This essay is part of a series of essays called Embarked that seek to explain both the reasons why we have undertaken this project and where we hope to explore.
One of the reasons we have embarked on this project is to that we wish to create a place where anyone can come to read and learn. This is an ambitious task, but an unspecific one. Lots of places—from public libraries to e-learning resources—have a similar mission. What we seek to do, however, is to aspire to preserve the quality of knowledge we share. We want to share these ideas and books without losing or augmenting anything inappropriately. This is important, theoretically, because we understand that any formal change results in further, undesired changes. These changes may be uncontrollable or, worse, unmitigated.
Therefore, if we are to recreate things that were originally written, or in the case of poets like Homer ‘spoken’, then we must account for that. Additionally, readers are now viewers, whether you are viewing this on a computer or a tablet or phone, it’s necessary to create a consistent and tangible experience to the best of our abilities.
There is a term used in art history, although disciplines refer to it, called Ekphrasis. It is a Greek word that translates as “out speak” but means to describe an object. In art history it generally means the reinterpretation of an idea, story, or artistic piece into another medium. For example: when a poet describes an object or idea that exists in their world in a new medium. The prototypical example of this is when Homer describes Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, he describes the material, the shape, the size, and the engravings it bears. This physical object, a shield, is now a metaphysical description. Later writers and poets, including Auden and Virgil, subsequently recreated the shield in their own art, and called back to Homer. Even you, as a reader, recreate that object in your mind and—depending on your imagination—see that object. To do so is to make it your own. This is to say that as much as you enter the world of the artist, the artist’s work enters your world.
Writing about an idea, topic, or story that others have previously told allows writers to participate in each other’s worlds. It is how we enter into conversation with each other. We, too, seek to enter into that conversation. Other authors, like James Joyce, recreate a work like Homer’s Odyssey in a new medium and in a new way. They reforge the meaning, reconstitute it, renew it.
This is an important thing to understand when attempting to take ideas and audiences into a new realm, namely, the digital one. Thinkers like Ong and McLuhan believe that technological developments are irrevocably transformational. This may be the case. But, we believe, that it is necessary to try to sustain these ideas rather than discard them on theory. We attempt this not in spite of these media theories, but because of them.
This means that our work will be primarily curatorial, and we acknowledge that republishing will result in formal change. We are working to mitigate that effect, while simultaneously renewing the power and beauty of the original author. We undergo this adventure because we care about these texts and these authors, and we seek to preserve them for future audiences. We are conscientious of our actions, and we understand that laptops or phones are not the same as books and pencils. All of which are problems which must be understood in order to be dealt with.
The question remains, how can we recreate these texts in a new medium without losing the important ideas contained therein?
Like any group of humans, anytime and any place, we can only do our best, and we must accept that our efforts are in part futile. But the curatorial part of our work, the caring, and love we hold for books like Moby Dick and Don Quixote, is worthy of attempting to translate them, they are worthy of and capable of surviving Ekphrasis if it means they are preserved for posterity. We understand that we are not Dante or Shakespeare, we know that War and Peace is better read in hand than in browser. But if the internet is to be our medium, as the play was Shakespeare’s or the short story Flannery O’Connor’s, then we must make use of it and propagate it with the greatest ideas and authors we can.