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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Oldest Book

Note to Tasty Summer Blog Hoppers: I'll put up a tasty post on Wednesday!

You've tuned in for the grand finale of the bibliophilia series!

What could possibly top the greatest (and heaviest) book that has ever (temporarily) been in my possession?

Try the oldest book I have probably ever been in the same room with! I'm funny that way.

This encounter also happened during my year studying in England. When you're doing medieval studies, they tend to want to show you really old books, and I wasn't about to stop them. Our cohort took a field trip to Durham, a gorgeous medieval town in the North. Now that I live in North Carolina, I see signs for "Durham" all the time and can't help but feel a little more medieval. (I must be the only one for whom this Durham provokes that reaction!)

In what I think I remember as the castle library (or maybe the cathedral — they're right across from each other), a librarian had thoughtfully laid out an assortment of treasures for us students to gawk at. I remember the most popular item was a facsimile of the Book of Kells, certainly one of the most beautiful items ever produced by human hand.

A humble book? Or indignant about being placed on bubble wrap?
But my favorite was the autograph manuscript of Aelfric's Latin grammar. Aelfric — scholar, translator, monk — lived in the late tenth century and is one of the most intelligent people to ever walk the face of the Earth (that we have evidence for). "Autograph manuscript" means he wrote the whole thing out himself, so not only is this book a thousand years old, but it has that sense of recognition that so titillates the human brain. Aelfric, someone I'd studied, someone whose mark on the world is traceable, touched these incredibly ancient pages! It was like traveling through time. What other object can do that?

I can only describe the experience in terms of Emily Dickinson's definition of poetry: it made me feel like my scalp was being ripped straight off. All my hairs stood on end with the chills that passed through me. It's almost painful, the sharpening of the senses such objects provoke.

I looked surreptitiously around me and couldn't see anyone else having the same experience. No one else seemed to feel the same longing for this book, the same need to own some part of it. Some were even yawning!

I was using a simple little film camera (they used to have those!), and low speed film, so I waited for the tour to move on, set the flash, and darted in front of this most awe-inspiring of books. I did the deed that resulted in the picture in this post, and rejoined the group with an elevated heart rate and a sense of transgression.

I'm sorry I had no choice but to use a flash, which they worry degrades paper and paint over time. But I'm not sorry I have this picture, this representation of that moment when I was completely aware, totally present, so very much a part of a world of infinite beauty.

I imagine some people find this in drugs. Lucky me!

With regret, I must announce that this is the end of the bibliophilia series on this blog. I hope you enjoyed it. If I have any other book nirvanas, I'll be sure to let you know. Feel free to share your love of the physical book in the meantime!