The Byzantine and Christian Museum in Greece says this on its website about itself:
Its areas of competency are centred on – but not limited to – religious artefacts of the Early Christian, Byzantine, Medieval, post-Byzantine and later periods which it exhibits, but also acquires, receives, preserves, conserves, records, documents, researches, studies, publishes and raises awareness of.
Aren't the British spellings of words adorable? Also, isn't the funny grammar-translation adorable? I am sure the Byzantine Christian Museum would prefer to not be called adorable, and it's really condescending and mean of me to call it that, especially because it went through the trouble of providing English translations of everything. In the United States, we rarely provide Greek translations of anything. That's because we think Greece has little relevance, except when we need to cite an example of the financial crisis in Europe, or if there is a re-run of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on TBS.
But in any case, what the website fails to mention at great enough length is the exceptional quality of the book collection that the Byzantine Museum has acquired, received, preserved, conserved, recorded, documented, researched, studied, published (?), and raised awareness of. It's really amazing. And I am a huge nerd for books.
Before I even started college, I knew that the only class I really needed to take was one called "Book Arts." That sounded like the coolest class ever -- one that would potentially validate and legitimize my kind of embarrassing collection of Books That Smell Good. (Mom: Sophie, could we get rid of any of these books? Sophie: No. Mom: But, this one is just a dictionary of different pills that are available over the counter. You have no interest in this subject. Sophie: But Mom, smell it. No, I mean open it up and really smell it.)
The Book Arts class was taught by a beautiful, soft-spoken, tiny woman named Ruth Lingen, with whom I was instantly obsessed. There were only eight people in the class -- all also weird, glasses-wearing girls who wore "funky" scarves, and made far-fetched Madeline L'Engle references, and were therefore and beyond exactly like me -- and the whole experience was moment-by-moment better than I ever could have imagined. There was one class where we just stood in a cluster pushing ink around with big knives and talking about how good it smelled. I started hanging around the Book Arts studio late into the night, making projects I wasn't really supposed to be making, because I could.
Ruth liked my enthusiasm, and I took all her classes. I got off on setting type; for me, it was pleasurable on a tier with overeating at Thanksgiving. I made enormous editions of books that just sat in my dorm room, because no one else understood how cool it was that you could make books, and you could make them any way you wanted to. Why was I the only one in the Book Arts studio at 1 a.m.? Shouldn't this be where everyone was?
I'll take a moment here to explain to those of you who are not yet convinced why books are the ultimate art form. The poet Charles Baudelaire said, "A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors." That's a good start, but it doesn't go far enough.
A book demands an incredible balance of order and chaos. To physically make a book requires math and measurement; patience and exactitude. It requires all the most beautifully frustrating parts of sculpture and mechanics: count the pages, set the type, measure the spine, adhere, bind, sew, mold. But to decide what to put inside a book requires uniqueness, brilliance, and a little bit of insanity. You must know what makes a poem beautiful; what makes a story deserving; what makes an essay move like a tree. You must understand the divine, disorganized order of language. A book can also contain paintings, or prints, or drawings, or photographs. It can hold any visual image that can be made flat. When you are deciding what to put inside a book, you are a genius of arrangement: you must have a firm grasp of what should go next to what, and what should come before what, and what should follow. A book engages every human sense: it is meant to be held, interacted with, manipulated. Books necessarily relate to human beings the way lovers do: no one has the same experience with a book as anyone else. To make a good book is to have mastered the art of collecting: to know just how to place every letter into every word into every sentence alongside every image onto every page into every signature into a beautiful, handheld, wholly singular edition, and it is the most amazing thing Man has ever learned how to do. Also, books smell great.
Once, in the third level of Book Arts, Ruth took us on a "field trip" to the locked-up section of the campus library. Any college that hopes to rank with Princeton Review must have a satisfactory rare book collection, and Whitman's is not bad at all. It was the first rare book collection I'd ever seen, and I am not kidding when I say that when the librarian handed us white gloves and let us touch the 16th-century covers of long-lost Books of Hours, I felt like I had discovered porn.
The problem with books in museums is that 90 percent of what is good about books is destroyed the moment they are put behind glass. Books are made to be touched; once they are put in jail, a lot of their humanity disappears.
On the Book Arts field trip, I got to turn the pages of a Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493, which gorgeous gold-tinged plates and hand-inked letters. I noticed lines of tiny holes in the leather binding, and through a lot of the pages.
"Those are literally from book worms," the librarian said. "Over time, we lose many books to insects who love to eat them."
Art is so much about trying to make sense out of life. Most creatures are not so silly. Given the opportunity, they make life out of our sense.
Looking at the books in the Byzantine Museum, encased behind thick glass and hidden in dark, just-chilled-enough rooms (so the pages don't yellow or crumble), I crouched down underneath, searching for wormholes. Sure enough, there they were, in almost every edition. As human history progresses and changes, so progress and change our holy figures, talismans, and idols. Books came about out of reverence: to worship better, to get closer to God. Books now exist for the same reason; only, we have so, so, so many more Gods. No matter who or what we worship (our Christian Gods, our Muslim prophets, our trees, our technology, our selves), worms will always eat through our books.
Looking at the worm holes reminded me of a Maurice Sendak quote I love. It's a story that gets passed around from time to time:
"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
I like the idea that our carefully-constructed human creations -- our great works of art -- can be consumed -- literally consumed -- just like that. And as much as I loved looking at that Nuremberg Chronicle, or seeing, yesterday, the beautiful handmade gospels and atlases and drawings of geometry, crushed behind glass, I would have personally given up all those experience to know the books had been loved, read, and completely, wholly consumed.
We are greedy to hold on to our history. For our greed, there is a price: our books have to live in glass cases. Our art has to be tied up.