“Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some to be chewed and digested.”*

3 11 2008

I think this is just wonderful:

Rare books and manuscripts, once restricted to scholars and graduate students in white gloves, are being incorporated into undergraduate courses at institutions like the University of Iowa, Smith College, the University of Washington and Harvard. Last academic year, almost 200 classes and student tours visited the rare-books collection of the University of Pennsylvania. That’s almost three times the number of visitors five years ago, according to Mr. Pollack.

Dusty bits may fall off cracked leather bindings, but medieval paper made from discarded clothing, and parchment or vellum from animal skins, are remarkably durable. Gloves, it has been decided, make a reader paw at pages, with more potential to rip them (while diminishing the sensory experience). Now, dry, clean hands are the preferred tool, with no liquids or pens in sight.

Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, encourages students to hold, page through and sniff the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio, which he uses in his course “The Book From Gutenberg to the Internet.” “Books have a smell, especially rare books,” he says.

Mr. Darnton asks his students to “diagnose the symptoms” of a book — bits of petticoat in rag-based pages, symbols stamped in the binding, scribblings in the margins, called marginalia. By examining a book’s physical attributes, he says, “you can enter a world we have lost and understand it as it was.”

When Francis Bacon offered up the quote I titled this post after, he was undoubtedly speaking about the content of particular books.  Nevertheless, this description of the sensory experiences of reading a rare book made me feel the same way.  I love Google Books for making it easier for me to read rare books from before copyright protection kicked in, but there’s no doubt that the reader misses something when you can only see a book online.

Consider Audubon’s Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh, for example.  The pictures look fantastic, as you might expect, but unless you have the biggest computer screen in the world, there’s no accounting for the sheer size of that book.  I saw it just last summer at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and it’s so big it is literally awesome.  On the other hand, I think they only turn the page in the display case once a month (or something like that).

It’s hard to say anything against conservation, but books were meant to be used.  Perhaps the ability to scan rare books, might make more depositories let their collections breathe more.  On that same trip to Philaldelphia APS did a dog and pony show for our tour group that let them see highlights from the collection.  There is a kind of chill people get when they’re in the presence of rare primary sources that is worth more than any lecture ever given.

*  I admit it.  I distinctly remember first seeing this quote on a wall at a Barnes and Noble.  Is that so wrong?

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One response

3 11 2008
robertdfeinman

I have a similar view about photographs (or wall art in general), most images are seen electronically these days and not in person. Previously much fine art was seen via printed books, so this is not a new phenomena.

One has only to look at the hundreds of varieties of inkjet papers that have appeared on the market to see that people feel there is a value in producing a tangible image on paper with certain specific characteristics. Nevertheless what we mostly see is an electronic representation on a computer or TV screen. That is, one sees the “image” but not the work of art.

I have similar complaints about movies made out of novels. The author goes to great lengths to paint a word picture (“the burbling brook meandered…”) and what one sees on the screen is a view of a brook, the poetical language is lost.

I don’t have a cure for this, but I think allowing more art to flourish rather than it becoming yet another winner takes all race (the Met Museum in NYC has something like 3 million objects in storage) would at least allow people to experience local art directly.

It’s interesting that the two new art forms of the 20th Century (movies and recorded music) can’t be experienced directly, only the electronic form exists. So I guess we are just being old fashioned…

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