Showing due respect

Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin?), Anunciation (15th c.), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels

Scarcity makes everything more valuable. We make more efforts to preserve and protect that which is at risk of not being around anymore. Fragility and rarity.

In our culture, we are not known to make a strong individual effort to preserve books. Quite the opposite. We treat hard copies as though there are thousand others. And it’s true, there are thousand others. Our imagination as readers holding a book is not haunted by the prospect of that book becoming unavailable. We don’t imagine ourselves being the last readers of a text threatened with extinction. Technology has rendered books immortal, and less valuable than ever. Thete are piles of hard copies everywhere, selling for £1 or under. Sometimes even given away for free.

Book-deprived eras engaged a different imagination in their readers. The manuscript cultures of the ancient and medieval world told a different stories to those who handled books, scribes and readers alike. When there are few books to go around, when every text hangs by the thread of a few copies, when codices are hard to get by and cost a fortune to produce, readers rush to keep them safe. In medieval iconography, books loom large, reflecting one another, setting themselves up as objects of art and desire. Objects of untouchability, they invite readers to protect and show them due respect. Every book is unique, every book is the sole guarantee of the culture it produces. We may want to recover a bit of this in our own times.

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