Codex in the Morning

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by Chris Jackson

I once began an electrifying love affair with an exchange of books.  Coincidentally—or maybe not—the titles of the books we exchanged both featured the word "red"; she gave me Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, I gave her Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red.  The Carson took my breath away—it's a poetic retelling of the myth of Hercules and Geryon, the winged red monster, but in this telling Geryon is a boy in love with Hercules, who, instead of killing him, breaks his heart.  The language is sensual and tender, then dry and funny, and then extravagant, beautiful to the breaking point.  I'm not saying anything that any of you who've read it don't already know (and if you haven't read it, please do), and I don't even think I'm competent to describe the book in any objective way, because when I first I read it, I did so through eyes of fresh love, which dangerously heightened the already potent emotional power  of Carson's poems.  In fact, it was only later that it fully dawned on me how much the book was not just about romantic love but also its impossibility, which was, as it turns out, a perfect foreshadowing of the fate of that electrifying love affair.


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My Name Is Red is also a complicated love story, not just between people, but between people and art, specifically, the art of the book.  I won't belabor a plot synopsis here, but the book takes place in the Ottoman Empire, and through multiple narrators tells the story of a group of 16th century minituarists and the tension that enters their lives through a commission from a patron to create a secret book that challenges their tradition.  The book perfectly captures a moment of inevitable change—we know the minituarist tradition can't resist the coming movement toward individual perspective in visual art—but does it in a way that honors what's lost without romanticizing it or ignoring the reasons for its failure (ps, another great lesson for moments of heartbreak).

I thought of these two books—both, in dramatically different ways, about love, art, loss, and the mash up of modernity and antiquity—this morning on the subway as I read (on my Kindle for Iphone app) the wonderful The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree.  He begins with a quick survey history of the book, from papyrus rolls to the codex, from lush illuminated manuscripts to the development of script conventions, to, eventually, Gutenberg.  At every crossroads in the book's history, there were massive disruptions to whole industries.  For instance, when parchment was made from sheep skin, a text of "relatively modest size" required twenty to forty animals.  A lectern bible "could consume several hundred."  The monastaries where these books were copied by hand were only one piece of the industry:  the surrounding countryside was full of farmers raising sheep for slaughter, workmen who treated the hides, and so on.  When the technology changed, there was surely a tradesman who'd meticulously mastered the craft of scraping hairs from treated hide over a lifetime—maybe he was the inheritor of a generations-long tradition of hide-hair-scrapers—who was suddenly put out of work.

Eventually, the monks themselves would be put out of work—well, I guess monks can always be monks, but with the invention of the printing press, their work as copyists slowly ebbed to nothing, albeit over the course of a wide stretch of time.  The book makes clear that whole cultures built up around a devotion to creating books in various forms have risen and vanished over the millennia, some of them quite beautiful.  For instance,  at the Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters outpost, there are illuminated manuscripts on display that are vastly more intricate and lovingly created than any Kindle file, but love, clearly, isn't enough.

The encouraging piece of Pettegrew's book is the implicit faith it has in the book's capacity to adapt and survive.  It doesn't address modern developments—it's about the book in the Renaissance—but he does show just how wild the development of the book has always been, how every iteration has unleashed chaos and conflict, and destroyed cultures and business models, and even led to imprisonments, torture, and executions.  The way we read has even changed—books were once meant to be read aloud among friends, not in private silence; in some cases the readings were centerpieces of larger, interactive performances—but the book has endured even as it has evolved (but what does that even mean in the future?  more on that later, but if you have any answers now, please share).

But amid this rare burst of hopefulness about the future of books, I wondered about the future of first date book exchanges: sharing a Nook file doesn't seem quite the same as leaving with a physical book in hand, the book still warm (in your imagination, at least) from the touch of the person who gave it to you.  I'm not sure I trust Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to duplicate that kind of intimate experience in their devices; maybe it'll just be another beautiful loss, like those illuminated manuscripts under glass at the Cloisters.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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