Saturday, April 4, 2009


1 a: a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory b: a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume c: a long written or printed literary composition

I've re-arranged my work schedule for the month of April to try to have more time for myself on Fridays, with no children around. I worked for a few hours yesterday and then went to the Frist to see their Medieval Treasures exhibit. I was really looking forward to this exhibit, especially the illuminated manuscripts. I love the way the illuminators interwove classical imagery, elements from nature and vivid colors to heighten the impact of the text itself. The word "book" just doesn't seem to fully capture these objects. They are so much more than "a set of written sheets of skin or paper."

One of my favorites from the exhibit was a Book of Hours that belonged to Queen Isabella of Spain. It was created in 1500 and I found it not only striking how beautiful this 500 year old book was, but that the Queen who financed Columbus' trip to the Americas once held it in her hands. What an amazing link to history, right there under the glass case. It's hard for me to decide where to start looking at an object as beautiful as this one. The flowers in the border, the illuminations or the ornate script. I can not fathom owning a book this gorgeous, but I do wonder how it would impact my experience of the text.

We own a lot of books. We don't keep an exact inventory, but an estimate would be that there are probably 1,000 books in our house right now. Some of them are lovely, especially the words in them, but they aren't hand-made, they aren't hand-illustrated, they aren't works of visual art. Does this make them any less valuable? Yes and no. Quite literally, they are far less expensive than Isabella's Hours. But they hold valuable knowledge, they offer countless inspirations and innumerable moments of pleasure.

I found myself thinking as I looked at medieval art about the trade-offs that progress brings. Isabella owned this book because she was a queen. She could read this book because she was a queen. Had one of her servants happened upon it, she might have paused to look at the glowing images, but the words would have been meaningless to her. Until books could be mass produced, everyday people like me couldn't read.

I'll be honest. As I looked at the illuminated books, I felt the weight of the shabbiness of the books we hold in our hands every day. They are dull, lifeless items compared to these gems. But I would gladly trade the ability to read, the ever-presence of words and accessibility of books for the beauty of those pages. What good would it do me to have a book this beautiful and not be able to read the words?

This is not a small trade off. I found myself longing to read Greek and Latin today so that I could not only ponder the images surrounding the text, but the text itself. It seems to me that it would have been such a rich experience to read calligraphic words surrounded by acanthus leaves, classical columns and budding flowers. I think the illustrations of the text would enhance my experience of the words.

But I may not ever get to have that experience. Instead, I'll pick up my simply bound book with more than 300 pages of fiction inside, and be thankful for the plentiful supply of books today.


Variations On A Theme said...

Every few years we purge our bookshelves. Sometimes when I purge, I think, "Well, that'd be easy to get at the library, so I'll just get rid of that." But with others (so many others), I think, "Oh! I just loved that book! I can't get rid of it!"

And then I think bizarre thoughts like, "What if our city were bombed and we lost our downtown library. It'd be up to people like me (and you and thousands of others in Nashville) to supply the books for everyone."

Chocolate, Vanilla and Caramel said...

I love books. I always have. Reading is one of the things that most refreshes me, besides writing. This was a great post. Sounds like a neat exhibit.