Tag Archives: books

My library — had I the wealth and space

Sometimes I think, ‘If I had the money and the space, what would my personal library look like?’ One of my friends said that he’d rebind all his Star Wars novels in leather given the money and opportunity! I don’t own any Star Wars novels, so here are my thoughts…

First, I would buy facsimiles of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells, the Greek Bible Codex called ‘Vaticanus’, and maybe a facsimile of one of those bilingual Bible manuscripts like Claromontanus. Then I’d be set for Bibles, right? I’d also buy my very own mediaeval Book of Hours. You can order them here.

Having done that, I would acquire a vast professional library of primary (ancient & mediaeval) texts in critical editions and translations. For texts, this is the entire series of: Oxford Classical Texts, Teubners, Loeb Classical Library, Budés, Patrologia Latina and Graeca, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, all ancient Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (CCSL) and Graeca, select CCSL Continuatio Medievalis, Sources Chrétiennes, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Henry Bradshaw Society, The Library of Early Christianity (like Loebs), Oxford Early Christian Texts, and the Latin & Greek volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (excluding the Vulgate). For translations, this is all the ancient and mediaeval Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics, and all of Translated Texts for Historians, Ancient Christian Writers, The Fathers of the Church, the old Ante-Nicene Fathers & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ancient Christian Texts (IVP), Cistercian Studies Series, Popular Patristics Series, and a variety of individual titles from other text or translation series. Also, Aquinas in Latin and in English.

Having plumbed the depths of the ancient, patristic, and medieval publishing houses, I would set up the reference section of my library: The Cambridge Ancient History, The New Cambridge Medieval History, the New Pauly (why not?), the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Quasten’s Patrology, Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon, 4th ed. Oxford Classical Dictionary, and the 2nd ed. Oxford Latin Dictionary. Already own LSJ. And probably some series about art history, but I don’t really know.

The raw material for crafting history, criticism, and theology would now be at my fingertips. I would proceed to acquire those histories and commentaries and other secondary works of scholarship that are pertinent to my own particular, current research projects, to wit, Leo the Great, the fifth century, and textual criticism.

But why stop there? Why leave it professional?

For fun, I would get the complete works of G K Chesterton, Ray Bradbury, and C S Lewis. I would get all of Asimov’s stories, by hook or by crook. I would get classics of English literature in lovely editions, buying up Dickens and Stevenson and John Donne and George Herbert and Edmund Spenser and Jane Austen at used bookshops one select edition at a time. I would replace some of the cheaper editions to which I am not attached with older or lovelier ones, such as my copies of The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, and Dracula. I would find Le Morte Darthur with Beardsley’s illustrations. I would get a few of the posthumous Tolkien publications that I don’t yet have, but not all of them. Basically, the usual suspects.

And I would put these in a room with a bay window with cushions. A desk with one of those green lamps would dominate the centre of the room, the seat towards the bay window. A couch with a table to one sit would sit on one wall for when I’m not at the desk. The wood would be all dark, the leather read, the carpet Persian.

If I had the money. If I had the space.

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Reading better, not more

BooksSeveral months ago, I loaned my copy of Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas to a friend. One day, in conversation, she mentioned one of the sagas and what was happening. And I had no idea what she was talking about. I had read the book last year in Germany, but even now I can remember few precise details of the sagas contained therein.

The problem was that I had read it too quickly. I hadn’t digested it. I had read it with little attention, flitting through the German countryside on the train or sitting at Burger King in the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof waiting to visit the next city on my tour of German libraries. I hadn’t read it thoughtfully and carefully and reflectively.

This happens a lot, I think, especially to those of us who read a lot. Sometimes you don’t process everything as much as it deserves. You just plough on through even though you may not remember what you’ve just read by the next day or next hour, even.

Some of us do a roundup of how many scores of books we read each year. It’s sort of like back in junior high when readers would show off by discussing how long some book they’d read was. Or, if their own prowess was not enough, some guys would brag about their brothers. I remember one guy proclaiming with pride, ‘My brother has read Shogun!’ And that book clocks in at 1152 pages, according to Goodreads. So there. My brother’s a better reader than you.

But is he?

I think there’s something to be said for competently reading a long book. They tend to be more complex than short ones, athough some of them may just be one thing after another. But reading City of God or The Lord of the Rings is more complex than reading The Confessions or The Hobbit. That’s just the way a well-written long book is — it works out to be more complex than a shorter one by the same author, the space allowing for greater complexity.

But a careless reading of The Lord of the Rings is not necessarily better than a careful reading of The Hobbit.

And so I’ve been trying to become a bit more of a thoughtful reader, pausing between and during books. That’s why more Goodreads reviews have been appearing on this blog lately. I want to find articles and stuff online, too, if I have time. To really absorb and appreciate the books I read. I’ll probably end up reading fewer, but the ones I read, I’ll read better.

Books As Objects: Including Reminiscences of Oxford & London, in Which Places I Saw Books

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.