For a certain type of book nerd, Rare Book School at the University of Virginia is the closest a person can come to Valhalla. Every summer, bibliophiles from around the world gather for week-long courses on almost every aspect of the history of the book, in an atmosphere that combines deep immersion in the most mysterious aspects of printing, binding and bibliography with the let’s-put-on-a-show camaraderie of a sleepaway camp.
But in the meantime, an exhibit at Manhattan’s Grolier Club gives the rest of us a taste of the school’s distinctive practical methods, as well as an expansive, more than 2,000-year history of bookmaking.
“Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present,” on view until December 23, draws on the more than 100,000 items in the school’s educational collection. There are printing blocks, binding tools, ink brushes, paper samples, printer’s proofs, strange contraptions and of course lots of books, of an 8th century Japanese Buddhist sutra BC to a faded copy of Madonna’s “Sex”.
If there’s one overriding lesson behind the series’ deceptively dry title, it’s that every book, whether of exquisite rarity or the humblest of beat-up paperbacks, tells a story – even before you just start reading it.
“There’s so much history and so many stories lurking on the surface,” said Barbara Heritage, associate director of the Rare Book School, which curated the exhibit with Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, in a interview. “There are amazing stories that these books carry like vessels.”
The items on display range in size from a small volume of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, measuring less than an inch high, written circa 1929 by students at a Tennessee press, to an enormous double-folio edition of elephant from “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon. — a literal monument to bookmaking.
There’s also a 19th-century notebook in nearly translucent ivory (for easy erasing), a miniature almanac concealed in a wooden box carved and painted to look like a bun (created as a business card for a Viennese bookbinder 18th century). ), and a roll of ready-to-bind reindeer hide that was harvested by the Sami in the 18th century, lost in a shipwreck and then rescued 200 years later, still scented with birch oil.
“We have photographs of students who feel it,” said St. Onge, who until recently was the collection’s associate curator.
And then there’s “On the Slates,” a 1992 experimental book by Clark Coolidge. It consists of poems printed on sheets the size of dollar bills, which are rolled up in real dollar bills overprinted with the address of the press, tied together with a shoelace and hidden in a dented men’s shoe tucked away in a shoebox.
Is it really a book?
“One of the things we want the show to do is really challenge the idea of what a book is,” Heritage said.
What a book is has certainly changed over time, as clay tablets, papyrus rolls, parchment and quills have given way to codices, movable type, mechanized printing processes and electronic readers. But the story of the book is not a story of linear progress, the show emphasizes, but of different technologies and forms co-existing and overlapping.
And it’s not just a Eurocentric narrative. The exhibit (which also exists in an online version) includes a Tibetan samta (a wooden tablet with a reusable surface), a Sri Lankan ola leaf manuscript and a group of Ethiopian handwritten wooden Bibles, as well as early printed books in East Asia, where movable type was developed centuries before Gutenberg’s press.
A distinctive aspect of Rare Book School is its dedication to “tactile learning,” as the exhibit’s accompanying volume puts it. Rather than looking through glass, students manipulate objects – sometimes as many as 500 in a single class.
The show highlights the school’s spirit of detection and how students learn how (and when and where) books were built by taking them apart, literally or metaphorically.
There are samples of the educational kits assembled by the school’s founding principal, Terry Belanger, which include samples of type or printed illustrations made by different processes. There is a replica of an 18th century paper mould, which is used to teach students how to date paper by analyzing watermarks, lines and other identifying characteristics. (Look closely enough, and it’s theoretically possible to trace a sheet back to a particular mold in a particular factory.)
Pupils learn to distinguish between printed medieval texts and handwritten texts, an original print from a reprint, the true from the false. Among the regular course offerings are facsimiles, forgeries, and sophisticated copies, taught by Nick Wilding, the first modern scholar who recently determined that an award-winning Galileo manuscript at the University of Michigan is a 20th-century forgery.
Rare Book School, whose current headmaster is Michael Suarez, has had its own share of dramatic moments. The exhibit includes a fragment of the Mainz Psalter from 1459, the second oldest dated print piece from movable type in the West. (Only 13 intact copies are known to survive, making it rarer than the Gutenberg Bible.) The fragment was discovered in the 1920s in another book, where it had been used as a binding. It arrived at the Rare Book School as part of a given box of random manuscript remains and was quickly recognized by a visiting expert as an impression.
And then there are the smaller finds of a needle in a haystack. Take the set of woodcut blocks showing frolicking elephants, which Bélanger bought on eBay in 2004.
“He said, ‘We’ll never find a printed book of them,'” Heritage recalled. “I said, ‘I think we can. “”
Heritage noticed residue in the grooves – plaster of Paris, a hint that they had been used in a process for printing stereotypes developed in the 1830s. After some deep Googling, she found an 1845 edition of a children’s book titled “Elephant Stories”, one of only 10 copies known to survive, in a dealer’s catalog. The prints matched exactly.
The show speaks of the enduring power of the book as the foundation of cultural memory, despite all its changes in form. But it also includes some books that will never be read, because they have literally become unreadable.
Take “Gutenberg,” a 2002 artist’s book by Edward Bateman. It consists of eight pages printed in letterpress, between covers consisting of two computer zip discs, which contain digital versions of “The Odyssey”, “The Canterbury Tales”, “Hamlet” and other canonical works.
Or at least they used to. In five years, the printed text explains, the records will begin to break down and “the books will begin to disappear.”
And then there’s a poignant “friendship scrapbook,” made in Nebraska around 1892 using a store-bought notebook, bound in a hand-sewn velvet cover. Each page is folded and closed with thread, buttons, ribbon and even a toothpick, with handwritten instructions like “Open when you’re feeling down” or “Open when you get to California.”
Many pages are still sealed and will remain so. And there is also a story in there.
“It’s like an unopened door,” Heritage said. “Why didn’t the reader open it?” What happened? We can only speculate.
Building the book from the ancient world to the present day
Through Dec. 23 at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, Manhattan; 212-838-6690, grolierclub.org.