On hanging out with books

I went to see the Valmadonna Trust Library on display at Sotheby’s. (Article and slide show of exhibition, courtesy of the New York Times.)
The display looked like a permanent exhibition, with stencilling on the walls and fancy lighting and all sorts. I was surprised at just how posh it all looked; I suppose this is good advertising if you are trying to sell something for forty million dollars. Interestingly, it didn’t smell like a library (books, leather, dust) or like a museum (clean, dusted, polished), but like a school art room – poster paint, paper, glue.

The collection was mostly printed books arranged by geographical region. Jews did printing in a LOT of places, and this collection has books from most of them. It’s interesting how localised it was; one doesn’t seem to think of publishing that way now. Books are printed Somewhere Else and arrive in boxes at the bookshop…buying one’s books on the internet rather makes one forget about geography and how it affects activity.
A lot of the printed books were set open to the title pages, which are generally prettily engraved, which is all very well, but I think a proper page of the text is more interesting. There’s only so many engraved frontsipieces you can look at really, and the actual pages tend to be more varied. Perhaps only if you have an eye for that sort of detail.
There were also lots of books set open to pages where you could see just enough to make you wish you could turn the pages. Like, there was a little book of prayers for women on mikveh night, women hoping that their husbands would be kind and good-tempered when they got back from the mikveh newly-sexually-available. But we could only see half the text. I still felt sorry for the women, that they needed a prayer like that.
There was one I liked very much indeed: the front page of a book of Bible commentary had a complicated printed knotwork design, the sort of thing printers put in to fill up space, lines all in and out and round each other making a sort of Turkish knot. The splendid part was the doodle in the margin below, where evidently someone had been bored, and they’d tried to copy the design – this wobbly ink line attempting to copy the weaving of the printed design, but getting mixed up rather soon and ending with a scribble. Seeing that took the book from being Very Important Cultural Artefact to being Like My Bible But Older, and that was super!
I was there with two other scribes and a talmudist, by the way. This means scribal geekery. Hee. We made a beeline for the manuscript section. The most intense of the manuscripts was probably the Bible from the England of 1189. It went with the Jews when they were expelled, and managed to survive all that time since then.
As well as pretties, we saw a Bible with the Torah text handwritten in block and Rashi’s commentary in script. Really nicely laid out, finely written, a lot of text. And it was from 18th/19th-century Yemen. This confused me; Bibles were among the first things to be printed, and this text had certainly been printed by the 18th century, so why had this handwritten book ever been produced? Why would you do something so labour-intensive? It didn’t look like a trophy copy, it looked like a reference work.
I’d never really thought about movable Hebrew type getting to different parts of the world at significantly different times, but there was a wall display about how Hebrew printing came to India in the 1860s with the British Empire, more or less; the idea that some places just didn’t have Hebrew printing until really quite recently was rather new to me. But having realised that, it made sense that someone might write out a Bible-with-commentary in 18th-century Yemen. I don’t know if that’s why that particular book came to exist, but its existence was less perplexing.
The collection also had a complete first-printed-edition-of-the-Talmud. Full sets like this are terrifically rare; they’re gigantic volumes, and every so often Jewish books would get banned and collected up and burned, so not many Talmud sets made it through 500 years unscathed. This one did. It had been gathering dust in Westminster Abbey almost the whole time.
Apparently it was bought for Henry VIII, when he was trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Divorce is hard for Catholics, but pretty easy for Jews, so Henry ordered a set of Talmud so as to find out how the Jews did it. It took rather a long time to arrive from Italy, and by the time it got there Henry had found a more comprehensive solution, so the books just got dumped in the Abbey, where they stayed.
It’s probably a good thing Henry didn’t try to learn about Jewish divorces from the Talmud, he might have found it rather difficult. If you want straightforward explanations of Jewish law, the Talmud is emphatically not the place you go, and it was still illegal for Jews to be in England at the time, so it’s not like there would have been lots of Jewish scholars hanging about to help out. It amuses me that a whole set was bought, too – you really don’t need the whole set to learn about divorce; it just screams “person who has piles of spare money and is planning to buy a scholar once he’s bought the books.” A very Rich King sort of thing to do, really.
I see going to things like this as rather like going to parties. One doesn’t expect to look at a manuscript and have a profound experience – not like going to Niagara Falls or something else terribly impressive. It’s about spending time with books, having little conversations with them, sharing a joke, noticing their new hairdo, hearing how they’ve been getting on. And you would pet them and stroke them if you could. That’s what I expect to get out of book exhibitions, and that’s what I got out of this one. I’m glad I went.

One thought on “On hanging out with books

  1. Re: manuscripts vs printing at a late time. Bear in mind, also, that until the end of the 19th c. type had to be laid by hand. People just wrote a lot more; for that reason elegant penmanship was also cultivated, hence many beautifully written ms.
    Incidentally, there was an 18th century revival of Hebrew manuscript writing in Germany and Holland, so there are quite a number of interesting hand written haggados, sidurim, etc. from that time period that were written for no reason other than that it was cool.

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