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Speaking of Volumes

Praising, or burying, the book?

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By EDWARD SHORT
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On the history of the book in Germany, John Flood quotes Luther’s conviction that printing was “the greatest and the latest gift of God, for by this means God seeks to extend the cause of true religion to the ends of the earth and to make it available in all regions.” Since Scripture was of the essence of Luther’s “true religion,” it is not surprising that, between 1520 and 1526, 70 percent of titles published in Germany took up the issue of the importance of Scripture for the laity. By 1520, Flood points out, 32 tracts by Luther had been published in 500 editions, “and within a few years a quarter of all German publications appeared under his name. Before he died, more than 3 million copies of his writings, excluding his Bible translations, had been printed.” Matthew Arnold called Martin Luther the “Philistine of genius in religion,” but by any chalk, he was an astonishingly prolific Philistine.

The weakest is the encyclopedic section, where many of the entries are either banal or ludicrous. Under colouring book, for example, the editors tell us that this is “a book printed with line art, for a reader to colour at will, originally with paint, subsequently with crayons.” And then there is this gem under pornography: “The question of what constitutes pornography remains a representational conundrum.” Omissions also abound: There is no entry, for example, for periodical literature, or for Vivian Ridler, the last of the great Oxford printers. And the entry for the British Museum—certainly a place of huge interest to anyone interested in books—is threadbare.

The strongest pieces can be found among the essays. N. G. Wilson is good on the history of the book in Byzantium; Harold Love has lively things to say on the manuscript after the coming of print; and Brian Cummings is brilliant on the book as symbol. After detailing the care that most civilized societies have shown the book, Cummings writes:

Alongside the exceptional investment in the preservation of the book perhaps also should be placed the corresponding urge to destruction. The practice of book burning goes back to at least the Qing dynasty in China in the 2nd century b.c. In Christianity, burning physical books is virtually synonymous with the pronouncement of bans on heretical ideas. The books of Priscillian of Ávila were burned in 383, and those of Nestorius within a generation. The simultaneous combustion of the heretic’s works with the consumption of his body on the stake was a material symbol of the purging of abstract ideas: Jan Hus was burned with his books at the Council of Constance in 1415, and the same council ordered Wyclif’s bones to be exhumed and burned alongside his writings.

Nevertheless, such incendiary resolve was not always triumphant. As Cummings notes, “Just as Pedro Berruguete’s 1480 painting (now in the Prado) of .  .  . proceedings against the Cathars showed St. Dominic’s works preserved intact alongside the charred detritus of the Cathar texts, so Foxe reports a burning of Tyndale’s Testaments in 1526 in which the precious books simply refused to catch fire.”

Whether our own books will survive the bonfire that the e-book is readying is, of course, anyone’s guess. But no one will come away with any fresh insights from the article included here, where the authors ask:

What is a book? .  .  . Are all the MS books and other documents catalogued and uncatalogued in an archive, one large book? Are games, telephone directories, interactive narratives, or the results of data mining, books? What roles do the author, the reader, and the medium play? For example, does the ever-changing content, bookmarks, and hyperlinks in an iPhone constitute a new, irreplicable book? 

Here is the jejune thinking behind so much of the abandonment of the traditional book. Many might wish to redefine the book along these trendy, trivial lines; the rest of us must stand by Milton’s definition: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit .  .  . treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries, which will be published next month.

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