Beinecke Library

I was born in Mainz, Germany. I lived for the first month of my life in a printing plant before being brought to a merchant. I can remember very little about that time, for as soon as I left the plant I was securely stored away in a bookcase outside of town.  I was very fortunate to escape the 1462 ruthless plundering of Mainz carried out by the troops of Adolph II. Many of my fellow “paperkind” were destroyed the day that the printing office, the place of my birth, was set on fire, taking all of my early childhood memories away from me.

While I was created with a chance to live forever, (whatever “forever” entails on this planet), it is quite possible that improper living conditions could bring premature end of life to a great number of we “paperkinds.”  For quite a few of us lucky ones, who manage to attain collectible status and avoid mishaps on the way, life can be long, long, long. Some of my siblings are accounted for and well-preserved, but perhaps there are still a few that have not been destroyed and are still intelligible, buried in the farthest corners of the world, and hidden amongst the innermost shadows of forgotten rooms, waiting for the day to be discovered.

As for myself, I am sitting pretty in the most elegant of rooms, under the most proper conditions created to house “paperkinds”. I am here with some other lucky, collectible, all-time “nuggets”, such as; The Bay Psalm Book which was bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt and somehow made its way to Yale. I was still far across the Atlantic, the day when locksmith Stephen Daye, set up shop in 1639, in Cambridge MA, to work on the production of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, psalter, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, prized as the oldest surviving object printed in what is now the United States.

Every work in this place, whether sacred or secular, was laboriously created as a unique glorification of the acquisition of knowledge. Take for example, John James Audubon’s, The Birds of America; or the Speculum humanae salvationis (pseudo-Bonavature, Meditations de passion Christi, England, early fifteen century), believed to be the first illuminated manuscript given to an American academic library; or the first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; or the multiple copies of rare James Joyce’s, Ulysses; or the papers of Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound and Lassie creator Eric Knight. They are all here.

Thanks to architect Gordon Bunshaft, our state of the art new digs at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is providing the ideal 65 °F and 45% humidity for we “paperkinds,” despite seasonal fluctuations, while also protecting us from bookworms. I am also informed that the plumbing, fire-suppression and security in this place, are designed to ensure our eternal lives, or at least as long as this planet keeps spinning.

Since I am not allowed to remain uncommunicative and inaccessible, and I do have to make myself available to the young knowledgeable scholars, I am snuggly housed in a nice Bunshaft-designed display case; an additional precaution offered to super stars such as me. Oh, before I forget, a little piece of information for any newcomers planning to join the establishment, you will have to spend three days in an on-site freezer at 30 degrees below zero Celsius to exterminate any pests you may be carrying and stabilize your mold. A brilliant idea, may I add. In fact I do not understand why some of our visitors are not forced to go through a similar process.

Just in case you are still wondering who I am, I am the Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42.

 

Gutenberg Bible at Beinecke

 

 

 

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Christmas rare bookAt a local book trade show not more than three months ago, I had the opportunity to meet up with a few old friends and exchange some provocative conversations relating to my favorite topic – books.  The antiquarian book dealer in this particular conversation was delighted to bring up some quite interesting points on the origins of rare books. “What would you need if I commissioned your services, to produce a rare book for me?” he jokingly asked the book producer in the group. The response came in quick, loaded with black humor: “You are not looking for a book producer; you are looking for an exterminator or a fire-starter!”

I paused to think for a second with that in mind. I wondered, if I had asked a movie producer to create a unique blockbuster movie, would his response also have been “no way, you are asking something that is quite impossible”?

Last week I was looking through some dealer catalogues on-line to see if I could help fill some stockings with rare books at reasonable prices. A tough mission indeed! It was when I came across two offerings of the scarce The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale by Philip Van Doren Stern, on sale for $15,000, that the question “what would it take to produce a rare book?” came back to mind. I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to drill deeper into the components that create the magic of the production of rare books in general by focusing on the production of this rarest book of Christmas. The following are the ingredients that made this book what it is:

  1. Limited Production. The original privately printed, twenty-one page edition of 200 7.5” x 5.5”, signed copies, bound in orange wrappers, were distributed to friends for Christmas 1943. Van Doren, who began writing the novella in 1939 did not finish writing it until 1943, and found it difficult to get the story published, so he had it printed as a Christmas Card. The story was published as a book in December 1944, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni, published by McKay.
  2. Special Attributes. All 200 copies of the 4,100 word novella carry the author’s signature.
  3. Successful Movie Adaptation. The Greatest Gift, about a man who was brought to a realization of the joy of living after he had expressed a wish that he had never been born. In 1946, the fantasy became the basis for a Frank Capra movie you are probably familiar with. It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, is one of today’s most popular Christmas films, easily surpassing other favorites such as A Miracle on 34th Street. Of the 80 movies he made, actor James Stewart said It’s a Wonderful Life was his favorite.
  4. Critical Mass Exposure. It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit. Although nominated for five Academy Awards, the movie was shut out at the awards ceremony. And, despite Capra’s popularity at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life barely made back its cost. When its copyright was inexplicably not renewed in 1974, It’s a Wonderful Life slipped into the public domain and could be found on the air literally tens of times every holiday season. It was this repeated showing that transformed an otherwise obscure film from the postwar 1940’s into a Christmas classic with a whole new audience by the 1980’s.
  5. The Importance of the Message. The story that touched the 200 or so hearts in 1943, and now stands as an icon of popular culture, had to have had a meaningful, profound message or a challenge: Pretend, perhaps for a moment, that you are a ghost on the outside looking in. Would what you see make you pause, as George had, and see the blessings all around?

 

 

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Tarantula by Bob Dylan

November 25, 2016
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What do T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Pearl Buck, Elias Canetti, Gunter Grass, John Steinbeck, Harold Pinter, Ernest Hemingway and Bob Dylan have in common? They have all been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the world’s most prestigious and coveted award. The 2016 winner, Bob Dylan, […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2016

October 22, 2016
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In terms of total dollars, global auction sales of rare books in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2016 were slightly down from the same period in 2015; this year’s $87 million figure, for the period, represents a 6% decrease compared to last year. But a closer look at the top three markets – the […]

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The Rarest Milestone in the Science Fiction Genre

October 2, 2016
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Do Jules Verne’s works categorize as science fiction? The French author who has been called the “Father of Science Fiction”, along with authors such as H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Lucian of Samosata and Mary Shelley, often argued against classifying his novels as scientific. In fact, he has often been labeled a writer of genre […]

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From the Hinman Collator to Machine Intelligence

September 16, 2016
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Past Technology: Lights and Mirrors The students at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, receive, as part of a course in Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, a demonstration of the 450 pound Hinman Collator. The purpose of the machine, which was developed during the 1940s by Charlton Hinman, was to help detect typographical variations in the […]

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The Factor of Color in Early Centenary Printing

September 2, 2016
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17th century German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher, published around 40 works, exploring a variety of topics, ranging from a universal language scheme, to pneumatic, hydraulic, catoptric and magnetic science. His books are lavishly illustrated, written in Latin, and were in wide circulation during the 17th century. Collectors historically have sought some of his most notable […]

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The Bible of the Revolution

August 19, 2016
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The Aitken Bible is one of the most celebrated American Bibles, considered to be the first complete English Bible printed in America. Before the War for Independence, British law gave a monopoly for printing the King James Version of the Bible to the Royal Printer; thus compelling the colonies to buy their Bibles from England. […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2nd Quarter, 2016

August 5, 2016
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The 2nd quarter of 2016 felt the tremors caused by the UK affirmative Brexit vote. The subsequent drop in the value of the British currency delivered a rather controlled above normal interest in rare books offered in British pounds. Opportunistic buyers took advantage of the lower dollar or euro to sterling exchange rate, mostly through […]

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Interview with Dr. Sandra Hindman of Les Enluminures

July 22, 2016
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 Les Enluminures owner, Dr. Sandra Hindman, is a leading expert on manuscript illumination. Professor Emerita of Art History at Northwestern University, she is author, coauthor, or editor of more than a dozen books, as well as numerous articles on the history and reception of illuminated manuscripts and on medieval rings. These publications include The Robert […]

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