After two weeks of research in Oxford, I stopped off in London Friday night until my train whisked me back home to Edinburgh last night at 1700. Whilst in London, I spent the night at James’s and Saturday afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave. On Saturday morning, James and I walked along the South Bank of the Thames to Lambeth Palace where I went to the fabulous exhibit, ‘Royal Devotion’, about the history of the Book of Common Prayer, whose most popular edition, that of 1662, celebrates 350 years this year (with much less fervour than the KJV of 1611 of last year).
James asked me if I had ever thought of work in the business world. I said I hadn’t, really, except for a couple of small business ideas I’ve had. One was simply to open up a used bookshop. The other was Scriptorium, which would primarily focus on printing using antique or replica printing presses. We’d print books, posters, invitations, business cards, and do it with style, all old-school like. James wanted to know if there is a real difference in old techniques of printing. I said that there is, because, unlike modern litho, older printing actually prints on the page, which gives the printed book a literally different feel (and also a different aesthetic).
To demonstrate this tactile difference between the generations of printed books, I pulled out my 1939 edition of selected Essays by G K Chesterton, published by Collins. I opened it randomly to a page and got James to feel it. You can actually feel where the type pressed the book when it printed the words. You see — printing press. As it turns out, just re-feeling the book now, my 1939 Chesterton Essays is not the most pressed book out there. I have some old sheet music that is more dramatically pressed by far. But it made the point.
James had to leave at Lambeth, necessity drawing him to Jason’s wedding that afternoon. I paid admission to the exhibit, about which I had read in History Today where it was lauded as the best exhibit in London at present. I was very impressed. There were mediaeval breviaries and Books of Hours, as well as early printed missals. A copy of Quignon’s breviary was there as well, a book that stood as the precursor in many ways to Cranmer’s reformed Office. We had early Lutheran liturgies and Queen Mary’s mid-16th-century printing of Sarum on display; copies of every edition of the Prayer Book (1549, 1552, 1558, 1562, 1662 as well as the Scottish 1637) and the developing services, from the first English liturgy (the Litany) to the services of ordination; and there was the first Mohawk Prayer Book, a Diamond Jubilee Prayer Book from 1897, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own copy of the Coronation service from 1953 as well as from the wedding of Will and Kate last year.
Outside of being testaments to the development of the liturgy over time — which they were, and which a student of liturgy would love to see in detail, from Sarum to Quignon to the Lutherans to Cranmer to his successors to Baxter’s attempts at a Puritan liturgy to New Zealand and North America — these books were objects. Beautiful objects like Richard III’s illuminated Book of Hours or the massive 1662 BCP in pride of place.
They are also useable and used objects. In a Breviary on display, in the Kalendar, Sts Damasus and Silvester had the word papa scratched out from beside their names. Another had two pages open where every saints day was crossed out by black Xs. There were handwritten rubrics by William Laud. There was a pre-1662 Prayer Book full of annotations for the new Prayer Book and sealed by the bishops’ seals. There was a Prayer Book with part cut out and a new prayer written in its place on the facing page. There was a prayer in the very hand of Queen Anne for the monarch’s protection.
Books are objects.
That afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave, I saw the treasures on display at the British Library. There was St Cuthbert’s Gospel of John, a manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and a beautiful illuminated Life of St Cuthbert by Bede. There were illuminated manuscripts from around the world — the Golden Haggadah in Hebrew, the intricacies of Islamic geometric illumination, many Bibles and Books of Hours, an illuminated Armenian book of saints’ lives, and a fantastically illuminated Ethiopian copy of Revelation. Two Wycliffite Bibles were on display, and there, on the back of a birthday card, were the lyrics to ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’
In a digital age, words have ceased being things in our minds. They are not inscribed, not carefully inked, not pressed. With the flash of a finger, the backspace key can eliminate them for eternity. Yet words and literature, poetry and prose, have tended historically to have been preserved from one hand to another, one age to another, in books. And books are objects.
They can be beautiful, as I so happily observed yesterday. And so these exhibits were a fitting close to two weeks of daily work with a manuscript from the 1100s, with a book that a scribe or two (I think at least two based on the variation in hands between start and finish, plus whoever the corrector was) wrote in brown and black ink on the skin of several goats. In red, every new item was announced to the reader. Each important section was set out from the rest with a littera notabilior in red or blue ink, the practice of writing the first letter much larger than the rest (occasionally continued today). I loved it.
Perhaps I shall go on about my love of mediaeval books later, however.
Nonetheless, a book is an object. In an age of Kindles and Kobos, of PDFs and printouts, of archive.org and Google Books, in an age of perfect and terrible cover art, we have an image of the word as unfleshed. To us, the words are unmediated, and we think there is no difference between a PDF and a Kindle or a new Oxford World’s Classic and an old one. But there is. And the objectified reality of the printed book, especially in the beauty of old ones, reminds us who prefer the book daily that all literature and human thought comes to us through a medium of one sort or another.
Therefore, why not make the medium beautiful? Such was the goal of our forebears. For the literature in a book is not like a cheap whore to be tossed aside at the end of reading. It will stay with you forever. It should be mulled over again and again. I have many a time reread ‘On Lying in Bed.’ My greatest enjoyment was in the 1939 Collins edition of Chesterton’s selected Essays that I showed James yesterday morning on the way to Lambeth Palace.