To celebrate publication week, I’ll take five days and take a closer look at five cool rare books that play important roles in The Bookman’s Tale.
Today: Number Two
The Kelmscott Chaucer
I have to admit, I just love this book. The collaboration between William Morris as printer and designer and Edward Burne-Jones as illustrator in an attempt to recreate the look and feel of a medieval illuminated manuscript in a modern private press book brought together two of my favorite creative people and produced a spectacular volume. When Peter first shows this book to Amanda in The Bookman’s Tale . . . well, let’s just say that the fireworks are not wholly literary or artistic. I first got a chance to see a real copy (not the facsimile) at my local rare book library at Wake Forest University. More than twenty years ago I wrote a column for a local magazine about books and I argued that this was the greatest piece of printing of the nineteenth century. Though you could certainly argue that other books—like Darwin’s Origin of Species for instance—were more important, I still think you’d be hard pressed to find a more spectacularly printed book in the nineteenth (or honestly any) century. One of Peter’s many epiphanies in the early chapters of The Bookman’s Tale comes when he begins to see books as physical objects—“collections of paper and thread and cloth and glue and leather and ink.” If you want to see the ultimate example of what a book can be as a physical object, you can do a lot worse than spend an afternoon with the Kelmscott Chaucer. From it’s blind stamped white leather binding to its handset type on handmade paper to those remarkably medieval Burne-Jones illustrations, this is a book that reminds us that there are some things e-readers just can’t do.
Tomorrow: Number 1