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Paging Through Book History

Normally, book collecting, regardless of theme or author, is all about three things: condition, the earliest or rarest edition, and condition.

While many are charmed by the things found inside previously owned books, the older the book, the more fragile the paper, and so even finding a pressed four leaf clover inside the aging fragile paper is not considered lucky. But there is something far worse.

Like most readers, book and manuscript collectors are driven to distraction to find markings and/or writings in books. The more writing, the less desirable the book. However, this rule of conditions, like most collecting rules, has exceptions.

The first exception: The writing is proven to be from the hand of a famous person or identifiable historical figure. (This would cross over into autograph collecting, ephemera collecting, the annotations part of research, etcetera.)

The second exception: The writing is so illuminating and/or amusing, that the book is far better for it. (The notes written in the margins, or around the text of a book, by a previous owner are called “marginalia”.)

Perhaps no area of marginalia is as fascinating as that done by ancient monks in the pages of illuminated manuscripts; perhaps none as amusing as those monks complaining.  In Living in the Margins (Means of Communication, the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly), Colin Dickey shares, among other things, a transcribed list of complaints made by those literally writing the book. This is just a snippet of it:

The notes themselves remind us of a time, a place, a work from long ago. Or, as Dickey writes more poetically, that “in their depiction of themselves in the process of making the very text we are reading, they proclaim the manuscript as manuscript, as a material object—inviting us to consider not just the terms of the allegory, but the literal surface on which it rests, and a reminder of the lowly craftsmen who lie always behind great works of literature and make them possible.”

My favorite quote from one of the monks sums it up best:

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”


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