Archive for the 'the history of the book' Category


Raised Bands Are Sexy; or, A Primer on Bookbindings

Tomorrow I am going to see the Morgan Library’s exhibit Protecting the Word, which presents the collection’s most noteworthy bookbindings. To familiarize myself with the essential terminology of the bookbinding craft, I read up on the anatomy of the book and took a look at the British Library’s bookbinding brochure. Evidently, a binding’s main purpose is to protect the book’s text block, but since I do not intend to become a book binder any time soon, I skip the bit about sewing and glueing and dive straight into book decoration.

The Morgan exhibit has some magnificent medieval tomes on display, but frankly, medieval decorative binding deserves its own chapter. Suffice it to say that the medieval book was a treasure, and bound accordingly, as in this fine specimen from the Morgan, the Lindau Gospels from St. Gall in Switzerland from the late ninth century:

Lindau Gospels

But bookbinding as a craft and art in its own right begins much later, namely in the 15th century,  after the invention of the printing press. One of the “fathers” of modern decorative bookbinding was a Frenchman by the name of Jean Grolier. Grolier was not a bookbinder himself, but a book collector famous for commissioning the bindings that now carry his name. Grolier’s love for books as well as for sharing them with others have inspired book artists, collectors and readers for centuries. A prominent feature of Grolier bindings is the Latin inscription Io. Grolierii et Amicorvm — (property) of Jean Grolier and his friends. Grolier’s willingness to share his book with his friends is the stuff of legend, and the famous New York Grolier Club donned his name in honour of his friendships (he befriended, among others, book luminaries such as Erasmus and Aldus Manutius). Below is an example of a Grolier binding from the British library. You can see the inscription and the geometrical and arabesque patterns that are typical of a Grolier design.

Grolier Binding

Whoever wants to become well-versed in the art of the binding must be able to recognise names such as Padeloup, Cobden-Sanderson, or Zaehnsdorf — the names of master bookbinders, exquisite craftsmen and brilliant innovators who left an indelible stamp on their craft. Books fortunate enough to be clad in one of their bindings  are keenly sought treasures these days.

The art of bookbinding knows a multitude of decorative styles and methods — mosaic, pointillé, romantic, neo classical, art nouveau, art deco — and a host of technical terms. The technique of gauffed edges, for instance, refers to imprinting indented patterns on the fore- and sige-edges of a book. An onlay produces a mosaic effect in leather by replacing strips of the original leather binding with leather of a different colour. And dentelle decorations consist “of a combination of elliptical scrolls of slightly shaded leafy character joined to clusters and horders of great richness”. Magnificent!

dentelle decoration

And that concludes my primer to bookbinding. More when I return from the Morgan. For readers interested to learn more on the subject, here a paraphernalia of online sources:

– Herb Weitz’s brief history of decorative bookbinding

– Roberts and Etherington’s dictionary of bookbinding terms (excellent)

Virtual Bookbinding

– Comprehensive link list to book arts provided by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild


Bookporn at the Morgan

If this blog  had webcam access, you could watch your humble host drooling over the prospect of visiting the Morgan Library’s current exhibition, Protecting the Word, a display of the collection’s most precious book bindings. I’ve been to the Morgan before to feast on their treasures — it is a must-see for bibliophiles, a book palace, rivalled in the richness and the intimacy of the book experience only by the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

But who was this Pierpont Morgan? A successful financier, no doubt. An avid reader, perhaps. But most importantly, a voracious collector and one of the outstanding bibliophiles of the Golden Age of American book collecting in the beginning of the 20th century. During his lifetime, Morgan spent today’s equivalent of roughly one billion dollars on his book and artwork collection. His accomplice was the smart and beautiful Belle da Costa Greene, librarian outré and Morgan’s secret agent for purchases and auctions. The first journalist who was allowed to enter Morgan’s book sanctuary (bequeathed to the public in 1924, 11 years after Morgan’s death) wrote in 1908: “Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan is probably the greatest collector of things splendid and beautiful and rare who has ever lived. There is no one with whom we can compare him except, perhaps, Lorenzo de Medici, and he surpasses even that Prince in the catholicity of his taste.” (Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness, 176). The story goes on:

As he proceeded through “bronze gates into a lofty hall of rarest marble,” the correspondent found himself “frightened by the task” of having to give “even the roughest description of some of the things I saw.” Everywhere he turned, there was a mind-boggling treasure to behold. He asked the identity of a “gorgeous jewelled volume,” and learned it was the Ashburnham Bible, an outstanding example of early British handicraft which Morgan had paid £10,000 to secure several years earlier. Passing by incunabula “that not even the British Museum can match,” he paused at William Blake’s original drawings for the Book of Job, Phiz’s illustrations for The Pickwick Papers, and the holograph manuscripts for Endymion, A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe. He spotted Shelley’s private notebook, and then he glanced over handwritten documents and letters of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Burns, and Charles Lamb. […] When the visitor thought he had seen all there was to see, he was brought into yet another room where “the richest jewels in this marble casket” repose, including the only known manuscript fragment to survive of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. […] “I do not believe that any one in England knows how many things that ought never to have left the country are contained in these few cubic yards of space in New York,” he wrote. “I do not know whether it was wonder or sorrow that I felt the more.” (ibid., 176-178)

I profess more wonder than sorrow, I admit.

Regarding the current exhibition, I must confess I am not very knowledgeable on the topic of book bindings. The complexity of this craft (and book making in general) is beautifully captured in Annie Tremmel Wilcox A Degree of Mastery, and so I intend to return to that volume before visiting the Morgan. I think I’ve mentioned the subject briefly in my posts on cheap books and the transition from leather bindings to cloth, but that’s about it. The British Library provides a neat little brochure on the subject, Understanding and Caring for Bookbindings. I shall leave you with this close-up of a magnificent specimen of the craft: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems bound in “deep blue goatskin, richly gilt to a floral mandorla pattern, with gilt and goffered edges, and with endleaves of Morris silk brocade ; signed and dated 1891. The delicate floral patterns, here using roses and tulips, are inspired by Morris designs but do not slavishly copy or follow them.”

Rossetti binding by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson

About the binder:

Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, a lawyer by profession, took up binding in 1883 at the urging of Jane Burden Morris, Pre-Raphaelite muse and William Morris’s wife. Janey’s instincts were on the mark: Cobden-Sanderson proved to be not just a talented amateur but a highly skilled designer and gilder. His bindings set the mark for designer bookbinders for decades, his tools and layouts revolutionizing the aesthetic of fine bookbinding. This is one of his most attractive, balanced, and accomplished bindings.

Picture and text courtesy of the Morgan Library.


Medieval Reading, Islam and the Qur’an

By the end of the 8th century, the Islamic world stretched from Kabul and Samarkand in the East to Cordova and Marrakesh in the West. Naturally, the moniker “Islamic” does not do justice to the diversity of culture, language, ethnicity, or even religion among people living in these regions, particularly in the nascent days when the Arab tongue was young and Muhammad’s revelation mingled with Jewish, Christian and pagan beliefs. The same, of course, can be said of Christian Europe, and in the end “Christian” and “Islamic” are merely convenient labels to describe two heterogeneous cultural spheres. Be that as it may, in both cultures, reading played an essential role.

Both Christianity and Islam are book religions, and as such their impact on reading has been tremendous. “Qur’an” — the name of the holy book of Islam — derives “from the Arabic stem Qara’a , ‘to read’, ‘to recite'” and means “the ‘Reading’, the ‘Recitation’, i.e. the ‘Book’, par excellence” (Koran in the Catholic Encyclopedia). Biblia, the Books, and Qur’an, the Reading: these names, of course, carry ideological implications, but they also testify to the veneration of the written word and a thriving culture of reading and writing that might otherwise have been lost after the fall of Rome.

The Qur’an was not written from scratch, but underwent a complicated and nowadays hard to trace genesis until an authorized version was established around 930, more than 300 years after Allah’s words had been revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in 610. The revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet is the core of Islamic belief. As Peter Watson writes in Ideas:

After the idea of God as a unity, and submission, the next-most important idea in Islam is that Muhammad was the true messenger of God “whose only miracle was the Qur’an”. This solitary miracle reflects the essentially simple nature of the new faith — it had no theological complexities, like the Resurrection, the Trinity or Transubstantiation. (262)

Unlike Christians, who were eager translators of the Bible and today can seldom be bothered to learn Hebrew or Greek, the fact that the original Qur’an was recited in Arabic was and still is of crucial importance to Muslims:

The fact that the Qur’an is written in Arabic is all-important for pious Muslims, who believe that Arabic is the language of God and is the tongue spoken in Paradise. They believe that Adam originally spoke Arabic but forgot it and was punished by being made to learn other — inferior — languages. (263)

Consequently, Islam cultivated a tradition of religious reading centred around the recital and memorisation of the Qur’an and the hadith, acts or sayings attributed to Muhammad. “A divine presence is believed to descend during the act of reading the Qur’an” writes Steven Fischer in his A History of Reading:

[I]ts very calligraphy [is] a part of the supernatural conveyance: message and form are thus believed to be wedded in harmonious inspiration. None the less, Muslisms allow as well that the Qur’an’s true essence lies in the oral performance, in its reading aloud […] (152)

This emphasis on oral recital has a long tradition in Islam (the roots date back to Pre-Islamic times), which is evidenced among else by a deep love of rhetoric and poetry, as for example the famous Mu’allaqat, the seven “suspended” poems that once hung on the curtains of the Ka’ba, the most sacred site of Islam. Belief in the Qur’an reinvigorated this oral tradition and gave rise to innovations in writing throughout the 8th to the 10th century. These include introducing punctuation,  word spaces, pronunciation symbols, and the emergence of an elegant cursive script. (Incidentally, word spaces, ligatures and punctuation were at the same time developed in Constantinople — exciting times for grammarians!)

The innovations from the realm of religious reading were soon adopted for secular works. Similar to Christianity, Islam viewed secular literature with both curiosity and suspicion. Valens, the fourth century Roman-Christian emperor, is said to have persecuted “heretic” bookkeepers so fiercely that “throughout the Oriental provinces, owners of books, through fear of a like fate, burned their entire libraries, so great was the terror that had seized upon all” (qtd. in Watson, 245). And when in 640 Arabs conquered Alexandria, city of antiquity’s most legendary library, the caliph gave the order to destroy all the books that were not in accordance with Qur’an: “The burning scrolls heated the bath waters of Alexandria for six months. Only the works of Aristotle escaped the flames” (Watson, 245).

And yet, under the auspice of the wardens of the Qur’an, reading still thrived. The Caliphs built magnificent libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova; manuscripts were gathered and copied; scholars wrote commentaries and translations. Notable among the latter are the Aristotle translations of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-88), without whom Aristotle may have vanished from Western thought.

Islam also advanced the science of reading. The eleventh century scientist al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-c.1039), known in the West as Alhazen “elaborated a sophisticated theory of optics to explain what might be taking place during the process [of reading]” (Fischer, 157). Alhazen worked at the famous “House of Science” or “House of Wisdom“, founded by al-Ma’mun in 833 as Baghdad’s centre of learning. According to Alhazen’s theory , “the qualities of what we see enter the eye via the air” (Fischer, 157). He also introduced the important distinction between the involuntary act of sensation and the voluntary act of recognition, thus distinguishing “seeing” from “reading”. Alhazen died in Cairo in 1038. His theories were studied and revered by Roger Bacon, among others, and they opened a new vista on reading as an act uniting skills such as perception, “inference, judgement, memory, recognition, knowledge, experience, practice […] But how it all took place, what intricate and formidable connections these elements established among themselves, was a question that, for al-Haytham and for his readers, remained unanswered” (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 34-35).

السلام عليكم

(continued from Reading in the Early Middle Ages)


Reading in the Early Middle Ages

Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.

“Say who I am–glorious, useful to men, / Holy and helpful from beginning to end.” — thus asks the book riddle of the Exeter Book, a splendid repository of Old English poetry. The codex contains, among else, “The Seafarer”, and if you are not familiar with the sound of Old English poetry, I recommend you take a look at Ezra Pound’s marvellous modern translation of the poem.

Books were venerated in the Middle Ages. By their very nature, they were symbols of lasting wisdom, an antidote to the fragile life and fleeting thought of medieval man. The scrolls and wax tablets of ancient Rome were mere tools; the codices of medieval monasteries were sacred treasures, often clad in jewelled cases, chained to their shelves to protect them from thieves.

The Book of Kells, a magnificent testimony to the veneration of the book in the early Middle Ages

Nonetheless, reading in the early Middle Ages owed a lot to Roman culture. The Roman conquest introduced reading to Europe — inspiring Celtic and Germanic tribes to create runes, for example — and the Latin tongue was to become the backbone of literate Christian culture in the first millennium.

Reading in the Middle Ages effectively began with Christianity’s appropriation of the codex. Invented in the third century BCE, the codex succumbed to the popularity of the scroll, but reemerged when Christians in the 2nd century AD used it to collect and promote scripture. From a practical point of view, the codex fitted the needs of the young religion much better than the scroll: they needed instant access to the gospel and had to move back and forth between the words of Jesus Christ and the words of the Old Testament. They were missionaries who wanted to spread the word, and gather in churches to study the gospel of Christ, not pore over a dozen scrolls like a rabbi in his study. Further, the unity of the codex may have been seen as a symbol and promise of the unity of the Christian church. It certainly assumed this role once Church leaders began to address the question of the canon.

Quite naturally, the Christians in early Roman society were pariah. Every now and then, their people were abused as convenient scapegoats, officially persecuted for their “ludicrous” belief that a Jewish carpenter who lets himself be whipped like a slave and killed on a cross like a criminal could match the might of Jupiter. The world changed when emperor Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge. On the eve of the battle, Constantine was told in a vision that he would emerge victorious only if he fought under the sign of the true God — in hoc signo vinces. It was the dawn of Western Christian civilisation, and arguably the dawn of early medieval reading.

In Constantine’s realm, the Byzantine Empire, reading and writing, science and the arts, flourished, and fathered a book culture that would survive the decline of Rome in the abbeys and monasteries of 5th century. However, after Rome’s fall, the culture of reading became muted — not literally, because silent reading was still the exception, but because it became the business of monks and religion, of veneration of the holy book and the thoughts of the church fathers. It moved from the mundane to the divine: Reading became sacred.

The “barbaric” cultures of Europe — who were not so barbaric, after all — made some noble efforts to preserve Rome and Byzantium’s legacy of reading. But in the end it was Latin, the tongue of the Church, that carried reading into the new millennium. Chief among those who devoted themselves to safeguard the wisdom of books was Charlemagne, King of the Franks from768 to 814, who ushered in the Carolingian renaissance, perhaps the single most important cultural renewal of medieval civilisation. As Steven Roger Fischer notes:

[…] in his Admonitio generalis of 789 Charlemagne directed improvements aimed specifically at education, reading and writing. For example, each church and monastery in the realm was now to house only correct copies of books and to ensure that scribes, when copying or reading aloud, avoided corrupting a text. […] Almost overnight, Frankland’s libraries swelled with more trustworthy volumes, inspiring succeeding generations to emulation. Not only the Church Fathers but also Rome’s illustrious and their shadows were hand-transcribed in minuscule editions now permitting hardly a letter to vary from copy to copy. […] Carolingian scribes were the unsung saviours of Western written culture. (A History of Reading, 147-148)

Thus began the history of reading in the Christian Middle Ages.


Writing History

The Education of Henry Adams is a part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical narrative by and about the American historian Henry Adams. Set in the years 1838-1905, Adams’s autobiography devotes three chapters to the period of the Civil War — for me, this presented as good an opportunity as any to read more on the subject. Perusing a chronicle of the war, I soon came across mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln famously called her “the little lady who started this great war”. Her story about the ordeal of African American slaves had such a tremendous impact on the course of American history that many regard Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most influential book ever written.

I assume nobody would contest that books wield the power to shape our history. As Benjamin Disraeli once said:

An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior. A book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of Philosophy which have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed the social and political existence of our centuries. (qtd. in Otto Bergmann’s The Delights of Reading, 13)

Writing history, however, is like most human endeavours an exercise in simplification, and when we make a book a catalyst of historical narrative, we omit a thousand unseen threads and a million unheard readers. Nonetheless, the impact of books may help us invest our history, the history of humankind, with a purpose and a sense of progress: as authors we can startle and stir our readers; as readers we can turn the next page and, who knows, learn and remember from what has passed. This belief in a history that makes sense, a history striving towards something better, something greater, is vital if as a civilization we do not want to despair. Henry Adams, I believe, was seeking something very similar when, witnessing the Spanish-American war at the dawn of the 20th century, he wrote:

This was history, not education, yet it taught something exceedingly serious, if not ultimate, could one trust the lesson. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of possible purpose working itself out in history. […] Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught; but he thought he had a personal property by inheritance in this proof of sequence and intelligence in the affairs of man […] (The Education of Henry Adams, 363)


The Old Deal

This is no time for the collector to quit his books. He may have to quit his house, abandon his trip to Europe and give away his car; but his books are patiently waiting to yield their comfort and provoke him to mirth. They will tell him that banks and civilizations have smashed before; governments have been on the rocks, and men have been fools in all ages. But it is all very funny. The gods laugh to see such sport, and why should we not join them?

Paul Jordan-Smith, bibliophile, in 1933, “when America was mired in Great Depression”. Taken from Nicholas A. Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, 221-222.

Which reminded me of a statement by president Franklin D. Roosevelt from May 6, 1942, addressing the need of booksellers in time of crisis and despair:

I have been a reader and buyer and borrower and collector of books all my life. It is more important that your work should go on now than it has ever been at any other time in our history: in a very literal sense you carry upon your bookshelves the light that guides civilization … books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.

From Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador’s Book Row, xiv.


Reading in Ancient Rome

If you read Latin, you may have noticed that the title of my blog is derived from the Latin phrase “Legendum est” — you have to read. I am by no means a Latin scholar, but I do enjoy the odd trip to the past, and so I thought, why not post on reading in ancient Rome? Placete, lectores!

Trajan's Column

Incidentally, Rome’s legacy to reading happens to be quite substantial. One very visible remnant of this legacy today is the Times New Roman typeface, the serif-counterpart to Helvetica in terms of ubiquity. (I find the topic of typefaces rather sexy and must indulge in this quick digression.) Roman typefaces get their name from the marks left by the chisel in Roman inscriptions, a classic model of which is Trajan’s column, erected in Rome about 114 AD to commemorate the emperor’s military victories. Warren Chappell comments on the column’s roman typeface thus:

There are several ways of reaching a general understanding of the basic nature of roman. One logical and rewarding way is to think of the forms as a series of geometrical variations on a theme of square, circle, and triangle, which, when set together, will become a frieze of contracting and expanding spatial interruptions. This breathing quality is the very essence of the inscriptional concept, and is responsible for the liveliness as well as the nobility of the great classic carvings. (A Short History of the Printed Word, 22-23)

End of digression. To keep a permanent record of their history and ideas, Romans had, in addition to marble and stone, their trusted scrolls. (For quick notes, they depended on wax tablets.) In the 2nd century AD, the scroll was replaced by the codex, which was more enduring and made pages much more accessible. (That’s slightly unfair, perhaps, because technically the scroll didn’t have pages, but you get the point.) One can speculate about the influence that scrolling and the codex exerted on reading habits, but it seems likely that the inconvenience of scrolls forced readers to read much more attentively and memorize passages so as to avoid having to unwind the scroll again to find a certain passage.

Of course, Rome’s impact on reading culture goes beyond appearances and reading technology. Rome contributed significantly to the spread of literacy in the ancient world. Peter Watson credits Roman education as “the basis of modern educational system, and [it] was one of the elements leading to the birth of the West” (A History of Ideas, 212). Roman textbooks such as Quintilian’s book on rhetoric, Donatus’ grammar books, Marcellus’ lexicon or Martianus Capella’s treatise on the liberal arts were the ropes with which medieval Europe dragged itself out of the Dark Ages. And this is not to mention yet the Roman legacy to law and literature.

According to Watson, Rome managed to boost its literacy rate to 10%. The Athenians, a couple of centuries earlier, could boast only half as many literate citizens. “Probably,” Watson suggests, “tens of thousands of people could read in Rome, where there was, for the first time, such a thing as a literate culture” (ibid., 209). This culture was not just made up of lawyers and poets. Readers could be found everywhere, as evidenced by Trajan’s column, but also by more mundane reading matter such as domestic letters in Vinolanda, graffiti on the walls of Pompeji or treatises about farming, accounting or letter-writing. Such literature reflected Roman society’s concern for utilitas — usefulness. To Romans, reading was useful, and Watson quotes Echion from the Satyricon, who said habet haec res panem — this [reading, that is] has bread in it. Utilitas was so ingrained in Rome’s culture of reading that it even extended to such a seemingly otiose genre as poetry: good poetry, the poet Horace declared, ought to be both “dulce” (sweet) and “utile” (useful).

Rome also cultivated critical reading skills and scholarship. The Romans’ obsession with Greek literature led Roman scribes to publish carefully edited versions of Greek plays and poems. Of course, Rome created its own great classics, too, notably during the Golden Age of Latin, roughly situated in the period 100 BC-100 AD. Caesar and Cicero wrote magnificent Latin prose in the first century BC. Later, under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty), Virgil, Horace and Ovid composed some of the greatest poetry of the Western Canon. What do these works tell us about reading habits? Comparing Virgil’s Aeneid to Homer’s Ilias and Odyssey, for instance, we might surmise that Roman reading culture made significant steps towards literature for reading as opposed to literature for listening: Homer’s epics seem much more dramatic, visceral and formulaic than Virgil’s; in other words, they were composed for performance, not for contemplated reading. The Ilias celebrates the immortality of fame, and while I am convinced that Homer was aware that he, too, became immortalized in his verse, I cannot help the impression that Virgil and his fellow Romans were much more self-conscious about the potential immortality of the written word. Latin expresses this idea tersely in the motto “vox audita perit, littera scripta manet” — the spoken word perishes, the written word lasts.

However, such musings might suffer from misguided retrospection. As readers of the classics, we might overestimate the importance of poetry and literature in ancient Rome, for the meat and bone of Roman reading was law and rhetoric.*  The importance of rhetoric, nurtured by the importance of Roman law, was the reason many Romans were taught to read to begin with. Consequently, much training in reading was geared towards public speaking. Amongst other things, readers had to learn how to separate words in the unpunctuated scripta continua (unbroken writing). But future lawyers had to practice writing as well; a written rebuttal of a judge’s decision was not uncommon. Cicero was the greatest orator and rhetorician of all, and in his writing he often speaks keenly about the role of books, libraries (of which Rome had many) and education, and I mention him here because his tragic death stands as a reminder of Rome’s love for reading: he was assassinated while perusing Euripides’ Medea.

*We have to keep in mind, though, that Romans did not necessarily distinguish, the way we do, between poetry or fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other. Poetry, as mentioned earlier, had to be useful in order to be considered good. And orators were not faulted for making stuff up and be dramatic and subjective as long as it served the useful purpose of convincing and persuading others.


The Shelf and the Spine

Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf explains why shelving books vertically with their spine pointing outward was much less common in the olden days:

The spines of early books had been modest features indeed compared to the front and back covers. […] In many cases, the metal and jewel treatments of the front were nailed or otherwise fastened directly over leather or other binding material, emphasizing the plainness and subservient position of the spine. There was little that could be done otherwise, for the spine was in effect the hinge of the book, something that had to bend and flex if the book were to open properly, and so it was not suitable for heavy ornamentation. Indeed, the spine was to the cover as the downstairs would be to the upstairs in a Victorian mansion. (121)

Petroski illustrates his point with a series of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. They culminate in Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), one of Dürer’s four master cuts.

We see Saint Jerome poring over his translation of the Bible into vulgar Latin (the Vulgate). Conspicuously missing from the book pile next to the sleeping dog is a vertical spine. Books are lying either on their face or are propped against the wall, spine facing upwards. Some seventy years after Dürer, the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli decided to feature vertical shelving in a picture showing his book wheel, one of the most famous contraptions in book gadget history:

The picture dates back to 1588; notice the shelf in the background. According to Petroski, the way the books are shelved — spine out — was a rare sight at the time. We may attest their appearance to Ramelli’s flair for innovative design, but Petroski points out that Ramelli had been an engineer at the French court and might have come across spine-shelving there, the French being pioneers in that respect. Only toward the end of the 16th century, as books became more and more numerous, did book collectors and librarians start spine-shelving and spine-labelling in earnest. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of leather-bindings encouraged spine-decoration. By the 17th century, the spine had conquered the bookshelf.

As far as contemplating a “book thing” such as a shelf is concerned: may the wise men sneer! Yes, perhaps we should be reading our books instead of obsessing over their appearance, or their history, or their shelving. But I believe that the physical realm — a book touched, felt, shelved — is an essential part of the reading experience and too often neglected in its study. Let the wise men therefore be engrossed in their tomes. In the meantime, I shall be happy checking out some delicious book gadgets.

Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.


The Digital Library

I may have mentioned Robert Darnton’s article “The Library in the New Age” before on this blog, but it is well worth citing again alongside recent responses by Jean-Claude Guédon and Boudewijn Walraven. I must say I haven’t dabbled much in digital books despite their importance for the future of our book culture. Most definitely an area that merits further studying.


A History of Cheap Books, Part II: The Poets of John Bell

In an earlier post I sketched some of the milestones in cheap book publishing. Another cheap-book breakthrough was made in 1774 in England when the copyright law of 1709 finally came into force (earlier, the book traders and the courts had simply ignored the law and enforced their own copyright claims) in the momentous court decision Donaldson v. Beckett:

Among the chief offenders [of book piracy] was Alexander Donaldson, the “bold Robin Hood” to whom Boswell’s uncle drank a genial health in 1763. In 1774 Donaldson appealed to the House of Lords a Chancery decision forbidding him to publish or sell Thomson’s Seasons, a book which, under the law, had moved into the public domain. In one of the most momentous decisions in book-trade history (Donaldson v. Beckett) the concept of perpetual copyright was finally killed; copyright, the Lords held, ended when the Act of 1709 said it did. [i.e. 21 years in case of books already published and 28 years in future books] Now, for the first time, any book whose copyright had expired could be reprinted as cheaply as a publisher was able, without fear of legal complications. The consequences to the mass reading public are almost incalculable. (Altick, 53-54)

Among the beneficiaries of the case were 18th century book entrepreneurs such as John Bell, Alexander Hogg and John Cooke. According to Thomas Bonnell, Bell’s The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill not only made English poetry available to a wider audience, but also helped shape a canon of English poetry:

“The Plan of this undertaking,” Bell announced, was “to furnish the public with the most beautiful, the correctest, the cheapest, and the only complete uniform edition of the British Poets.” The projected one hundred volumes were to represent “all the British Poets from the time of Chaucer to Churchill” (MC, April 14, 1777). The new edition would, according to Bell, fill an obvious void. Booksellers, he explained, had long vied for distinction in publishing the Greek and Latin classics; consequently it was rather easy to obtain a set of the ancient classics. To collect the English poets was, by contrast, a “business of time, difficulty, and vast expense,” even for residents of London, and to collect them “uniformly printed, so as to appear in a library as one and the same book,” was out of the question. Italy and France, Bell claimed, had already “rewarded the memories of their illustrious countrymen” by publishing uniform editions of their works. Unaccountably negli- gent by comparison, Great Britain had yet to honor her own worthies, to recognize them in “a general and uniform publication” as “English classics.” Bell’s Poets, the prospectus assured, would answer this need.8 If one considers Bell’s explicit design, the great size of his undertaking, and his pointed and persistent advertising, then the significance of the Poets becomes clear: it was the first serious attempt to publish a comprehensive English literary canon. (Bonnell, 130)

Bell’s business model for the Poets took its inspiration from the House of Elzevier, who had pioneered the publication of cheap classics:

Before we proceed, two aspects of Bell’s plan are worth pausing over. First, Bell alludes to the Elseviers, the seventeenth-century Dutch booksellers renowned for printing, with high typographical standards, reliable yet inexpensive classical texts in a small format. Without claiming more than a likeness in size, Bell associates his enterprise with these famous imprints. Was this an illegitimate advertising ploy? Without pushing the comparison, we may grant the young bookseller a place in the tradition he invokes, that of promoting a “classical” literature through small and relatively inexpensive volumes. Among the obvious differences between the Elseviers and Bell is the market each served: whereas the Dutch with their Latin classics largely served university needs, Bell took his English classics to a broader public. (Bonnell, 139)

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. [1957] Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, 1963.

Bonnell, Thomas F. “John Bell’s ‘Poets of Great Britain:’ The ‘Little Trifling’ Edition Revisited.” Modern Philology 85.2 (1987): 128-152.