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The Matter of the Page
Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors
Shane Butler

Wisconsin Studies in Classics
William Aylward, Nicholas D. Cahill, and Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, Series Editors

Timely lessons for the digital age about the relation between authors and the materials with which they write, how creativity works, and why literature matters

Ancient and medieval literary texts often call attention to their existence as physical objects. Shane Butler helps us to understand why. Arguing that writing has always been as much a material struggle as an intellectual one, The Matter of the Page offers timely lessons for the digital age about how creativity works and why literature moves us.

Butler begins with some considerations about the materiality of the literary text, both as a process (the draft) and a product (the book), and he traces the curious history of “the page” from scroll to manuscript codex to printed book and beyond. He then offers a series of unforgettable portraits of authors at work: Thucydides struggling to describe his own diseased body; Vergil ready to burn an epic poem he could not finish; Lucretius wrestling with words even as he fights the madness that will drive him to suicide; Cicero mesmerized by the thought of erasing his entire career; Seneca plumbing the depths of the soul in the wax of his tablets; and Dhuoda, who sees the book she writes as a door, a tunnel, a womb. Butler reveals how the work of writing transformed each of these authors into his or her own first reader, and he explains what this metamorphosis teaches us about how we too should read.

All Greek and Latin quotations are translated into English and technical matters are carefully explained for general readers, with scholarly details in the notes.


Shane Butler is professor of classics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of The Hand of Cicero and editor and translator of the Latin correspondence of Renaissance humanist Angelo Poliziano.



“A learned, moving essay in humane literary and cultural criticism. Brilliantly written, The Matter of the Page takes our own sense of reading and writing and relates it to the work of past writers and readers, showing in fascinatingly different ways how authors as diverse as Thucydides, Vergil, and Dhuoda transcended both their own mortality and the limits of material culture.”
—James Tatum, Dartmouth College

“Innovative both stylistically and methodologically, Butler’s outstanding book has the feel of a dual elegy—for the author, whom it seeks to resuscitate as more than an abstract theoretical concept, and for the vanishing (or at least de-materializing) page in an ever accelerating digital universe.”
—James I. Porter, University of California, Irvine

“A smart, insightful, and ultimately persuasive book about the nature of the page from antiquity into the Middle Ages. . . . Butler has made a bold attempt to break down the blood-brain barrier between ideas and texts, signifiers and signifieds, and to suggest that the very space on/in which the text plays out informs the text that is played out there.”
—Sarah Spence, Renaissance Quarterly

"A great little book to grapple with, not only for its streamlined main thesis or its knotty close readings, but also for Butler's ambitious and experimental methodology that engages with how Classical texts (and by extension, Classical scholarship) are read, written, and reproduced in our digitalized age. . . . I cannot recommend The Matter of the Page highly enough."
—Richard Fletcher, Digressus 11



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Ancient essays and literature.

January 2011
LC: 2010011574 PA
168 pp.   6 x 9

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Paper $29.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-24824-6
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