While no reproduction matches being in the presence of an ancient manuscript and experiencing “the weight, texture, uneven surface, indented ruling, thickness, smell, tactile quality’’ and sheer aura of a rare book, Christopher de Hamel says, his sumptuous Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin Press, $45) surely comes close. Anything lost in the rich, full-color images is made up in de Hamel’s spirited, illuminating text. One of the world’s top authorities on medieval manuscripts, de Hamel has frequented the world’s finest reading rooms. He’s a veteran of Sotheby’s and the former librarian of Cambridge’s Parker Library, home to the Gospels of St. Augustine. The first of the dozen meticulously presented manuscripts of this dream collection, the Gospels are the “oldest non-archeological artifact of any kind to have survived in England.” Mining these treasures for information about script, pigments, bindings, conservation techniques, and more, de Hamel turns palaeographic details into fascinating cultural narratives. Textual clues in the Codex Amiatinus reveal that “the oldest complete copy of the Latin bible,” housed in Florence, “was…made in England.” It looks like a suitcase and weighs 75 pounds. The Book of Kells, “the most famous book in the world,” is riddled with errors and inconsistencies, which prove that it was meant to be admired as a superlative art object rather than studied as a text. Among the other highlights of this timeline of books “characteristic of each century, from the sixth to the sixteenth,” are the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian transcription of a classical astronomy treatise that commemorates 18 March, the medieval Christian anniversary of the day of creation; the literally shimmering late 12th-century Copenhagen Psalter; the 13th-century Carmina Burana, profane love lyrics with images so realistic de Hamel completed in fifteen moves the depicted layout of a chess game; and the oldest surviving manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, replete with the “mysteries of medieval publishing.” As de Hamel uses these works to trace wider historical arcs of politics, war, literacy, class, and the shift from religious to secular cultures, he gives us an incomparable lesson in how many ways there are to read a book.
As the general editor of several Norton Anthologies and a pioneering Harvard MOOC professor, Martin Puchner practices both traditional and evolving ways of teaching literature. His interests in the past and future of writing are vividly presented in his wide-ranging and breezy The Written World (Random House, $32). While Puchner discusses canonical texts such as Gilgamesh and Don Quixote, this isn’t the usual “greatest hits” survey of world literature. Broadly defining foundational texts as those that “change the way we see the world and the way we act upon it,” Puchner shows how writing as varied as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Soviet samizdat have been tantamount to creation stories (while Walcott’s post-colonial epic Omeros really is a creation story), allowing us to read the world in new ways. Often, these new narratives have coincided with new technologies, and Puchner is fascinating on the development of the physical means of transmitting literature, from the first scrolls and tablets to papyrus and parchment and on to paper, the codex, the printing press, and digital platforms—which in turn have reinvented scrolling and tablets. Puchner has a keen eye for historical patterns and ironies, and he has packed his larger themes with many gems. Alexander the Great conquered the world with a copy of Homer’s Iliad at his side—annotated by Aristotle. The Mayans, in a final desperate effort to save their language, recorded their culture’s sacred texts in the Popol Vuh—using the Roman alphabet. In the highly formal Japanese court immortalized in The Tale of Genji, people exchanged poems as routinely as we now send emails. And what will emerge as the defining literary genre of the digital age? Puchner has enthusiastically given us the beginning and middle of literature’s ongoing story.