There is no friend in the world better than a book; in the abode of grief that is this world there is no [better] consoler. —Mir Ali Heravi
In the Chester Beatty Library, there are books made entirely of jade. There are picture scrolls featuring calligraphy by the brother of the Japanese emperor. There are papyrus codices that constitute some of the few surviving texts of Manichaeism, a religion of darkness and light that rivaled Christianity in scale until its last believers died out in fourteenth-century China. There are Armenian hymnals, Renaissance catalogues of war machines, and monographs on native Australian fauna. There is all of this and more—thousands and thousands of other works diverse in period and place of origin, waiting for human eyes. And yet as I walk through the galleries, as I survey the cases of books safe behind their glass, it occurs to me that if a book is a thing meant to be read, then in a certain sense, these objects have lost their function to all but the scholarly epigraphists, backs bent in the private study room. And yet far from becoming something less because of this, the books on display have become something more.
Can we recover a physical literature? Can we recover a literature that is not merely read but felt? The library museum gestures at just such a possibility. By immobilizing pages, by securing spines, by presenting material that is illegible or unintelligible to the average modern reader, the library museum ruptures our habitual schema for what to do when confronted with a text. We cannot comprehend the sentences, the words, the script itself even. And furthermore. we are not meant to, are meant instead to attune ourselves to their textures, their heft, their thingness. When we cease to read, we begin to see. At the point of losing sense, we regain sensation.
The early semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce divided signs into a taxonomy of three categories, each distinguished by the tightness of the bond between signifier and signified. This relationship is at its most direct in what Peirce calls the icon, which possesses a similarity or resemblance to its referent—a drawing, for example. A rung below this in Peirce’s system is the index, which is like a trace or a footprint. A puddle bears an indexical relationship to a raincloud; smoke is an index of its fire. At the apex of abstraction is the symbol, in which no link of likeness exists to bind a thing to its meaning. This is where Peirce puts writing systems—the letter a has no more or less natural claim to the sound it makes than any other letter.
In the Chester Beatty Library’s biblical gallery—which contains the oldest surviving book of the Bible outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls—a slip between the first category and the second, between symbol and index, is made manifest. Lacking any knowledge of ancient Greek, I cannot understand the fragment of a papyrus that reads, “Here is wisdom.” I cannot understand when it says, “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast,” for I have no understanding; I am looking and not reading. Where I should find the form-defying awe of apocalyptic holy verse, instead I see a scribe: his afterimage, his trace, the shadow of his movements where his ink ran dry and where he must have dipped his reed afresh. This slippage provides the basis for a deeply empathetic relationship with a text—not in terms of identifying with its meaning but in terms of identifying with its copyist. Without legible content to impart, words yield to a contemplation of the surface—papyrus weathered to the color and texture of a dirtied bandage—and the hand that must have written upon it with concentration and care. Free from reading, the eye is permitted to observe in fine-grain detail the strange beauty of the page itself: how it is thick in the center but increasingly ragged near its edge, where the warp and weft of papyrus fibers reveal themselves, sparser and sparser until the fragment ends, like sand giving over to the black waters of the sea.
The natural tendency of pages and their bindings to degrade—what in conservation is known as inherent vice—means that the conditions and duration of book displays are often tightly circumscribed. Unshielded from normal fluctuations in humidity, paper will cockle and curl as its fibers drink in moisture; iron gall ink, when left to corrode unchecked, unwrites itself, eating ghostly letter-shaped holes into the surface of the page. To forestall the irreversible damage caused by light exposure, library museums usually calibrate their settings to a twilight dimness, which has the unintended double effect of cultivating an atmosphere of hushed, almost monastic reverence.
Modern conservators are hardly the only ones to have understood the simultaneous preciousness and material precariousness of books and to take action to guard against decay. Among the highlights of the collection at the British Library—whose century- and continent-spanning permanent display is housed in a solemnly darkened room known as the Treasures Gallery—is the Dunhuang Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest known dated printed book, preserved in part thanks to the insecticidal and water-resistant properties of the dye used on the paper. In the Islamic world, copyists mindful of the susceptibility of their handiwork to pests—honey, fish glue, and starch paste were frequently used in bookbinding—might add a marginal invocation to the kabikaj plant in the hopes of warding away insects.
When this essay itself is read, of course, it will be read on a screen. It will be rendered in the paraphysical world of the web page, its letters composed not of walnut ink but of weightless, depthless, smell-less pixels. It will be skimmed, scrolled through, parceled out between sips of coffee or glances at other tabs. At a time when the form our literature takes is increasingly a formless one, the library museum provides a tether to a past when the book-object was regarded as so exceedingly precious that no earthly adornment could possibly suffice. The British Library’s collection of Burmese manuscripts includes a number of exquisite copies of the Kammavaca, a religious tract typically commissioned by families upon their son’s entry into a monastery; executed in a special hand known as “tamarind-seed script,” the text was written on pages made from ivory, metal, and even lacquered monastic robes inset with mother-of-pearl. Elsewhere, form works as a rhetorical gesture in and of itself. A Tibetan Buddhist manuscript in the Treasures Gallery has the oblong shape typical of Himalayan books, a holdover from the Indian tradition of writing on narrow palm leaves connected by strings run through special piercings. Buddhists living in climates and altitudes less conducive to palm cultivation replicated the ancient form in locally available materials; by drawing an easily recognizable parallel to the birthplace of Buddhism, they created books that symbolically assert the theological purity of the texts they contain. Collectively, objects like these remind us of the deep and manifold ways in which—beyond words and images—a book can mean.
Though the works encountered at library museums frequently demonstrate artistic mastery and material preciousness, there are also those that highlight instead the unpolished disjecta membra of everyday life. A Jewish doctrinal prohibition against desecrating the written name of God has led to the practice of depositing worn-out or damaged texts in a genizah—which can range in scale from a box to a purpose-built chamber—so that they may then be collected together and buried like the dead. Preserved genizoth provide windows into vanished Jewish worlds. The richest known example is the Cairo Genizah from Fustat’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, approximately two-thirds of which are held at Cambridge. An exhibition at the university library last year proffered visitors the pearls of the genizah’s roughly three hundred thousand pieces, many almost a millennium old. Fragments of text relating fragments of lives, the documents on view were moving in the way of things partial: a passage of the Koran in Hebrew script and a passage of the Torah in Arabic script; letters to and from Maimonides, including a recipe for a wine-and-ox-tongue aphrodisiac in the great philosopher’s hand; marriage contracts and charms against scorpions and tractates on religious law. The most touching piece in the gallery, however, contains no intelligible message at all: a tiny square of paper preserves a young child’s shaky-handed attempt to write the alphabet, its margins given over to a forest of zigzags and doodles where concentration had flagged.
I thought of this child when I myself recently began to study Hebrew: a thousand years and thousands of miles removed, we were united in our attempt to yoke unfamiliar letters under mastery. But absent learning a new writing system later in life, it takes artifacts like this one to make legible something that the average adult’s effortless literacy overwrites in the palimpsest of human experience: the relationship to language one had as a child, when reading was still wondrous and difficult and strange, a tussle with an angel you’d yet to get the better of; the days of scrawling letters backward, sideways, on wide-ruled paper and with crayons held with the whole fist. Like a modern genizah, the library museum is a physical manifestation of the preciousness of the written word, a reminder of the love and devotion that thousands of years of human culture have paid to a genre of object that is passing increasingly out of this world. Leaving that exhibition, I thought of the books I had on my shelves, of the book I was carrying for the journey home, of the books that have accompanied me every day of my life. Dog-eared, underlined, water-warped after a sudden rainstorm, with birthday wishes or author signatures or notes for school written in, they spoke as only a physical object could—not just of themselves but also of my own life. Perhaps as reading happens increasingly in a digital form, what we lose is this: the meaningless things that in sum become meaningful, those aspects of a book’s significance that exist beyond words.
Erica X Eisen holds an M.A. in Buddhist art history and conservation from the Courtauld Institute of Art and an undergraduate degree in history of art and architecture from Harvard University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Guardian, Hazlitt, The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares Blog, Electric Literature, the Harvard Review, Little Star, Pleiades, Even, Salamander, Artnet, and elsewhere.