Limits and Loss: Book-Hunting and Music Searching

The way we search for music today finds an unlikely analogue in the practice of book-hunting at the turn of the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt comments on the act in The Swerve.

“Italians had been book-hunting for the better part of a century,” Greenblatt writes, “ever since the poet and scholar Petrarch brought glory on himself in the 1330s by piecing together Livy’s monumental History of Rome and finding forgotten masterpieces by Cicero, Propertius, and others. Petrarch’s achievement had inspired others to seek out lost classics that had been lying unread, often for centuries. The recovered texts were copied, edited, commented upon, and eagerly exchanged, conferring distinction on those who had found them and forming the basis for what became known as the ‘study of the humanities’.”

Many of these lost classics were found in the breadcrumbs left by other ancient authors. The humanists “eagerly read gave tantalizing quotations from these books, often accompanying extravagant praise or vituperative attacks.” These leads would incite investigation for the source.

Yet there was a realization that many of these mentioned texts were in fact lost forever. All one could grasp from an author would be a line here, an aphorism there. It is those one has to savor for the lack of a whole. A single morsel from an author is better than none at all.

There can be a sample in a tune, an artist giving a ‘tantalizing quotation’ from another, that similarly excites the appetite of the listener. She, like the book-hunter, wants to find the whole where the segment resides. In the sample’s obscurity, however, a promising trail can be wiped away. No cues are found anywhere – not on any website or mention from the sampler himself.

The listener shares in the book-hunter’s sense of loss. This song will never be heard outside of another’s ‘extravagant praise’. Its remains are but a footnote, a couple seconds worth altered to some degree. Until something springs up from the Internet or another source, the morsel will only exist as such to her.

And that is alright. It has to be, otherwise the loss would be all encompassing. Songs will slip through our fingers as ancient authors did for the humanists. Even with our seemingly unlimited access to information, one has to accept the unlimited’s limitations.

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