Marvellous books

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The world-famous Codex Amiatinus. Produced in Northern England around 700, it contains more than 1000 leaves made from goatskin and weighs almost 35kg. It will never cease to fill the beholder with an acute sense of awe.

A modern art book may still impress through size, quality, design or even weight. We may still arrest our slow walk through a bookshop to admire an examplar of extraordinary publishing. Most books, however, are not impressive anymore. They are ubiquitous and therefore unexceptional. We see them everywhere to the point of not noticing them at all.

Printing filled the world with books and keeps filling it, despite warnings that new types of disembodied publications menace to take over.

The manuscript book did not fill the world before the printing press. Handwritten books, carefully wrapped up in expensive and elaborate bindings, never became a ubiquitous sight in the West. Manuscript production reached a high point in the decades before and after Gutenberg’s invention, but the cultural transformation led by the handwritten book was the long development of literacy, scholarship, science and education. A long evolution, not a sudden revolution. The handwritten book could never seek to bring change through quantity.

Since it was not ubiquitous, the manuscript book remained marvellous. When cultures which had never seen a book laid eyes on a manuscript, the reaction was pure enchantment. Like the visitor of a tech fair watching a demo of the latest robotic invention.

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