#637: Older Than Nations

May 23rd, 2016

The room should have looked different.

It should have had low lighting, dark mahogany, crannies. The hallway to get there should have had twists and turns and sudden dead ends. Instead, there were high ceilings, tons of light, carpeting.

The Newberry Library looks like a library, of course, but more the type where students cram for PSATs than where Hercule Poirot would stumble upon a body.

And in this high-lofted room with the appalling lack of my preconceptions and stereotypes, there lay on a set of tables books older than most nations.

It was an Atlas Obscura event highlighting the history of bookbinding throughout the centuries. A huddle of academics, artists and nerds, we chose on a gloomy-low May Saturday to spend our morning not lazing over coffee but poring over books dating from the era of firelight and monks all the way to the Obama administration.

There were gilded wonders from the age of too-much-money and faux Roman nostalgia. There were novelty collections of poems hidden in trick boxes made to look like the books they contained. A few had beautiful paintings on the edge of the pages, paintings you could only see if you took the pages in your hand and bent them slightly to the right. A modern art book was bound in untreated eucalyptus leaves on the cover and Starburst candy wrappers on the back.

It was the oldest of the books that gathered my attention most. It was the oldest of the books that this story is about.

Thomas Aquinas, Epitome of the Summa theologica, De vita Christi; Heinrich von Langenstein, Responsum, etc.

Bound in calf leather over boards, this copy of the guidebook for Medieval theology students was inked in blood-red German handwriting by an unknown scribe dead probably 600 years. The heavy brown book lay flat, the original little metal knobs from the 1400s lifted it off the ground, a preservation method from a time when books were stored flat, the Newberry’s Dr. Jill Gage told the bibliophilic huddle.

On the front cover, four thin metal strips formed an asymmetrical Krazy Kat polygon, the fasteners for a title card long lost, Dr. Gage explained. Perfection wasn’t a concept at a time when materials were so scarce, Dr. Gage explained. If mistakes were made, so be it. The Lord’s Word still needed to be shared and the title card still needed to be bolted to the cover.

A mid-heavy chain snaked from the top of the book. It was still the original chain used to latch the book to a study desk so some sneaky monk-to-be wouldn’t walk off with the valuable text. A woman and I inspected the chain for a good minute trying to find any seams or breaks in the six-century-old links. They were flawless, an amazing feat at a time when manufacturing a chain meant fire, hammer and a lot of free time.

St. Thomas Aquinas died in Fossanova Abbey in Italy on March 7, 1274.

This copy of his work was inked, bound and chained in either Germany or Austria between 1400 and 1450, the Newberry’s catalogue states.

It’s been part of the Newberry’s collection since before 1932.

This is Chicago. This is part of our story.

I make no claim to municipal ownership of this book, nor burst with pride that this text happens to fall within the same geographic political jurisdiction where I rent the top floor of a two-flat. If the book ended up in Seattle or Topeka or Muscle Shoals, Alabama, it would be part of that community’s story.

Instead, it ended up here, so it’s part of ours.

Barring disaster or an interlibrary loan, that red-inked, cow-bound, knob-footed copy of the Summa will outlast us all in this city, a resident looking forward to what the next six centuries might bring.

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