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I recently bought a pack of two notebooks in Rubberband’s new Slim Series. What attracted me was the unusual size, B5, and the thickness of the notebooks, all of sixty-four pages each. The format and style also made me change my opinion about the brand, which I had so far assumed to produce nothing different from affordable replicas of Moleskine notebooks. After unwrapping the plastic cover, I, like any bibliophile, touched the cover and inhaled the smell of the paper. The cover, made of kraft card, exudes a frail, musty smell. The paper is plain, smooth to touch and has a tinge of yellow that gives it its false age. Only last night, when I took out the as-yet-unused notebooks from my drawer and caressed the paper, the phrase “fear of the blank page” crossed my mind. This romanticism is uttered by many writers when, burdened by a thousand-year old tradition, they feel anxious about the individuality of their own writing while at the same time realising the utter impossibility of producing anything new.

Thomas De Quincey, in an additional prose piece to his Confessions, titled “The Palimpsest,” says that writing and printing on a large scale remained unfeasible until a durable and cheap material to inscribe on was found[1]. The Greeks and Romans, who wrote on parchment or vellum, erased older manuscripts to accommodate new writing. This piece of parchment from which the older writing was wiped off by the new is called a palimpsest[2]. On these palimpsests, the writing of various eras was deemed lost or completely over-written until modern chemistry devised a way to bring back its traces from oblivion. It is here that De Quincey stops and wonders at the presence of invisible things and layers concealed under layers. He compares writing on a palimpsest to information getting stored in the human mind and goes on to develop this metaphor, suggesting that, like a palimpsest, the mind can reveal all the information stored and stocked in it at the slightest impulse or stimuli.

Borges, who read De Quincey voraciously, and who was greatly influenced by his Latinate style, appropriated the metaphor and linked the writing, erasing and subsequent re-surfacing on a palimpsest to literature, thereby addressing the problem of tradition and individuality: any writer writes on a page where the echoes of past writing are always present, though they may remain invisible until an astute reader comes along and shows us its traces, which rise and dip “like the undulating motions of a flattened stone which children cause to skim the breast of a river…”

 

 


[1] De Quincey acknowledges one Dr Whately as the first to have “luminously expounded” this idea.

[2] He defines it thus: “A palimpsest…is a membrane or roll cleansed of its manuscript by reiterated successions.”

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