifacts such as Egyptian papyrus.
“They’ll look at one of Shakespeare’s folios at the museum, and a fragment written in Greek by Homer,” Franke said. “They’ll see some of the first text produced by the Gutenberg printing press, around 1455 to 1500.”
The Strand is possibly the largest used bookstore in the nation, along with Powell’s Books in Oregon, and has a number of rare volumes, according to its website.
Allison Best, a senior professional writing major from Fairport, said she writes longhand mostly just to outline papers and has tried typing on a typewriter just for fun. Otherwise she is a digital person, like most people in the current college generation.
“I knew the general background of ancient writing and how printing was invented,” she said. “But this class is really in-depth. This is about books as art, why they are shaped the way they are, what they are printed on.”
Senior Matt Blaszak, a geographic information systems major from West Seneca, said he relates to writing’s origins as a collection of symbols, since he makes maps.
“It’s about communication, where I study maps as communication in my field,” he said. “It’s all relevant.”
Best said she is intrigued by the rise of electronic publishing for books and newspapers, as she hopes to work in the publishing industry.
“Writing is just a hobby for me, and everybody does it,” she said. “We don’t think about it. Then our class looks at how important it was. Those who could write were almost a class of people. It was something respected.”
Best considers Franke’s course to be almost about human evolution, as society has been shaped by writing.
“The Name of the Rose,” released in 1986, tells the story of a monk portrayed by Sean Connery, assisted by an apprentice portrayed by Christian Slater, who come to a monastery to investigate murders.
The monks take months to produce a single book, and have one of the largest libraries in Europe.
Franke said the film is so painstakingly accurate that the director commissioned monks who still repaired handwritten books on parchment to create some for his film.
“It’s about the cultural function of writing, one of which is to reinforce the Catholic Church’s knowledge and power,” he said.
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