Books, Glorious Books

Has a book ever given you chills? Or made you cry?

No, I don’t mean from reading some bump-in-the-night thriller or a weepy love story. I mean just being in the physical presence of a book – one you can’t even read.

Me neither – until this week.

Lots of B.D. there, not surprisingly

I didn't even get to the Isamu Noguchi sculptures...

For the last 18 months or so, as I’ve strolled around the Yale campus for this and that, I’ve gone past the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library many times and thought, “I should check that out.” But I never did. Just went about my business. But Thursday was the penultimate (I love that word…) day of an exhibit at the library called “Doonesbury in a Time of War,” featuring original art from Garry Trudeau who, of course, began that famous strip while a student at Yale. The exhibit was small but entertaining, but the library – man, that was some unexpectedly powerful shit.

Hooke's big bug

There was another exhibit filling the hall with the Doonsebury strips, and I just sort of poked my way around it as I was getting ready to go. But this was not something I could easily leave: some hundred-plus books from the 16th and 17th century, in various sizes and thicknesses, some illustrated, some in Latin, many with familiar names. A version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey translated by Hobbes; a history of Britain by Milton; Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, with one of his detailed illustrations prominently displayed (a book I had ordered on CD when I was doing a biography of the largely forgotten scientist). Throw in works by Bacon, Newton, Swift, Samuel Johnson, and you’re talking about some heavy-duty brain power gathered in one spot – and all in the original works. On paper.

I tried to imagine some future museum or library dedicated to the great works of our era, stored on a Kindle. So you would have – what? Identical rectangular boxes, their screens lit to one page (for as long as the batteries lasted, that is), with none of the sense of the enormity of a particular work laid out for you to grasp in an instant, none of the bookbinders’ and illustrators’ craft there to appreciate along with the written words they frame. This exhibit, this entire library, was proof enough for me that the digital media will never replace the book. But then, I am a dinosaur.

So the exhibit I circled gave me the goosebumps. And the tears? They came when I saw a part of the library’s collection that is always on display. I walked over to a glass case, and a light inside automatically clicked on. And there in front of me was something I had read about, written about, so often, but never imagined I would actually see.

A Gutenberg Bible.

The good book as I had never seen it before

The fabled product of that German goldsmith-turned-inventor/printer. No, not the first ever example of a book produced by movable type, but the first one in the West, and the one that set the ball rolling for the explosion of literacy and the use of the vernacular in our culture (umm, I’m ad libbing on the history here, feeling too lazy to get too into the details. Suffice to say, a significant achievement). And so, standing there alone in the library, without thinking, just feeling the power of the importance of the simple book before me, I started to cry. No, nothing too overt or hysterical. But the tears were there.

And then I went home. I thought about the books that surround me. The many I have sold or donated over the years, to make room for new ones. The ones I‘ve written. My god, in my small way I am carrying on this great historical achievement. Yes, very small. But I felt comfort in the continuity of the written word, of the impact of the book. I cherished the sensory pleasures a book can give – the smell, the touch, and of course the visual and mental stimulation. And realized, again,  I will always be a dinosaur in some ways – with no regrets.

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~ by mburgan on December 19, 2010.

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