The National Catholic Review
The lost art of little books
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The two books dearest to me are my grandfather’s Scofield King James Bible and my copy of the 19th-century book The Mirror of Perfection, one of the earliest English-language biographies of St. Francis of Assisi. One book is large and one is small.

Grandpa’s big black Scofield is thick, weighty with opinion and commentary. It is the only thing I inherited from him. Gramps used to shake it from behind the pulpit while preaching long sermons in Baptist churches. I’m glad to have it, and I read it when I want to be reminded of the poetry of the Authorized Version. But its size is no accident: the Scofield was the most protestant of Bibles, presented as if it had a lot to say.

My Mirror of Perfection, on the other hand, is tiny. Influential when first published, the book’s great editor, Paul Sabatier, believed he was presenting a life of St. Francis that predated all of the others. He provocatively wrote on the title page that this one was written by “Brother Leo of Assisi.” Yet, despite the fanfare, the diminutive size of the volume is noteworthy; it is much smaller than today’s mass-market paperbacks. In contrast to what publishers today call “books for the pocket”—this one actually fits there.

I’m drawn to little books. In used bookstores, I pause to look at almost every smaller volume. It could be a photograph collection about 19th-century railroads in western North Carolina, but if it is a small format and feels cozy in the palm, I’m hooked. Smaller books simply seem economical. Just the other day, I purchased three from the dealer nearest to my home in Vermont—a pocket hardcover edition of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation and two early New Directions “paperbooks” of Denise Levertov’s poems, with sewn bindings.

Little did I know years ago that loving little books was preparing me to appreciate piety (that sadly frowned-upon word). Prayer collections, saints’ lives, spirituality, books of blessings and penny catechisms—all of these genres are often found in little books. The 17th-century poet Richard Crashaw once wrote 118 lines on the power of a little prayer book. In “On a prayer book sent to Mrs. M. R.,” he wrote the following (I’ve updated some of the language):

You’ll find it yields

To holy hands, and humble hearts,

More swords and shields

Than sin has snares, or hell hasdarts.

Little books are chief among the things that carry spiritual meaning in my life. Of course they can go anywhere, even easily through airport security. But by no means are they benign, nor have they ever been.

Little books were actually once the most incendiary devices to affect opinion and effect change, as when Martin Luther was publishing his little tracts to stoke the fires of reformation in the early 16th century. The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation were fueled by little books. For the decade or so when his life was in constant danger, Luther was always anxiously waiting for some tract to come off the press. He believed each one would sway public opinion to his causes, and they often did. The Dutch humanist Erasmus also used small books, meant to be entertaining—using sarcasm, puns, proverbs and other forms of witticism—to fuel the Renaissance. Erasmus wrote a series of what were called colloquies, or entertaining short plays used to teach Latin, and he compiled many volumes of short proverbs from literature around the world. People laughed at Erasmus’s little books, and he was glad.

Fewer people read books of any kind today than a decade ago, but in fact there have never been a lot of book readers. Most people don’t see books as useful. People have always placed more importance on good food and drink and other forms of entertainment than on words, which have often been regarded as mostly harmless but of marginal value to daily life. Even so, the death of the book has been exaggerated.

Books have been around for about 1,800 years. Around the time of their “invention,” the papyrus rolls known to Socrates and Julius Caesar were replaced by the more portable, compact and easily navigated codex. Christians were one of the first groups to champion the codex over the roll. There are no extant copies of the New Testament written on rolls; the early ones are all codices.

Perhaps this was because in the beginning Chris-tianity was an alien faith. It was easier to read a codex in private, or in “smaller” forms, than a roll. When parchment (made of sheepskin) replaced papyrus (reeds) as the pages of codices, this added to their portability. The average codex was also smaller and lighter than the earlier rolls, making possible a poetry of faith and a treasury of expression. If the roll was designed for public reading, the codex and book were meant for savoring words. Also, the ability of the codex to interweave an evolving anthology of writings perfectly suited the publishing of the Scriptures.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the world of learning teetered on the edge of extinction. Monks stepped in, and monasteries became the only safe places for the copying, preservation and distribution of books. For a while, books became large, even enormous. Some religious books from the Middle Ages weigh 50 pounds and have stiff, wooden bindings; these were usually housed in monastery scriptoriums and were moved about like ancient relatives, on trolleys.

The preparation of books in those years was a holy process, as much a prayer as words spoken in church. Recipes were created for different inks, which often included instructions like: (1) Begin to boil the gall nuts in vinegar. (2) Say two Pater Nosters and three Ave Marias. (3) Drain. Everything about books began and ended with faith.

By the later Middle Ages, it became more common for an ordinary layperson to own a book. Often these were small. The origins of our little spiritual books can be traced back to this. Monks began to produce books of prayer for individuals outside the monasteries. These were usually commissioned by patrons and hand-copied by scribes. Artists decorated the edges of the pages, even on the smallest of surfaces, and sometimes put an image of the owner of the book into one of the opening illustrations, in a posture of prayer. These books became objects and actions of faith, not just boards that held together descriptions of faith.

From these beginnings come today’s little books. The mass-market-size paperback novel is a modern invention, but small books have always been popular among the Christian faithful. Throughout the Middle Ages, they seem to have grown smaller. The average pocket of a pilgrim in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day was far more generous than is a bluejeans pocket today, but the size of little books has for the most part remained a constant 4 inches by 6 inches, give or take. There are even tinier books that fit in the palm of an adult hand, such as the littlest of prayer books. It is this hand-held devotional that I like most of all.

I also write in books and enjoy finding little books that have been lovingly written in by others. The prophet Jeremiah said to God, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them.” We are “people of the word,” and words of prayer and praise have power to make happen what they entreat and proclaim. That is why I love buying secondhand books full of someone else’s marginalia: underlinings, comments, exclamation points, question marks and arrows (as if to say, “Look at this!”).

One little book I particularly treasure contains the teachings of St. John of the Cross. It was originally published and purchased in the 1950s by a woman whom I have never met, but who apparently lived in the Vermont village next to mine. I bought her copy secondhand (or perhaps third or fourthhand) for a buck from the “Really Cheap” carton sitting outside the used bookshop in town. The former owner had written “Margaret G—,” “Norwich, Vermont,” and “Advent 1954” on the front pastedown.

Margaret may be gone by now, but I have learned much from her thoughtful notes, scribbled all over the margins. She starred and bracketed things and underlined meaningful passages, pointing me to what John of the Cross has to say for my life, too.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of several books, including Almost Catholic, and the little books, The St. Clare Prayer Book and The St. Francis Prayer Book. He lives in Vermont.

Comments

DOROTHY HUDSON | 4/16/2010 - 8:26pm

When I was thirteen a retired bookbinder showed me how to bind books. I studied with her for ten years. I will always remember her collection of little books. Some of them were less than an inch in width. She donated her books to Waldo Library at Western Michigan University. They host a huge Medieval Congress each May. If you attend the conference, the rare book room of the library is usually happy to show off its beautiful books (including a fascimile of the Book of Kells). Ask for Eunice LeFevre's small book collection.

RICHARD KUEBBING | 3/13/2010 - 9:57am

Now that presbyopia has been joined by astigmatism I find the size I am most interested in is of the letters.  Font seems to matter also.  "Clean" but dark is best.  Pain from a pinched nerve notwithstanding, I schlepp whatever I need to.  I can read lying down, which calms most pain.  Would that the same were true for keyboards.

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