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This is Your Brain on Books

Elyse Graham at Public Books

Photo by Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov / Unsplash
Picture Books for Adults
This is a delightful piece from Public Books. I especially liked this observation about how medieval monks would read: This form of reading, de Hamel says, is one reason why so many medieval manuscripts have richly decorated pages. The decorations “helped impress a page visually in the reader’s mem…

The subtle Saint Anselm, a Benedictine monk, treated reading as a form of communion. In his time, the 11th century, readers often consumed books differently than they do today. A common form of monastic reading, for example, was lectio divina, which monks treated—as Christopher de Hamel says in The Manuscripts Club, a group biography of manuscript lovers—as “an act of devotion, like prayer.” The reader would open a religious text to a random page, then prayerfully study the passage to see what message God had chosen for him now.

This form of reading, de Hamel says, is one reason why so many medieval manuscripts have richly decorated pages. The decorations “helped impress a page visually in the reader’s memory,” helping him to meditate later upon the revelatory passage. We can see from this example how an era’s methods of reading affect the look and feel of its books. (And how they are valued. Anselm indicated in his correspondence that he preferred a faithfully copied but incomplete book over a badly copied but complete one—which might seem puzzling to modern readers, who read from front to back and don’t want to miss the reveal that the narrator killed Roger Ackroyd.)

De Hamel’s book is a group biography, reaching back to the Middle Ages and forward to the 20th century, of the old and affable brotherhood (and sisterhood) of manuscript lovers. He chooses, as representatives of this group, a selection of influential readers, collectors, and sellers—including Anselm (ca.1033–1109), who rose, after the Norman Invasion of 1066, to become the archbishop of Canterbury; Jean, duc de Berry (1340–1416), a French toff who commissioned gold-and-lapis manuscripts that lived up to the luxury he lolled in; Vespasiano da Bisticci (ca.1422–98), an Italian bookseller whose writings tell us about the world of manuscripts in the early age of print; Constantine Simonides (ca.1824–90), a forger and confidence man whose counterfeits fed the voracious appetites of British museums at the height of the empire; and Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950), a personal librarian and collector for the wealthy who—passing as white in Gilded Age New York—raised the bar for rare book collecting in the United States and curated the collections of the Morgan Library. They’re a motley group: princes, polymaths, rabbis, saints, and scoundrels.

The usual way to write books about people who love books is a genre that we might call, after one best-selling title, “A Gentle Madness.” These are catalogs of the oddball adventures of the bibliomaniacs and bibliographic detectives who, consumed by an acquisitive hunger for rarities or mysteries or prestige, fall down strange rabbit holes and make fabulous finds. It’s a little bit precious, a little bit exclusionist.

De Hamel could easily have written this book as another entry in the genre. Instead, he wrote a love story. The madhouse is a place of isolation, and his interest is with community: with the passion for art, for learning, for nerdy minutiae, for history still living and breathing on the page, that brings manuscript lovers together. If you can imagine shedding tears because a manuscript is so exquisite, then this is a book about your people.

A recurring theme of The Manuscripts Club is the many different ways, over the years, we’ve approached reading and construed ourselves as readers. During meals at Anselm’s abbey, one of the monks would read a book aloud while the others ate and listened; for instance, the Moralia, a medieval discourse on the Book of Job that offered lessons for monastic life from Job’s surrender to suffering. (“What else then does Eliu mean by bread, but the pleasures of this life? For after having stated the power of temptation, he immediately subjoined, His bread becomes abominable to him in his life, and to his soul the food which before it desired: because, in truth, all the sweetness he used before to enjoy from the prosperity of his life, afterwards becomes bitter by the power of temptation.” A suitably severe accompaniment to a meal of bread and water, which might, after all, be eaten with inappropriate indulgence.)

Other readers absorbed books through memorization. De Hamel describes Jewish readers who praise the example of great scholars like Judah bar Ezekiel (220–99), who reportedly memorized so many texts that he “allowed himself the leisure to pray only once every thirty days in order to have time in the meanwhile to rehearse all [the] knowledge in his mind.”

Still others treated books as treasures or relics. They kept them in the same collections that they used to hold, say, purported thorns from the Crown of Thorns. And they brought the acts of devotion that they used for other religious objects—touching, kissing, handling—into their rituals of reading. (My favorite anecdote about the haptics of reading doesn’t appear in the book: John, Duke of Bavaria, called John the Pitiless [1374–1425], was murdered with a poisoned book. That’s the story, anyway: that one of his underlings painted poison onto his prayer book, which killed the reader because, in that time and place, you caressed a prayer book and kissed the pages.)

In short, the manuscripts club of the title is a cohort of infinite variety. Readers have used manuscripts as oracles, artworks, knowledge engines, status symbols, jewelry. One conclusion that we might draw from this history is that reading itself is infinitely various: that the death of reading—a topic of feverish op-eds about AI and TikTok and declining post-lockdown test scores—has been greatly exaggerated. The very technologies that critics decry as fatal threats to reading are just giving people new ways to construe themselves as readers: the trope connoisseurs of BookTok, the doomscrollers of social media, the textual poachers of fan fiction.7 And if you like the sound of the old readerly customs described above—well, as de Hamel says, the manuscripts club is always looking for new members.

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