By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
William Johnson's reading spans the ages. Today, it might be a crumbling 2,000-year-old Greek text dug up in a cave. Tomorrow, it could be something on a computer running a specialized program he built 20 years ago.
Johnson is a papyrologist, a scholar who studies ancient books and readers, and how they fit into and impact the culture. He's also an assistant professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches Latin and Greek.
But it's scholarship where he's making waves.
Winning a full-year fellowship during the course of a professorial career is considered a big deal. Johnson has won four this year alone. Seems one of those Roman gods, Fortuna maybe, is smiling on him.
Oops, but not for long. Two days after learning of the fourth fellowship, he broke a leg shoveling snow off his Mount Lookout driveway. Looks like another one of those gods, maybe Nemesis, is frowning on him.
Johnson will accept two of the fellowships: A $40,000 National Endowment for the Humanities award and a $60,000 American Council for Learned Societies award. He'll turn down a $24,000 Center for Hellenic Studies award to study at Harvard's Washington campus and a $28,000 award from the National Center for the Humanities at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
Happy to be here
The 47-year-old Savannah, Ga., native grew up in Atlanta (he's an unapologetic Braves fan), earned a doctorate at Yale and moved here after three years at Bucknell in rural Pennsylvania. "It is so beautiful, I can't tell you. The school is in the middle of nowhere . . .
"It wasn't cultural shock or anything, but it was odd, moving from that to a university in the heart of a big city. But who wouldn't make the move? UC is one of the best classics departments in the country . . . and one of the places scholars really want to be."
Some of those scholars are using a program Johnson built in the early 1980s called Ibycus, the first CD-ROM to work with ancient languages. "It's still used today in some universities, but it's old. ... It was an attempt in those pre-Internet days to give scholars a way to retreat to their lodge in Vermont or somewhere and still have the tools to do meaningful research."
Like research into ancient reading habits, where most of us picture some Roman dude curling up with an 80-pound tablet to read an epic poem such as the Aeneid. Thanks to Johnson, we know that the ancients read in ways very different from us.
"In many cases, they had slaves trained to read in an interpretative fashion," he explains. "The slaves would read while the family was eating ... . In other cases, the elite, the only ones who learned to read for the most part, would unroll a papyrus from side to side. They were fairly small - Homer, for example, is 24 books or papyrus rolls, but they're only 800 lines each. That was to keep the rolls small enough to manage."
Not that reading was all that manageable. The Romans used no spaces between words and no punctuation to speak of. Which is to say theromansusednospacesbetweenwordsandnopunctuationtospeakof.
Picture that on page after page.
"It's not that the Romans didn't know about spaces and punctuation,'' he says. "In the very early days they even used them. But they dropped them when they started imitating the Greeks. But one thing about that style is that it allowed the reader to absorb the material rather than simply read words."
Johnson will be doing a lot of that reading in coming months and into next year when he's on leave for the NEH fellowship. He'll also be changing diapers.
He and wife Shirley Werner, a classics scholar who taught at Rutgers and is now on a research project at UC, have adopted a girl in China. "It's official, and we've completed the mountains of paperwork and bureaucratic requirements. We'll go over in October or November and bring her back. That's one of the reasons I declined the Hellenic Studies fellowship - because it was residential in D.C. and we both wanted to be living here when the baby came."
Meantime, Johnson is jetting all over the place getting his job done. "I have to go where the papyri are. In this country, I go a lot to Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins. I spend time at Oxford, Cambridge, Vienna, Berlin, Munich."
Once he gets to the papyri, it's a challenge he explains this way: "Imagine you finish reading your newspaper, crumple it up and throw it away, and it gets hauled to the dump. Two thousand years later, you try to read it again."
Johnson will publish a study of 400 literary papyri this summer. "It's not a translation, though there's an element of that. It's more a study of the texts - who wrote them, how they were used, who used them and what we can infer about book production from that period."
Reaching the mainstream
He has a second book in the works, and a dream book on the back burner. "I've always had the ambition to write a book my father would read,'' he says. "You know, mainstream, where I could explain it to a broader audience and tell them why they should care."
Good question. Why?
"Because reading is a living, breathing and changing thing that impacts our culture. We don't read a book the same way we read a computer screen. And our children growing up now don't read a computer screen the same way we do. It's evolving right in front of our eyes. There's so much to learn about the way it works and the way it impacts us. We can learn things today by studying how it impacted ancient cultures."
And yeah, Johnson says, even someone armed with a doctorate and a boatload of fellowships has plenty to learn. "Every year I go on, I come to a finer appreciation of how little I know and how much more there is to learn - more than I thought possible.
"The more I find out, the more aware I become of my own ignorance."
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