Book qua book


E-books, graphic novels, even Facebook … we may know when it ended, but when, actually, did the object we call a “book” actually begin?  Not scrolls, not papyrus, but actual, bound reading material that are recognizably books?

A few days ago, I wrote about the information revolution brought about by Gutenberg’s press (and I was pleased that the New Yorker linked to my post here).  But the acclaimed exhibition currently at the British Library tackles the question from a different angle.  (The Queen launched the exhibition on Monday – read and see more here and here).

What struck me as remarkable is how stable “the book” was in the centuries prior to Gutenberg.  Beginning with a 500 A.D. fragment of Genesis from the Eastern Mediterranean, the exhibition suggests a very early date.  Alas, the whole of this early work (“probably never before or since was the book of Genesis so profusely illustrated”)  was mostly destroyed in a 1731 fire.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. may have transformed the preexisting culture in many ways – but clearly not the book. It’s pretty much the same glorious product you see after the Conquest. In the exhibition, the psalters and prayerbooks go back to the early 9th century.

The signature piece for the exhibition, the early 15th century “God the Creator” featured on the catalog cover above (I couldn’t resist shelling out the £25 for the hefty tome – I have no idea how I’ll lug it home…) was perhaps my favorite.  A practical God measures separates the earth and the waters with calipers, against a crowd of nearly invisible blue angels. He is surrounded by a mandorla of red seraphim.

All of this is far, far from the Penguin paperback I stuffed into my handbag for train reading. Gutenberg has a lot to answer for.


2 Responses to “Book qua book”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    Did the exhibition mention the British Museum’s Diamond Sūtra? The colophon dates it to AD 868, it’s beautifully printed on paper with wood-carved moveable type and an elegant frontispiece. A man named Wang, a self appointment custodian of the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang sold the Diamond Sūtra along with a huge trove of ancient manuscripts and books to explorer, Aurel Stein, for silver horseshoes, in 1907.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Hello, Elena. The exhibition focused only on “royal manuscripts” of the medieval period, collected and donated by British monarchs. The earliest are early 9th century works – so we’re in the same ball park!