Last Week I saw a blue transparent “Jurassic Park”-era iMac chilling in someone’s front yard on St. Paul. It looked cold and forlorn. People leave stuff in cardboard boxes for the benefit of the community all the time—paperbacks, old shoes, candlesticks, percolators—but the blue plastic computer in the snow struck me as the perfect visual representation of something I had been thinking about for a while. We treat old computers the same way we treat the old books we are no longer compelled to keep. I remember when those transparent computers were my techno-daydream, but now, someone can’t even give it away.
Consider that in the 15th century printed books were the hot new toy—revolutionizing the distribution, style, and form of information. In “From Pen to Press: Experimentation and Innovation in the Age of Print,” at the Walters Art Museum through April 12, there is a giant Apostolic Constitution that was printed on animal parchment about five years after Gutenberg’s Bible (1460). Moveable type was still cutting edge at the time, but the typeface, scale, scribal abbreviations, and parchment quality of the printed book make it nearly indistinguishable from the 13th-century manuscript neighboring it in the case. The book was created to look like a handwritten manuscript.
The printer maintained the aesthetic tradition of Apostolic Constitutions so that the documents felt legit, because readers and publishers alike preferred something that appeared handwritten over the contemporary “look” of 15th-century style printed books.
At the Walters, I see a man snapping pics of rare books with his paperback-size iPhone 6 Plus and I get to wondering whether we—those of us hesitant to let go of our dad’s old copy of “Franny and Zooey” in favor of the free download on Kindle—might embrace digital devices more quickly if they looked and felt more like books.
Well yes, that is exactly what would happen, what is currently happening, and what happened before. “From Pen To Press” is not simply a heralding party for The Book. Instead, it feels more an answer to one very real contemporary question: What will happen to the book if there is something “better”?
Johannes Trithemius, a 15th-century lexicographer, steganographer, cryptographer, and author of “In Praise of Scribes,” was the big-time advocate for manuscripts, literally calling the printing press plain “lazy.” And today, I can only guess what Trithemius would feel about e-books. Amazon’s marketing argues that there is little difference between Kindle and the physical book. Instead of trying to emulate the act of reading, the new-edition Kindles hope to enhance it, forging a new virtual reality for readers. “Lighter than a paperback,” the product tour boasts. “It’s like having a library in your pocket! Now with touch!” New feature Word Wise has further displaced dictionaries and expedited the process of learning to read. There goes that.
Still, after centuries, the selection of Henry Walters’ rare books and manuscripts that make up “From Pen to Press” are in excellent condition. They include religious texts and mythological texts with wacky illustrations and fiction. One book entitled “The Art of Dying” offers the best methods for entering heaven.
There are grammar books made by leading publisher of the Venetian Renaissance Aldus Manutius, books with full margins and pages of meticulous metalcut prints, often colorful illuminations and miniatures, books printed with early italics, geometrical diagrams, even an extremely rare illustrated manuscript of Virgil’s poems. Patrons and owners often left their own marks on the volumes as we do today, annotating and underlining passages of interest.
The fragility of these documents is a serious concern for Lynley Herbert, Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Walters and the chief curator of “From Pen to Press.” Museum light, excessive oxygen, and stress on the binding can contribute to the books’ gradual slump. Most vulnerable are the illuminations and woodblock prints. After a single page of a printed book is displayed for six months, Herbert explained, the page cannot be exposed for five years.
On Feb. 17, the Walters actually flipped the pages of most every book in the show. “It [is] almost a different exhibition for the second half of the show,” Herbert says.
A printed book is, at least at the time that it’s manufactured, reproducible, and yet readers were drawn by the uniqueness of a volume, which contained original paintings, human error, and the swooshing and slashing idiosyncrasies of personal handwriting. No two “Divine Comedy” manuscripts were the same. Instead, these objects shifted from a means of distributing information and became items of rare opulence—inconvenient, expensive, and extraordinary—perhaps the destiny of books today.
“Manuscripts didn’t just instantly die off,” explains Herbert. “As much as people are debating if they want a Kindle or a trashy [paperback] on the beach, I think ultimately you’re going to end up with people in both camps. I think they can coexist. Manuscripts and books coexisted for a long time.”
There are several manuscripts from this period of coexistence in the show, such as the “Book of Hours” manuscript that was commissioned almost 200 years after the printing press (1623); handwritten on parchment and illustrated by a Venetian artist, this book mimics what was contemporary typography, page layout, and page numbers of printed books as closely as possible. (The museum is now bringing all of these eras together as it digitizes its manuscripts collection—and, eventually, its rare books—for free access online, though Herbert notes there is a great deal about a manuscript one cannot understand in digital form.)
In a small room, the museum exhibits methods for reading, writing, and distributing information chronologically, ending in the 21st century with digital print. There, the exhibition transforms into a discussion about the passage of time, the evolution of information consumption, the fact that the way we come to know is constantly changing, entirely out of our hands, yet literally at our fingertips.