Both these excellent books — Christopher de Hamel’s “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts” and Jorge Carrión’s “Bookshops” — reinvigorate an old-fashioned form of criticism, sometimes summed up by the phrase “the adventures of a soul among masterpieces.”
During the middle part of the 20th century, humanist scholarship in many disciplines modeled itself on the sciences, rejecting anything that smacked of the personal, subjective and essayistic. To art scholars, traditional connoisseurship was deemed overly impressionistic; in literary study, New Critics — under the banner of “the poem itself” — banished the biographical in favor of intensive verbal analysis; among historians, the Annales school shied away from narrative and fine writing, as practiced by a Gibbon or Michelet, to emphasize data, data, data.
No one would deny the crucial value of technical, “just the facts, ma’am” approaches, but they can seem more than a little arid to anyone not already passionate about a subject. Certainly, casual readers gravitate to scholarly books that combine knowledge and authority with a winning style and a vivid sense of the author’s personality. De Hamel and Carrión each show how this can be done supremely well.
De Hamel, in fact, describes his book as a series of conversations, in which he just chats amiably with us about a dozen important medieval manuscripts and what one can learn from them. Like Sherlock Holmes, though, he stresses close attention to small details — “There is nothing so important as trifles,” as the detective said — when making deductions about a book’s authorship, history and importance. Yet even as de Hamel shares his vast knowledge of parchment, illumination, handwriting scripts and early Christianity, he shows himself to be much more than just a paleographer and former Sotheby’s manuscript expert, he’s a genuine fanboy. He loves “The Codex Amiatinus,” “The Copenhagen Psalter” and “The Spinola Hours” and he wants us to love them, too.
To do that he shapes each of his chapters into a mini-adventure. For instance, his account of “The Gospels of Saint Augustine” opens with the following sentence:
“At the end of this chapter I will recount how Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury both bowed down before me, on live television, in front of the high altar of Westminster Abbey.”
Before reaching that improbable-seeming event, we learn that the “Gospel Book of Saint Augustine” is “the earliest surviving book known to have been in medieval England,” that the first time de Hamel asked to see it, in the mid-1970s, he was refused permission, and that he is now its curator at the Parker Library in Cambridge. In the course of describing the manuscript, he takes us through the evidence that leads him to conclude that it is one of the actual books sent to Augustine of Canterbury by Pope Gregory the Great around the time England converted to Christianity at the end of the 6th century.
Throughout “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts” de Hamel aims to humanize what are now slightly alien artifacts by telling us about the people who made them and the collectors, institutions and scholars who preserve them. For instance, he recalls that archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford once likened the weight of the enormous “Codex Amiatinus” to “a fully grown female Great Dane.”
In the chapter on the Morgan Library’s “Beatus” — a commentary on the scriptural Apocalypse — he devotes several pages to the colorful and infinitely charming Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carrucci dalla Sommaia, a 19th-century connoisseur and “the best-known thief in the history of manuscripts.” At the same time, de Hamel doesn’t shy away from bibliographic matters: You will learn that “homeoteleuton” is the technical term for eye-skip (when a scribe inadvertently leaves out a couple of lines) and that curved Greek “diple” symbols evolved into quotation marks. He also sees persistent similarities in style or provenance connecting several of these manuscripts with the ancient Ethiopian Christian community.
“The Book of Kells,” as everyone knows, is the manuscript equivalent of a rock star, the most glamorous medieval book in the world, its only rivals being the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry. Still, when de Hamel discusses its first full-page illustration, “the earliest representation of the Virgin and Child in European art,” he can’t help but confess that “the picture is dreadfully ugly. Mary’s head is far too big for her body, and she has huge staring red-lined eyes and a long nose which looks as though it is dripping downwards, and a tiny mouth. . . The baby, seen in profile, is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed.”
As this irreverent passage shows, “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts” is miles away from academic dry-as-dust scholarship. You’ll love learning from it. Little wonder that in Britain this extraordinary book has already won both the Wolfson History Prize and the Duff Cooper nonfiction prize.
In the comparably entertaining “Bookshops: A Reader’s History” Jorge Carrión recalls visits to such literary havens as City Lights, The Strand and Powell’s, as well as their counterparts in Latin America, Europe, India and Africa. As the Spanish critic says, “Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.” One can only envy his graceful cosmopolitanism.
Carrión relates delightful anecdotes about Paris booksellers Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier and George Whitman, speculates about why so many movie love stories are set in bookshops, tracks the development of rail-station bookstalls, interviews the genial manager of England’s Waterstones chain, and quotes aptly from Stefan Zweig, Bruce Chatwin, Danilo Kis and Roberto Bolaño. As compact as it is, this quietly intelligent little book speaks volumes.
Michael Dirda, who reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post, contributed an essay to the recently published “Browse: The World in Bookshops,” edited by Henry Hitchings.
By Christopher de Hamel
Penguin Press. 632 pp. $45
By Jorge Carrión
Translated from Spanish by Peter Bush
Biblioasis. 296 pp. $24.95