"Today, every laptop with an internet connection contains more information than the Great Library of Alexandria. At its peak, that library contained 700,000 books, until the Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered it burned down in 39AD; today, Google Books has over seven million – and that's before you count everything else online. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story imagining a "total library" containing all written information. Seventy years later, it exists." Johann Hari, The Guardian, 8 December 2009.
The implications of google books, and the availability of the vast universe of literature written in Latin, previously hidden - even, in many instances, to specialists, should be sending a shudder through our world.
For once, we have an honest answer to give, an answer we can shout from the rooftops - to the perennial question, "Of what use is Latin". The answer lies behind your search box on google books. Type in 'haec est" and a torrent of literature will pour forth to assault you. The cultural production of two thousand years, written in Latin, unread, unknown, there for the picking and reading.
As one blogger online remarked recently, "we starve amidst a banquet". Never before in history, has anyone had access to the breadth and depth of Latin literature, that we have access to now, at the click of a mouse.
We see some signs of adjustment - "Latin for the New Millenium" - but old habits and old ideas persist. Old methods of teaching, that will not equip our students to delve into this world, persist.
Some claim they are only interested in reading 'Classical Latin', but then, they cut themselves off from the 2000 years of literary criticism and commenting on Latin texts, written in Latin. The vast bulk of scholarship on Latin original texts, is only available in Latin. Most of this material is terra incognita, and professors of Latin have not yet adjusted to the paradigm shift that must necessarily take place.
For a Classicist to ignore works written in Neo-Latin that discuss the poetics of Virgil, for instance, while happily reading modern crit in Italian of German, is surpassing strange. Yet, that is our reality - as many of these critical texts are unknown, and have sat on bookshelves, in vast repositories, unopened for centuries. Even their titles are often unrecorded in the literature, let alone discussion of their contents.
Now, more than ever, Latin teachers need to focus on fluency and an ability to read with fluidity - to give our students the tools to enter this sacrum sacrorum loaded with the wisdom of millenia. They need to show their students this vast depository, to demonstrate the usefulness of having a skill in reading this language.
If we do not transmit our wonder and amazement at this turn of events - then we will have failed to grasp an opportunity that no generation has ever had before.
The momentousness of this change is such, that it can be compared to the shift that took place in the world of letters after the invention of printing - leading to the wide dissemination of Classical texts, and to a burst of improved standards of Latin literacy. Once the preserve of a few monks in cloisters, anyone could now own Cicero, Vergil, and use these texts to improve their Latin. The result, the Neo-Latin Renaissance, that really only took off after the invention of printing.
Now, we face another paradigm shift - for us, as readers of Latin, we were more akin to the monks, with access to only a few valued tomes - the vast production of the renaissance was unavailable to us, even to the specialist - now, the floodgates have opened.
How will we respond?