Shipping a pound of wood pulp across a continent is a wasteful way to send a few megabytes of data—data that can now fly through the ether in seconds. This downside of printed books is why I bought a Kindle a couple of months ago. I’m happy to start bidding adieu to other print-book byproducts. The neglected back alleys in bookshelves stacked double-deep. That head-scratcher before a trip: What book is light but long enough, entertaining but meaty enough, and has the right vagabond spirit to win space in my bag?
But, of course, something is lost when books go digital…
1668 English edition of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly---with Folly illustrated by owner
Readers will need explanatory notes on the “thinning of pages beneath the thumb” that once signaled a novel’s end. Yellowed pages and bookplates and uncut pages and penciled names will vanish—are already faded to near oblivion.
Antiquarian books and the handwritten journals of Dr. Jerusalem play a large role in Tetraktys. Old books have personalities, histories,voices—and even skins. So even as I become a Kindle user, I remain a small-time collector of antiquarian books. Some of these characters of yesteryear cry for homage:
The fouled book
In his copy of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, depicted above, Mr. Henry Fowler showcases an odd folly. One that Erasmus forgot to catalog. Fowler inscribed his name, in Latin and English, at least nine times in this book. Was Henry trying out a new pen? Or new ink? Practicing his penmanship? Rejoicing in the acquisition of his first book and exploring different formulas of ownership? Laying down a hex for future protection after he had lent his book to a friend who waited eleven years to return it? Whatever Fowler’s folly, I feel like the passage of three centuries has softened his act of defacement into an act of charm.
The royal bastard’s book
Silius Italicus, On the Second Punic War, 1620 Dutch edition
This book is a 1620 edition of Silius Italicus—a minor Roman epic poet. It’s just over two inches by four—and printed in what might pass for an early prototype of microfiche. Only half the cover remains, a red leather binding tooled with a gold H surmounted by a crown, with a border of fleurs de lis. (The book trade has its own precise, quasi-heraldic language, but I’m not conversant in it.)
Most books have a long span of forgotten history. How can anyone help wondering: Who owned this book? Who scribbled those notes in the margins? Generally, the answers are hopelessly lost.
But this little volume offers a rare, gratifying sop to curiosity. Someone actually dug up an answer. Penciled into the back is a note. Translated from the French, it reads: “A copy bearing the insignia of Henry de Bourbon, Marquis of Verneuil, `natural son’ of Henry IV, bishop of Metz, 1651, 1652.” A bastard son of Henry IV! Henry IV was probably the most beloved king of France (and evidently reciprocated his people’s love).
Now of course I wonder: Who was the arch-sleuth that penciled the note?