Photo of an open book entitled Virgil's Commonplace Book

Photo of the cover of Virgil's Commonplace Book

Virgil’s Commonplace Book, a computer-generated travel novel set in the Roman Empire. There’s also a related Twitter bot, @erat_viator.

One motivation was to explore serendipity in publically accessible data. There are many databases of information from the Roman Empire, but sorting through the deluge of data is hard to do without context. The bot and the book add geographical and narrative context as they explore the data.

Like all of my NaNoGenMo projects, the source code is on GitHub. The novel itself can be downloaded as well.

Introduction / Artist’s Statement

It has long been a common practice to incorporate the works of earlier writers into new books. Indeed, many commonplace books consist of nothing but quotations and similar notes. We have many surviving examples from the Roman Empire, such as Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights. These texts were not always attributed to the original source. Lacking the modern concept of plagiarism (and our post-printing-press system of uniform citations) writers sometimes come off as careless to modern sensibilities. Quotes could be paraphrased and rather vague citations were the norm. Indeed, some authors committed a kind of reverse plagiarism, pseudepigraphically attributing their work to an earlier, more famous author.

In a way, this reuse is fortunate: many texts from the Classical period only exist in fragments quoted in other documents. Some works survive in epitome, distilled versions that summarized the text; for others we have fragments that later writers quoted or abridged as they wrote their compilations.

Artists, of course, have been far looser with their borrowings than writers of mere facts, placing the present work solidly within a long tradition. The closest literary antecedents of NaNoGenMo–Dada and Oulipo–have often explored similar sampling approaches. Kathryn Hume has suggested that technical constraints have lead NaNoGenMo to “align itself with poetics of recontextualization and reassembly.”

NaNoGenMo has included other approaches, such as the concrete poetry in thricedotted’s The Seeker, or the way structurally-plotted works like Hannah and The Twelve-Disk Tower of Hanoi evoke the chessboard constraints of Life a User’s Manual or Through the Looking Glass. But there is an undeniable strand of appropriation as we teach our machines to imitate their human creators. Still, that’s no reason to neglect giving credit, so this book attempts to cite the sources for the texts it borrows.

In this work, that deliberate borrowing is the intent. Unlike an age of precious codices, the information age is a time of entirely too much to read. Search engines can find anything you ask for but, like a fairy-tale mirror, can only answer the questions you know enough to ask in the first place. The serendipity of browsing through a library is lost. Extracting the stories and arranging them in a new pattern presents a new angle. Rather than an exhaustive view of the forest, it picks out one or two trees you might have otherwise overlooked.

I chose Virgil as the protagonist for three reasons: first, his works are among the source texts in the Perseus Digital Library used for much of the text here. His Aeneid builds on earlier traditions, recast in a founding epic for a new age: appropriate for a work themed around appropriation and reuse in this new information age. This would not be enough to recommend him on its own: there are other authors whose works were much closer to the kind of copying and summarizing going on here. And The Golden Ass by Apuleius, one of the earliest surviving novels, is closer in form to the travel tale that structures this generated novel.

But there was also a tradition that linked Virgil and his poetry with magic and prophecy. It was no accident that Dante chose Virgil to be his guide through the Inferno. His memory is haunted by that touch of magic, a magic intimately linked with words and poetry. And, as Jeff Howard has pointed out in Game Magic: A Designer’s Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice, programming is a form of magic. A magician-protagonist is entirely appropriate.

Lastly, that tradition of magic lead the much-neglected Avram Davidson to pen a novel with Vergil Magus as the magician-protagonist. My own pseudo-Virgil is a humble tribute, a machine homunculus librarian of forgotten texts.