Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Book's Tale

The Book’s Tale

© by the author 2011

Oh, good, they’ve turned the heat on. I hate the vacation between Michaelmas and Lent terms. It’s cold enough in here most of the time. They say they keep the temperature down to help preserve us. I say that’s just an excuse not to spend money. But it’s worse when the Library is closed during vacations. If there aren’t any people around, they don’t heat the place at all.

The cold bothers me more than it used to. My spine aches. Lord, how it cracks whenever I move. Things were much better during my youth. They always had a fire going in the library at Mashleigh on cold days—no talk of preservation there. But then the Earl liked his comforts. The colder it got, the more logs he threw on the fire. There’s something to be said for owning your own forest and having enough money to hire servants to chop wood. They should put the students to work chopping wood or hauling coal or whatever—they’d be more use that way. Or at least let them talk in here. Then we’d have plenty of hot air. But no, it’s ‘Quiet, please’ and ‘Shhh!’—as if a little noise would bother us. Anything would be better than that annoying whispering your lot does—sss ssss sssss—it sounds as if a hissy phit of adders had been let loose some days.

Ah well, the Mashleigh days ended soon enough. Too soon. When the Earl died in 1652, he left his library to his college. And that was the end of warm days for me. They didn’t allow fires, not even candles, in the Old Library. It wasn’t until the renovations in the mid-twentieth century that they installed central heating—not that they use it much here in the rare book room. No ‘central heating’ for us—‘central refrigeration’ is more like it.

Not all of us suffer equally, however. Things are much better for the incunabula. They qualify for ‘special treatment’—all because they were published before 1500. I was published in 1623—over a century too late. You wouldn’t think 123 years would make much difference after nearly four centuries, but it’s always ‘We have to preserve the distinction. Otherwise our incunabula would lose their value.’ Rotten class system. In this day and age we should be past that. But not here. Oh no. God forbid their precious incunabula should lose their value by having to associate with the likes of me.

I have long argued that the date that defines incunabula should advance by a year each time a new year begins, that all books of a ‘certain age’ deserve special treatment. But does anyone listen to me? An impertinent duodecimo from 1854 with a black buckram cover (not even his original binding—the library had to rebind him when he entered the collection) sneered at me and dared call me a ‘little red book’. That I should have to endure such calumnies at my age! I’m a quarto edition, bound in morocco leather with marbled endsheets specially made in Italy and the Earl’s crest blind-stamped into the centre of the front cover, as were all the books in the Earl’s library at Mashleigh. Of course, I never dwell on my distinguished appearance—unlike some I could name.

And then that silly Golden Legend had the audacity to accuse me of special pleading. He reclines at ease in that hermetically sealed, climate controlled case, and he accuses me of special pleading. I’d like to special-plead him. Put him on an open shelf and see how he would like that. And his name-dropping—‘Did I mention that I was printed by William Caxton himself?’ As if he ever lets anyone forget that. Never misses a chance to trot old Billy Caxton out.

Not that I’m jealous or anything like that. Far from it. Let them keep their ‘special’ status. Who needs it? You ought to see what goes on around here whenever a nabob visits. I can feel my pages foxing every time I witness that little rite. The head librarian—he’s a silly twat, they will promote anyone these days—puts on these prissy white gloves and holds open the incunabulum chosen to deign to grace the ceremony so that the dignitary can bend over and pretend to read a few words. Oh, no, mustn’t touch the precious incunabula. They get white-glove treatment. Don’t soil them with oil from your fingerprints. Whereas anyone who comes in here can yank me off the shelf, toss me on a table, crack my spine, and finger me with his filthy hands. Who knows what those hands have gotten into? You want to talk about mistreatment? I could tell you about mistreatment. I’ve had four centuries of mistreatment. Oh, shhh yourself. So I’m shouting. There’s no one here except us books. Go back to sleep.

It must be January 3—I overheard Ms Glasses on a Chain tell someone the rare book room would reopen on the third. That’s the only reason they would turn the heat on. But I don’t suppose we’ll have many visitors today. It isn’t as if we overrun with people at the busiest times, but during term there are always three or four people in the room. Not that I get much attention. Sometimes a researcher studying the history of printing asks to see me. My illustrations are ‘particularly fine examples of early seventeenth-century English woodcuts’, according to the annotated library catalogue. And the large red initials that mark the beginning of each chapter have been praised in several books. I was even taken to London once for an exhibit on the history of English printing. So I’m not unknown. Not as well known as I should be, of course. I won’t mention names, but there are celebrated books that have less (much less) to recommend them. But, then, I’ve never chased after superstar status. A bit infra dig, that. It’s enough that a few connoisseurs recognize my value. Better the praise of the knowing than the applause of the crowd.

Occasionally, someone even reads me for my content. Unfortunately those who take me seriously are labelled ‘cranks.’ I’m more often studied as an example of ‘wisdom literature’. That’s the term I prefer. Unfortunately The Golden Legend once overheard a scholar refer to me as a ‘pseudo-deuterocanonical’. Of course, that bastard offspring of mythology and Clio has never let anyone forget that. I’m sure it’s not entirely my imagination that he always stresses the ‘pseudo’ part.

In truth, as my preface states, I have a distinguished ancestry. Nicholas of Bayonne (trad. 1236–1302) translated Solomon’s Shamir into Latin from a ninth-century Arabic translation of the original Hebrew text brought to France by a monk travelling with an embassy sent to the Spanish king Alfonso X by Clement IV in 1266. So you can see that from the very beginning I have always travelled with only the best. The Latin version, De shamirĊ salomonis, circulated widely and was found in all the pre-eminent libraries. Unfortunately the edition here is a modern reprint published in 1827. Luckily he’s shelved in another part of the library, and I don’t have to put up with his tedious attempts to claim kinship. I’m told that the University of Padua has a beautiful manuscript version dated 1301. That is the earliest extant copy—one hesitates to speak ill of others, but the date of 1252 on the copy in the Vatican Library is an obvious falsehood.

Late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the eminent Cambridge scholar and churchman Peter Braithewinter rendered me into English ‘for the general aedification and instruction of the saints of England’, by which he meant what are now (incorrectly) called Puritans. The first printed edition, of which I am an exemplar, was, as I mentioned above, published in 1623.

In my youth, I was studied closely and carefully for the truths hidden in my pages. Some of my devotees devised elaborate mathematics to prove the statements I contain. Two Oxford masters even came to blows over the disputed existence of an amphibologia in Lemma 34 in my fourth chapter. They were much criticised here in this bastion of decorum, but perhaps they can be forgiven their enthusiasm.

‘Progress’, however, has undermined belief. It’s a sad commentary on the times that there are so many sceptics. I suppose it’s this modern science everyone talks about. We have only a passing acquaintance with it in the rare book room. If it lasts, then time will bring the books on science to us, and we will add them to our collective wisdom. In my day, ‘science’ stood for ‘knowledge’, true knowledge, not all this test tube nonsense and smells and bangs. My long-time neighbour and good friend, Horticultura hebraica, assures me that we will outlast all passing fads. Scholars will flock to the rare book room and turn to us for guidance and wisdom. I hope he is right, but I fear that he is becoming addled in his dotage.

By and large I lead a peaceful life. It wasn’t always that way. I had one great moment of passion. You might not think it to look at me now, but I ‘have lived and loved’. Oh yes, truly I have lived and loved. I suppose I can talk about it now. It happened so long ago. There will be a record of it on the college books, of course, but I will be discreet and not mention his name.

I never learned what led him to me. I was shelved in the Old Library (which wasn’t then called the ‘Old’ Library but simply the Library). At that time, the category of rare books did not exist. Even an undergraduate could browse the shelves and read whatever he liked. Perhaps one of his tutors had mentioned me to him. Perhaps he plucked me at random from the shelf.

Our first encounter held no portents of what was to come. Shelf space was always a problem in the Old Library. We were so crowded together that sometimes the glue used to bind a cheaper book ran and it became stuck to its neighbours. My shelfmates were in no danger of that from me, since I was made of leather and my pages bound by cords. And luckily, despite the crowded conditions we were forced to endure, I was fortunate in my companions. Still we were pressed in so tightly that the young man had to pull me forcefully from the shelf, eliciting a few stifled groans from my neighbours.

He carried me to a desk next to one of the windows. I must confess that I paid little attention to him at first. It felt so good to be freed from the close quarters of the shelf and allowed to breathe. The sun was warm, and I ruffled my pages to circulate air between them and freshen them. (Books do need proper ventilation—a requirement too often overlooked. I’m not one to complain, but some of the books I’ve been shelved next to do smell a bit.)

When my attention was drawn to this new reader, my initial impression was favourable. I was in the hands of someone brought up to handle books correctly. He took a few minutes to inspect my binding and peruse my illustrations. Then he began reading. My contents soon entranced him. I could tell from the way his fingertips caressed each word. He lingered, he reread, he savoured. Truly for a book there is no greater reward than admiration and, yes, belief.

Curiosity may have brought him to me. Passion made him return to me over and over. Day after day, he would retrieve me from the reserved book shelf behind the clerks’ desk, where he had left me the previous evening, and pour over my contents. As his fever grew, I joyfully gave up my secrets to him. I hid nothing. He possessed me completely.

Our love did not pass unnoticed. His constancy and devotion roused the jealousy of the narrow-spined. As he carried me to his desk each morning, I had to endure arch mentions of David and Jonathan, whispers of ‘unnatural’ and ‘unhealthy’ infatuations. Biblical verses were cited, anathemas practiced in anticipation of their utterance. There was talk of a special committee of books to investigate the matter. I stared them all down. Love like ours was beyond their comprehension. We had the wisdom the Shamir granted Solomon. We were one.

At the end of each day, we parted with regret. He would hand me over to be placed on the reserved shelf to await his return the next day. The warm touch of my lover suddenly replaced by the cold, unfeeling clutch of a Library clerk. Sundays, when the Library was closed, were vacant episodes of longing, the minutes creeping by as sunlight filled the Library with its false promises. Each shadow passing the window was my lover come to risk a look at me. Each distant shout, a wail of unrequited yearning. For a love like ours, a second of separation lasted an eternity.

As the end of the Easter term approached, we faced a new dilemma. He had to return to his family in Kent—three days’ journey away. I never doubted that he would reappear in October with his fidelity to me intact. We would resume our life together. But he was tormented by nightmares. A master might claim me during the Long Vacation and exercise his right to monopolise me. Lightning might strike the spires of the Library, and I would perish in the inferno. In his passion, the poor lad imagined the worst. He could not conceive of three months without me.

I do not blame him for what happened next. In vain have books of all ages warned of the mad fires of love! The cold ashes of wisdom are born in the flames of ardour.

The library clerks grew accustomed to his nightly ritual of placing me on the reserved shelf. He found another quarto volume from the library at Mashleigh. To the indifferent eye, we looked much alike. In the half light of the darkening day, the clerk did not notice the substitution. My lover secreted me in the folds of his gown and spirited me to his room. For three days he hid me away, but in our bliss we became careless. A college servant discovered me lying open on a table in his room.


Two masters were called. The brave lad, far from denying his crime, spoke feverishly of the passion that had inspired it. Remorse and repentance might have saved him, but he was besotted—for that I take the blame. I was the elder and should have taught him the coward’s lesson that love must be tempered with discretion. But those of you who have known the fire will understand—love is not for the temperate and the discreet.

His penalty was rustication for a term. Mine was a return to the Library. I waited expectantly for the period of his punishment to end and for him to reappear. It was only many years later that I learned that his family exiled him to India, where his shame would not be known and a life of service to the crown might redeem him.

I resumed my place on the shelf. We never saw each other again. And never again did I encounter another reader whose eyes consumed me with such love. It does not matter. There is an old saying in the Library that every book finds the readers he deserves. I found mine.