Burning lamps to be ever held in the hand

“You, O Books, are the golden vessels of the temple, the arms of the clerical militia with which the missiles of the most wicked are destroyed; fruitful olives, vines of Engaddi, fig trees knowing no sterility; burning lamps to be ever held in the hand.”
Richard Aungervyle

We take our books for granted. We take our information for granted. As a society, we’re so used to books and information being readily available that we forget that there was a time when it wasn’t that way. I’ll admit, I do it too, but this week I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about information and books, and realizing just how much I take it all for granted. When I want to know something I don’t even need computer! I press less than ten buttons on my iPod and the answer is at my fingertips in seconds. It’s a technological miracle that happens all around us every day! Let’s celebrate it, embrace it, and for once really think about it and be grateful for the time we live in.

Yesterday my Letterpress Printing class went to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library here. I got to see the of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible–again! This time around I learned that the copy the University of Illinois has is even more special. Gutenberg attempted to print 2 colors on a few pages of Genesis. Printing two colors on a printing press isn’t a very easy thing to do, and imagine doing it for the first time ever! Looking at the pages this time it really struck me just how monumental it was. Movable type! The ability to make copies quickly! I remember reading about it in school when I was a kid and thinking nothing of it, not even comprehending a world without an abundance of books. I still can’t really imagine it. I deal with books every day. I think about them constantly.

A few weeks ago I had a class on paper, another aspect of the modern world that I had completely taken for granted. We’re supposed to live in a “paperless world” but look around you, there is paper EVERYWHERE. Paper, like movable type, changed the rules of the game when it came to information. The two combined changed Western civilization forever, and here we are disregarding them and pretending they aren’t a vital part of our lives! Even those of you who don’t regularly read books can read, and I bet you learned on paper! After having that class I find myself paying more attention to the paper in my life. I like to touch it, examine it, and try to figure out which way the grain is going.

Today I spent three hours setting type for a letterpress print job. I don’t think I ever really had an appreciation of what goes in to making a book before. Yes, today there are much easier ways of printing a book and letterpress is mostly used for artists books or by people into the book arts. Even around the turn of the last century they had slightly easier ways of setting type. But for centuries they did it by hand. It takes a long time and it is a dirty job. The type is cleaned after every use, but the lead is still dirty! Handling the type at all gets you filthy! There’s ink under my fingernails still! The type is heavy and it isn’t arranged in alphabetical order. The order of the California Job Case isn’t alphabetical, but after a while it starts to make sense. The i’s are next to the t’s and f’s, and the infrequently used letters are off to the side in smaller enclosures. The letters, of course, are all backwards, so if you aren’t paying attention it’s easy to mix up your p’s and q’s (mind your p’s and q’s anyone?). I learned that the hard way when I tried to spell green and instead got greeu!

The Hazards of Type

Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to form an opinion on e-books and whether I think physical books will soon be a thing of the past. I honestly don’t think physical books will disappear in my lifetime. Most people who grew up with books cannot bear to see them go and have such an emotional attachment to the tactile experience of reading a book that they could never fully switch over to e-books. The next generation, or perhaps the one after that, will not feel the same. Computers and the internet are taking over how we learn, how we communicate with the world, and how we entertain ourselves. E-Books are going to take over, it’s just a matter of time. But does it really matter if the form of the book changes? It will still be “a burning lamp to be ever held in the hand” whether it’s made of paper and ink or wires and plastic.

During the past few weeks I’ve been reading two books on my iPod. I started reading Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau which is not actually pornography, although some of it does get a little too graphic for my taste, hence, why I stopped reading. I’ve also been reading Wuthering Heights. I picked Ms. Bronte’s work because I’ve read it about 15 times before in physical form and it’s one of my all time favorites. I figured if I could read anything on a screen, that would be it. So far I’ve been enjoying the experience! It isn’t the same–at all–but it is very convenient. I walk to and from class every day and lugging around more books does not appeal to my back! My iPod however, is always with me and very light! While waiting for class to start I’ve been enjoying the convenience of it. I’m not willing to buy new books for my iPod, but I’ve already downloaded some of my other favorite (free) classics and I fully intend to keep them on there and use them frequently. I will never be without a book again!  I still haven’t tried a Kindle, Sony Reader, or any other e-reader, so I can’t have an opinion on them… perhaps they’re easier to use or more friendly.

Books are amazing. They are beautiful works of art, and the information they contain changes lives every day. I owe my entire lifestyle, my career choice, my education and almost all of the passions in my life to one simple invention: The book. So thanks Gutenberg and thanks all you librarians and book lovers throughout history!


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One thought on “Burning lamps to be ever held in the hand

  1. Pingback: Illinois « Emily's Blog

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