by Chris Bohjalian
No one is ever going to mistake the Matenadaran for a bookstore. It sits on a hill in downtown Yerevan, a massive, 122-thousand-square-foot block of marble and basalt, its entrance shielded by statues of Armenian mathematicians, historians, theologians and the creator of the Armenian alphabet, Saint Mesrop Mashtots. It’s impressive and regal and – unlike a lot of mid-twentieth-century Soviet architectural behemoths – manages to be imposing and welcoming at once.
And yet the Matenadaran is filled with nothing but books. It’s Armenia’s Institute for Ancient Manuscripts, a museum of very – and I mean very – old books. When I was in Armenia in May, it was the second place I visited. (The first was the Armenian Genocide Memorial, where, beside the eternal flame, I laid flowers in remembrance of my great-grandparents.) I don’t read Armenian and I’m certainly no scholar when it comes to illuminated manuscripts, but even now, well into the digital age, I am still drawn to the paper book. Consequently, I spent an afternoon at the Matenadaran peering through glass at manuscripts and Bibles and books, some made of parchment and some made of paper, some copied by hand and some printed by presses. I was dazzled.
This marks the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing. The first tome? The Book of Fridays, a prayer book printed using red and black inks in Venice in 1512. The second book published in Armenian? The Bible. Fittingly, UNESCO has selected Yerevan its World Book Capital for this year.
The books in the Matenadaran are eye candy for a reader. This is true whether you prefer books made of pulp and ink or glue or you’ve chosen instead an eReader.
The reality is that anyone who loves books understands that we have a profound, totemic relationship with paper: To the book as an artifact. In the library in my house in which I write, there are two walls of books. There could easily be four, but the room is a corner that once was a living room, and so there are also two walls of windows. I can swivel in my chair and glance at the dust jacket of most of the books on those shelves and tell you where I was when I first cracked the book’s spine. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the grass beneath a maple tree outside a health and fitness club in Middlebury, Vermont, the leaves unfurling in the April sun; inside, my young daughter is in the midst of one of her dance classes. Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep is the snack bar at Smith College, where my wife went to school when we were merely boyfriend and girlfriend, and the smell of the onions the cooks there placed on the hamburgers. And Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal is an airplane somewhere between Raleigh, North Carolina and Miami, Florida when I was on a book tour, the clouds outside my window reminiscent of arctic snow and ice.
A book’s dust jacket or spine can instantly catapult us back in time. We don’t merely recall the novel’s plot or a snippet of dialogue: We remember who we were, where we were, and, perhaps, the state of our lives when we first met Atticus Finch or Daisy Buchanan or Wilbur Larch. A book is like music in that regard: It is itself a Proustian madeleine that resurrects for us a memory.
My new novel, The Sandcastle Girls, is set mostly in Turkey and Syria in the midst of the Armenian Genocide in the First World War, but there are a few moments in Yerevan. The novel is a love story, but it is also the story of my people’s Diaspora – why of the ten million Armenians in this world, only three million live in Armenia today.
And the physical book itself – the paper and the ink and the cloth – is beautiful. I’m not referring to the text or a single word I wrote. I’m talking about the design. The type. The feel. Doubleday designed and produced a physically alluring book. Raised lettering on the cover and the spine. An elegant juxtaposition of gold and black. Deckle edge pages. A cover image that is wistful and epic and, in my opinion, captures perfectly the sensibility of the novel. This is my fifteenth book, so I can be pretty jaded when my editor sends me a new one hot off the presses. Been there, done that.
Nope. Not this time.
When a copy of The Sandcastle Girls first arrived at my house in Vermont, I found myself holding it in my hands and recalling the day I had written the book’s first sentence. And I thought of my recent visit to the Matenadaran, and the spectacular care that someone had put into the production of each and every book and manuscript there. No one planned to coincide the publication of The Sandcastle Girls with the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing or the UNESCO selection of Yerevan as the 2012 World Book Capital.
But this novel is the most personal and the most important book I’ve written. Its arrival this month and this year is a great, great gift.
–Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, The Sandcastle Girls, will be published on July 17th.