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Books, History's Most Persecuted Art



When Moses graved the Ten Commandments on stone he was writing records or books in the style of his day. Babylonia's Hammurabi, 2000 B.C. had his code of laws engraved on a great black stone illustrated with a carving of himself accepting his laws from his sun god.

Darius left the record of his reign in the Behistun rock writings carved on a Persian mountain side. Its translation was recently completed by an American scholar. But fifty thousand years ago the scribes of Dodorgne, France, were recording their history in picture writings on the walls of their caves.

In the jade room of Chicago's Museum of Natural History a Chinese book of jade leaves in slim strips is held together by two cords run through the holes near each end. This is the form of the ancient palm leaf books of China, Korea and Japan. India too wrote on jewel stones, frequently turquoise. Throughout the Orient silver, gold, bronze, copper, brass and lead were rolled into thin sheets and inscribed with "the written word," sometimes inlaid with gold.

Excavations have uncovered the clay tablet libraries of Babylon and Assyria which have given us the campaigns of Sennacherib, the Babylonian epic of Creation, and her record of the Great Flood. These "books," graven on soft clay and baked by sun or fire were closed in clay cases for preservation.

Papyrus, an early pliable writing surface, was used in Egypt and Asia Minor. The stalk of this reed was cut in strips and felted or "glued" into a "sheet" by water. The Chinese felted the fibers of the mulberry tree's inner bark into paper, smoothed with rice paste and clay. They also wrote on silk, bamboo, wood slabs, and fine stone.

The East cured calf, lamb or goat skin as parchment, calf as vellum, smoothing both with emery. The Greeks and Byzantines often dyed their vellum and parchment purple or blue.

Northern Europe, meanwhile, was carving her records by knife in stone, bone or wood.

Books Take Form

Early pliable books were generally in long narrow strips or bands with a rolling stick at each end. These sticks, of ivory, bone, metal or wood, were often carved inlaid, or set with jewels. Early writing ran across the strip, and you had "to roll it"(volumene) to read. Sometimes the writing ran lenghtwise of the roll(volumen).

Later the writing was placed in short were folded so the written sections fell one below the other. Next the Oriental Orihon did away with the end sticks, the folds were pierced at the back, and cords put through, making a bound manuscript called "codex" by the Latins.

But papyrus pages tore, and vellum and parchment buckled. So boards were put on the two sides to protect and keep them flat, and the modern book form began. Yet the vellum and parchment ruffled at the fore edges, letting air, smoke and damp reach the illuminations and writings. Buckles, fixed to the board fronts, pulled the pages together.

A golden period of art blossomed in the Near East during 'the Middle Ages, and books were written on fine materials with fancy initial letters, flowered borders and much lapis lazuli blue, gold and cinnabar. Illustrations were bright miniature paintings.

Fabric bindings were of woven silk, of cloth of gold or silver, of velvet, and of stained, carved, inset, and gold tooled or blind tooled (without gold) leather. Bindings of the precious metals had raised, engraved, or damascened decoration, and were often set with jewels. So rich were the books of the Zindigs (a powerful medieval religious group) that when a pile of these books were burned on a public road at Bagdad in the 10th century, molten gold and silver ran from the fire, some say.

Byzantium, medieval Christian capital, spread the art of book-making throughout Christendom. Jewels or metal pieces at corners and center kept wear from the rich book covers. The folds, cords and stitchedon tapes at the book's back made it bulky so it was set with its back to the wall. The fore edge showed at the shelf front, so the fore edge received the name, tag, or identifying picture.

Out of this grew fore edge or "disappearing" paintings made by fanning (slanting) the book leaves, smoothing the edges, and brushing on a water color, generally a land or sea scape, or portraits. When the painting dried and the book was closed, the fore edge was sized and gold leaf laid on which "hid" the painting except when the leaves were "fanned." More rarely, marbling on the edges hid the painting. A few were painted with two scenes, one with the leaves slanted to the left, the other with them slanted to the right.

The Burning of the Books

Caesar burned the 400,000 books of Bruchion in Egypt. The Moslems, ruling anything not written or approved by Mohammed was not worth keeping, burned the great libraries of Alexandria, fostered by the book collecting Ptolemies.

Byzantium's libraries burned with her during the Crusades. The great and precious libraries of Teheran and other Persian cities went to ashes under the flaming swords of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

The first Emperor of China, Shih-huangti in 220 B.C. ordered the "burning of the books" so, some say, history could begin with the house he built to "last 10,000 generations." And a Spanish priest with the Conquistadores wrote with wonder that the aged American Indians, forced to throw their "heathen" books into the bonfire, moaned and showed great despair.

Many books were destroyed for their metal and jewels. A Persian on trial under the conquering Moslems at Samarkand in the 8th century for treasuring a jeweled "infidel" book, explained his father had given it to him and he had "not pried out the jewels" as he had "not needed them." Henry VIII permitted the destruction of the old books for their riches when he established the Church of England. Throughout Europe books were chained to altar and library shelves against theft.

Printing Gave Books to the People

China was printing on paper with type cut from wood in the 6th century A.D. In the 14th, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands were cutting type in wood. By the 15th the block books, including the Poor Man's Bible (Biblia Pauperum), were printed. For these the picture and type were carved on a block of wood which printed a page in pale ink on paper, then was hand colored. It took a block for each page, hence the name "block books."

By mid 15th century either Coster or Gutenberg developed movable type in Europe. Printed books with wood cuts, metal engravings and etchings began displacing hand s c r i b e d and illumined manuscripts. When universities took the making of books from the monks, books began including philosophy, science, economics, romance and adventure.

Printed books reached full modern beauty under Louis XIV in France, with paper, printing, illustrations and binding adapted to subject matter. Italy's Bodoni books made fame. England achieved book art through John Baskerville, Morris' Kelmscott Press, Cobden-Sanderson's Doves Press, and others.

American Written Records

After the picture writing of the Indians on buffalo, antelope and other hides, on felted mulberry bark, stones and clay, the first printing in America began at Mexico City in 1537. These were religious books to help convert the New World, a dictionary, and a travel book.

A century later Cambridge's Matthew Day printed her "Almanack" by Samuel Danforth. Thirty eight years after came New York and Philadelphia's "Almanack" printed by William Bradford.

Horn books taught many Colonial children their alphabet and Lord's prayer. And the once simple little New England Primers are now prize Americana.

In the 19th century the cry for learning boomed the publishing business. Walter Gillis made delicate French style printing, with a series of little books for William Loring Andrews. Theodore DeVinne printed fine books for the few. D.B. Updike made beautiful books without pictures through skilful use of 'type, spacing, italics and capitals. Bruce Rogers ranked with Updike. Carl Rollins' Centaur, bound in boards, is high priced Americana today.

Books are collected for rarity, bindings, printing, fore edge decorations, contents or authors. Condition is vital. First editions of Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe-you name them-have increased in value. Even the sentimental joy of knowing it taught great grandma to read, has stepped McGuffey's Ecletic Fourth Reader into real money and onto the collectors' book shelves.



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