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Archive for February, 2013

I ended my last post with: I began this post because I came across something called the Voynich Manuscript. This thing has captivated me…

But before I get to it here, I need to post a little moment that surprised even me, when you take into account my love for books.

I once asked a student teacher to go photocopy some pages from a new translation of The Odyssey. It was during my AP Lit and Comp class. She said, “How do I do that without pressing it flat and breaking the binding?”

Okay, for full disclosure here, she was perhaps the most difficult student teacher I had over twelve years. She really wasn’t cut out to teach and the kids terrified her, so I was a little raw with our coddling interactions. But I also took the moment to teach a lesson…I think.

I took the book and slammed the binding three or four times against my desk until the spine split perpendicularly—remember this is The Odyssey, so the thing is huge. She, naturally, jumped back in terrified horror. I had also gotten my students’ attention. I then turned to the first leaf that I wanted copied. I put the spine along the desk and bent it over until it popped. Then I pressed the crease between each leaf that I wanted photocopied, closed it back up and held it out to her trembling hand.

“It’s not a Fabergé egg,” I said. “The cover means nothing. The spine, the pages. It’s only the words that count, and even those mean nothing unless you read them and think about them. If I could understand books from eating every page with hot sauce I would do it.”

Then I turned to the class. “Sometimes we have to destroy part or all of something to truly understand it. We have to, in effect, deconstruct it.”

They were all pretty wide-eyed. I turned back to the student teacher. She looked as though she were holding her dead long-beloved cat. She looked up at me.

I said, nonchalantly, “Do you need the copy code?”

She shook her head.

“Cool,” I said.” Thirty two copies, please.” I turned back and began my class lecture.

Thank god nobody did such a reckless thing to the Folios or the Lindisfarne, or the Voynich.

I still don’t know if it was a good impression or a bad impression. It seemed a bit self-indulgent and dramatic. But it got my point across to her. She was gone within a week.

I love old books. By old, I don’t mean Catcher in the Rye. By old I mean that if they were printed on paper that it’s probably too new. That’s not entirely true, but you get the meaning. I’m talking leather and vellum.

I remember almost the exact moment it happened. I was in my first day of Medieval Art: the lecture. I was excited, but I thought it was going to all be Brueghel and buttresses. No Brueghel, it turned out: he was just a smidge later. [I was disappointed because I was hoping for some butt-sniffing demons. Oh well.] There were a lot of buttresses, to be sure, but there were a ton of more interesting things.

Illuminated manuscripts. My god, they absolutely seduced me. And there was so much more to it than just beautiful, strange, intricate illustrations. It could have taken ten years to produce…just this single book. A team of scribes spending untold hours bent over benches, their ink freezing in the winter. The unbelievable focus it must have taken. The idea of taking over from a dead or dying scribe, or worse an illustrator. And 1000 sheep or calves to make the paper. It’s just beyond my comprehension, especially in the world of on-demand printing.

Anyway, Lindisfarne sealed my undergraduate fate. I ended up with an English degree with a concentration in Medieval Literature. That’s marketable.

I remember when I was gearing up to direct Macbeth. I had heard that the University of Iowa held a second edition of the First Folio, the book that put together most of Shakespeare’s plays. I went to see it. I had been in the special collections room untold times for other research, but I never knew they had this thing. Probably a good thing too. It was spellbinding. The history that this thing held—history that I didn’t know, surely, but still, this book had been held, read, words underlined, pages removed, turned by saliva-slicked fingers. Somebody who lived in 1632 London had held this and read this and, perhaps, loved Shakespeare more than I. Captivating.

I began this post because I came across something called the Voynich Manuscript. This thing has captivated me and, if I had more time, I would totally dive into it. Alas, I have reached my word quota.

On to another day.