Old Books

This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because as I was going through my phone looking for the 4-5 photos I imagined attaching, I ended up with more like 20. Basically, I’ve been taking a class on the history of the book, and each week I kinda have to keep myself from crying a little bit. Last Friday we went to see a master bookbinder’s workshop, the week before we talked about printing and got to hold a first edition of Nicholas Nickleby / Charles Dickens and then go to the print lab at the U of A, AND we get to look at the copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle  that the special collections has, and on the FIRST DAY of this course we got to hold and touch with our bare hands a book of hours from the 1400s. It’s illuminated, it’s beautiful.

I don’t know if I can properly explain to you how this class makes me feel. It barely feels like school. I mean, I’m learning a great deal and I’ve still got assignments (some of which are onerous), but I’m just enjoying myself so much and we have more field trips in the next few weeks. We’re going to a paper making studio! I kept putting this post off because I wanted to show you more of what I’m doing, but maybe I’ll just tell you about paper-making after we go, and this post is already spectacularly late.

On to the photos!


When printing became popular after the printing press was developed in the late 1400s, people had less use and regard for manuscripts. Manuscripts were also written on parchment or vellum rather than paper, and people would recycle the manuscripts into covers for their printed, paper books. Listen, this makes me suffer a little bit but not nearly as much as seeing LAMP SHADES made out of manuscripts in Hearst Castle. LOOK, WE GET IT, HEARST: YOU’RE TOO RICH.


This is the Tinctor manuscript, which is a treatise about witchcraft. It predates the Malleus Maleficarum WHICH I REALIZE doesn’t mean much to non-nerds, but the MM was extensively drawn from by the people who led the witch hunts in places like Salem. This book is: a big deal.


This is the book of hours which is like a fancy weird calendar that rich people had in the middle ages. I do not know wtf is going on in this painting, BUT check out the intricacy of that illumination. This is done by hand, probably by monks but maybe not, on parchment which is stretched cow skin. This was painted sometime in the 1400s and it’s still bright and beautiful, also the gold parts are gold leaf, not paint. As you can see, we got to touch and hold this book and carefully turn the pages. After this class someone was saying how a person cried over a first edition of a Jane Austen and caused some damage to the book and I was like, “OH YEAH NO ONE WOULD EVER CRY OVER BOOKS, ESPECIALLY NOT ME.”


This is a closer view of the Tinctor, just to show you how the original velvet is still going strong. Here’s the thing: this book was 100 years old when Shakespeare was born and THE VELVET IS STILL GOING STRONG. The book has the plastic around it to keep the binding in place, because this book is v old and while the velvet still looks great, the binding is quite fragile. The pages inside, however, are still beautifully pristine. We weren’t allowed to touch this one. If you want to see a complete digitization of the book, you can do so HERE. It’s in whatever version of French they spoke in ~1460 so good luck reading it.


SPEAKING OF OLD BOOKS. Hello, this is a complete cuneiform tablet from 4000 years ago. That’s my hand holding it. The librarian at the special collections joked that it was an example of “one of the first miniature books”. Somebody wrote on this FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO. Sometimes when I get home from this class I need to lie down for awhile.


Let’s take a break from the constant astonishment to enjoy some lovely marbling. It’s very pretty! It’s in a book from one of the most prominent early printers.


This little doodle was repeated a few times throughout this book, and I cannot get over it. It’s hilarious. Also: sometimes things happen or I learn things that make me feel connected to the past, and make me feel like humans have always been humans and share a lot of similar experiences. Things like this lil doodle make me feel that way. Also, monks used to add a line or two to the end of a manuscript when they were done writing it and they were things like “Thank God it will soon be dark” and “oh, my hand” and good gracious if I haven’t felt the same way. Complaining: connecting me with medieval monks.


These three woodcuts are found in the Nuremberg Chronicle, which is basically a history of the world. These pictures are interesting because they are all popes. But wait! That’s a lady at the bottom! Yes, friend, that is Pope Joan and no one knew she was a woman until she had a baby during a parade. I’m pretty sure she was killed very soon after that but still: a Lady Pope. Some people in my class were like “but isn’t the pope not allowed to have sex” and I was like “uh………since when did that stop the pope.” There is a possibility that Pope Joan is apocryphal, but the fun thing about possibly-true history is that you get to decide if you believe it or not and guess what? There was a female pope.


On the day we were learning about printing we got to see a lot of the library’s collection of early printing, and this one is from 1481. People moved from manuscripts-only in the early 1400’s to printing mania in the late 1400s. It’s the kind of shift in technology and information dissemination that we’ve seen with the internet, although the computer age moves even faster.


We also learned about woodcuts! This is a slapdash woodcut done on a cheap lil pamphlet of songs.


This is a much better woodcut! Also: I am very mature and had to stifle a guffaw at the name “bustard”.


OKAY now this is also a woodcut but clearly it is the wood part and not the printed part. There is something special about this woodcut and it is this: this is a woodcut from early editions of Dickens. I don’t know which book because I forgot to ask but geez louise, I love this class. This is a piece of literary history and I just get to HOLD IT?


Woodcuts are lovely and can get very detailed, blah blah blah.


This is a first edition Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens’ books were published as serials, hence the number of volumes here, and also why his books are so damn long. Fun fact: people will tell you that Dickens was paid by the word and this is just as false as the “frogs will stay in hot water until the die if you turn the heat up slowly” thing, which is to say: it’s false.  He was paid by the installment. (Also false is the notion that we only use 10% of our brains.) I like the idea of people waiting impatiently for the next part of a Dickens story. It’s like waiting for a new season or new episode of a tv show. Oh hey, guess what, humans across the ages are all connected, I’m going to cry forever. Like I watched the Bleak House miniseries and couldn’t wait for the next episodes and people felt that same way about the book when it was being published! Crazy! I read the book all in one (very long) go, so it’s not quite the same experience there.


These two pictures are both illustrations from Nicholas Nickleby, and would have been made with a woodcut like the one up above. Look at the detail! I haven’t read this book but I have watched the movie and while Bleak House is roughly 100 times better it’s not half bad AND I know what’s going on in these scenes and once again: connection to the past.



Moving on from books to a book binder! This is SALMON LEATHER????????? IT’S POSSIBLE.


Here’s where I started feeling overwhelmed and awestruck at the book binder’s. These are all for tooling the leather on the binding of a book. There are: so many of them.


For making long patterns on bindings. These two pictures represent a mere fraction of the tools this guy had. How do I become a book binder???????????


Examples of different types of binding as well as a pile of books to show us what different leathers look like once they’ve been stretched and tooled and made into a binding. One of these (I think the big one in the middle under the little one but I could be wrong) is bound with leather from a reindeer. You can still buy the leather made by the same people at the same time – the 1700s – because a ship that was carrying it sank in the English channel and when people dived down to it in 1973, they found rolls of leather that had been bound so tightly that the leather a few layers down was perfectly preserved. They’ve stopped diving for it because of the currents where the ship wreck is, so clearly this leather is a) very expensive, and b) hard to get. And the book binder had a piece of it! SHIP WRECK LEATHER.


At one point the book binder went through the history of binding from how it was done when monks were the ones copying manuscripts to when it moved into mass-production. This book is an example of an early bind: wooden cover, raised straps, hand-sewn headbands incorporated in the binding, EXTREMELY STURDY. Hence why books like these still survive while books that we make now are COMPLETE SHIT (sorry mom, I’m very fired up).

I didn’t even scratch the surface on all the things this course is teaching me and allowing me to do. Like we got to run a letter press a couple weeks ago, and there are so many other books I’ve been able to hold and exclaim over, and I just feel so privileged to be able to take this class. When I registered for classes back in March there was a SITUATION and I wasn’t able to register in time to get into this class (there’s only 16 spots), and it wasn’t until a few days before the semester started that a place opened up. I debated whether or not to switch into it because it’s on Friday mornings and can you imagine the heaps of regret I would be experiencing if I hadn’t?

I’ll tell you all about paper-making in a couple of weeks.

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