My grandfather collected miniature books. Unfortunately, due to a stroke that robbed him of most of his speech before I was born and family tensions with his second wife, I never got to talk to him about his collection. In fact, I didn’t even know about it when he was alive. It wasn’t until after his widow passed away that I found them: piles and piles of tiny tomes filling a wall-mounted bookcase and a dresser drawer in his home in Maryland. Mostly they were cheap and cute little books from the mid-20th century. Nutshell Libraries, “Little Little Golden Books,” and things like that. But then I came across a couple pocket almanacs from the 17th century and realized that, on occasion, he must have decided to splurge on something older. Not long after, I found a small 15th-century Book of Hours.
This is not a particularly fancy book. That’s not to shrug it off–I mean, it’s a bona fide medieval manuscript and the grad-student me who discovered it was over the moon with excitement–but by the standards of late medieval Books of Hours, this is a pretty modest thing. There are no miniatures, the foliate ornament is limited to just five pages and looks fairly tossed off, and the pigments aren’t of the highest quality. Even the fact that it’s small is a sign of its modesty, since it didn’t require as much parchment to make.
Despite those shortcomings (in many ways, because of them), it’s great for teaching, and when I moved out to Wisconsin this past fall to teach at Lawrence University, my father and his brothers generously allowed me to bring the book with me. This past term, each of the students in my manuscripts seminar came by my office to spend a little time with it, getting a feel for the parchment, familiarizing themselves with the script, and just generally developing a sense of how manuscripts are like, and very much not like, the other books in our lives. They were trepidatious at first, but that unease seemed to sharpen their sense of how the physical experience of a book–opening it, holding it, handling it–is crucial to how we read and look at it.
The students were particularly interested in the evident damage the book has endured: the first and last leaves clearly got damp at some point, and there are crude repairs where the ink ate through the parchment. They loved that readers darkened several corners with the grime of their thumbs, and had rubbed down the gilding on several pages to its underlying size. We also discussed how the folios were trimmed down and their edges gilded when an antiquarian rebound the book for sale sometime in the 19th century (judging from the handwriting on a flyleaf). This sense of the book as a site of physical encounter came to the fore the day we discussed excellent essays by Kate Rudy, Beatrice Radden Keefe, and Jennifer Borland on erasures, revisions, and damage to medieval manuscripts. We talked about charters and other documents enshrined on the pages of early gospel books, and the possibility that the erased marginalia in the Beaupré Antiphonary were victims of John Ruskin’s penknife. At one point in the discussion, a student asked me, “Have you ever been tempted to do something to your grandfather’s manuscript?”
It suddenly occurred to me that the book bears no traces of its years in my grandfather’s care, and I have been very careful so far not to leave any of my own. After all, I’m a historian entrusted with the care and maintenance of our cultural heritage: of course I’m not going to write in it, or mark it up, or erase anything.
But really, why shouldn’t I? The marks of readers, the traces of the past lives of artworks are some of my favorite things about works of art. I love imagining all the people who have come into contact with a work of art, who have touched it and been touched back by it.
The more I think about it, the more I think I should do something to this book. In my classes and my scholarship, I try to make the case that every work of art, no matter how old, is a work of contemporary art, and that we rob ourselves of great pleasure and insight when we insist on sealing artworks into the moment they were made. Shouldn’t I practice what I preach? Shouldn’t I somehow mark this new chapter in the life of this book?
So, friends, I ask you: should I? Should I, as Billy Collins puts it, “catch a ride into the future / on a vessel more lasting than myself?” If so, any thoughts on what I should do? Pencil in my name? Add an ode to my cat in the margin? Perhaps update the decoration a bit, or scrape off some errant flecks of paint? I’m open to suggestions.
 Kathryn M. Rudy, “Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts Through the Physical Rituals They Reveal,” Electronic British Library Journal (2011): 1-56; Beatrice Radden Keefe, “Surveying Damage in the Walters Rose (W.143),” Journal of the Walters Art Museum 68/69 (2010/11), 97-106; Jennifer Borland, “Unruly Reading: The Consuming Role of Touch in the Experiences of a Medieval Manuscript,” in Scraped, Stroked, and Bound Materially Engaged Readings of Medieval Manuscripts, ed. Jonathan Wilcox (Brepols, 2013) (forthcoming).