Christopher Nugent’s wonderful recent book will change the way you read.
At the very least, Manifest in Words, Written on Paper: Producing and Circulating Poetry in Tang Dynasty China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2010) will transform the way we think and write about medieval poetry in China. Nugent’s book urges readers to reconsider what we can assume about the authorship and authorial control of Tang poems, showing us the ways that our understanding and appreciation of literature can be radically altered when we reconsider poems as material objects. The analysis begins with a story of textual variation in a set of manuscript copies of a long narrative poem, preserved together in the Dunhuang caves, that reads the material history of the poem through traces of scribal practices and errors. The book then moves through a discussion of memory practices in medieval China, offering a useful comparative perspective from the scholarly literature on memory arts in medieval Europe, and shows how memorial practices shaped the circulation of Tang poetry. This is followed by chapterlong reflections on the functions and meanings of orality and writing in Tang poetic culture, as poems were circulated, were inscribed on public walls, and were stumbled upon in postal stations. A final chapter looks closely at Tang practices of compiling and collecting the poetic works of a single author, and relates these practices to the very different collecting strategies of the Song period. With broad-ranging implications for scholarship in history and religious studies, as well as literature, Nugent’s book is exceptionally rich and was the basis for a great conversation. Enjoy!