“On the Road”

Third day on the Trans-American Railroad. I ran to the cafeteria in the lower deck of the observation car for a breakfast of straight black coffee and toasted bagel with cream and cheese. “What are you reading, sir?” It was a soft voice, but there was something peremptory in the tone, like a cop’s trying to sound nice but not necessarily meaning it.

It had come from a short man with bushy mustache who had his eyes fixed on me. He wore a red baseball cap, a legend embroidered in white:


is my boss

“On the Road,” I responded. It was such a self-conscious choice that I was feeling embarrassed. But the man shook his head, in a gesture indicating he did not know Kerouac’s book.  “I’ll tell you what,” said the cafeteria attendant, “no kid reads these days but my seven-year-old boy just loves books.”

Then I grabbed my cardboard tray with the coffee and the bagel, and went up to the observation deck. As the arid landscape of Colorado ran past us, I turned to look what the girl a few seats down from me was reading: “On the Road.” But it was a different edition.


*     *     *

This is the sixteenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”










Mobile devices of the 15th century


The Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice is hosting an evocative exhibition on Aldo Manuzio, the celebrated 15th century printer and publisher. With a vision to broaden the reach of the classics in Europe, he set up shop in Venice in 1489, just a few years after Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type printing, the defining technology of his era. He harnessed it to become the first to ever publish the works of Aristotle, Euclid, and many other ancient philosophers, scientists and authors, ushering progress by making their ideas available in the West.

To make texts easier to read, Manuzio introduced many innovations. One was italics, to mimic the manuscripts that the literate were used to reading. Another one was the book layout used to this day, with text arranged on a 1:2 box in the middle of the page, surrounded by blank space; an indescribable waste of precious paper, rare stuff back then. Perhaps his greatest invention was the pocket book, neat six-inch stacks of clearly legible paper bound in leather. It allowed nobles, generals and scholars to carry the classics wherever they went—even into portraits such as the one adorning this post. Many did, turning Manuzio’s books into status symbols, and making his vision a reality.

The exhibition’s curators point out that Manuzio’s work made Venice “the Silicon Valley” of the time, attracting technicians and editors to produce the books, inspiring scholars and curious readers to discuss them, and promoting writers of new content. It is hard to imagine that present day mobile devices will set in motion a transformation comparable to that which Euclidean geometry or Plato’s “Republic” started in the 15th century. For that, the exhibition does an important job of recognizing Manuzio as the original Renaissance man.