Marginalia, no.194

Suppose…that books are natural productions that perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables, by descent and propagation.

~ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Readers would be made amateur naturalists, bookshelves specimen boxes, and libraries zoological gardens. Filmographers would brave malarial uplands and arctic wastes to document the mating habits of memoirs, while lab-coated researchers measure to a syllable what one novel owes another by DNA analysis. Those of us habituated to life amid swarms of half-feral volumes that devour our means and command every domestic surface would be the literary equivalent of crazy cat ladies, arrested on live television (to the cheers of an outraged public) for cruelty to animals and creating a public health risk.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Marginalia, no.194

  1. Hi Ian,
    I suppose the “memeticists” come closest (in all seriousness) to Hume’s fanciful supposition. Or, take Emerson in “Quotation and Originality”: “We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, –– and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, –– that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.” And so we folk are simply the medium by which not merely books but tables and chairs get themselves replicated, with allowances for mutation. Where would tables and chairs and religions be without us? Extinct and fossilized.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I’m reminded of the two senses of the word “host.” Then I wonder if I’m not simply a growth medium in some cosmic petri dish. It occurs to me that “culture” has at least two senses too.

    • Exactly. We host cultures, and culture hosts, who in turn host cultures. Ad infinitum. Memetics in a nutshell, insofar as I understand it.

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