Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

The Rise of the Roman Numeral.

What does it say about a civilization when the only facet of its culture that survives is its system of numerals? Consider Rome. Sure, the Coliseum still stands, but they don’t hold the brutal imperial circuses in there, anymore. Yes, the names of their gods got thrown at the solar system and our automobiles, but they have no power to inspire us to battle or sacrifice.

And yet numerals remain undiluted, still serve their primary function in a modern society that looks upon the fallen empire little more than source material for films ranging from Oscar-winners to mainstream pornography.

Working where I do, at a publisher of nonfiction, such numerals are a standby, the system used to differentiate the book’s front matter (table of contents, copyright page, forewords and prefaces, etc.) from the body of the book. Generally, such front matter is limited to within twenty or so pages, rarely going above “xxv.”

Today, I found myself making photocopies of a manuscript wherein the front matter managed to reach a whopping “xlix” (49). For reasons I can’t quite explain, this set me slightly on edge, as if somebody out there wasn’t playing fair, as if the roman numeral “L” was not allowed to appear in our books. I found it indulgent and tacky to have that much goddamned front matter; it felt to me like having to sit through more than six trailers for a two-hour feature presentation, especially if three of those trailers are for the new misuse of Jackie Chan or the next Nickelodeon movie. “Get to the book already!” I felt like muttering at the front matter. “Yes, we get it, you’ve got a lot of prologue. Blah, blah, blah.”

The other thing, conversely, was that I felt annoyed that the front matter hadn’t made the little extra effort to get to page 50. The logistics of having a page numbered simply a lowercase “L” would have presented an interesting conundrum, since in many typefaces, the lowercase “L” is identical to the Arabic [1] numeral one [2]. It disappointed me to see that in perhaps the only instance I may come across of a book getting to this sort of front matter bloat, it couldn’t reach that nice round number [3].

Hm. It appears I’m bored today.

[1] I do hope somebody is keeping an eye on the numbers we’ve been using in America for lo these many years. They’re everywhere, now, and I don’t think we can vouch for all of these numerals.

[2] Indeed, on my dad’s old electric typewriter, there was no “1” key–if you wanted to type a “1,” you had to use the lowercase “L”.

[3] Somebody at one of Danielle’s parties, whose name I don’t remember even though the man himself was unforgettable, once told me about a friend of his who made a vow to himself to have slept with 100 women by his 21st birthday. Seriously. By his account, the friend actually made it to number 92 before he found somebody who he wanted to pursue a genuine emotional commitment with, and so the vow went unfulfilled. And while I found myself largely repulsed–and, in the spirit of honesty, a little envious–of the friend’s conquest count, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Dammit, you were so close.” Does this make me a terrible person? I don’t know.

Current music: Chaos Theory; Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”

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This entry was posted on June 17, 2003 by in Books, Thoughts, Work.
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