Geeking out on Leather Books

The British Museum just purchased (for $14 million) and put on display one of the oldest surviving books in Europe, the St. Cuthbert Gospel. It’s 1300 years old. For my fellow book geeks, here’s a quick history of the written word in one paragraph. And go…

Words were carved into stone first, then inked onto animal skins, and later onto papyrus. Sometime in the several centuries after Christ, somebody got the bright idea to put stacks of papyrus or vellum between hard covers. These little beauties were called codexes. Then monks started handwriting manuscripts and sewing them together, and my hero, Guttenberg, in an act of supreme subversion, invented a machine to mass produce manuscripts. Today, we call them books.

Boom! One paragraph. Which is to stay, story-telling hasn’t changed much since the dawn of time, and neither has the act of writing down stories and ideas.

Back to the British Museum. The St Cuthbert Gospel, a Latin copy of the Gospel of John, looks shockingly like books today. Which is actually pretty cool. Its cover is crimson-stained goatskin over wood. The design was tooled on the leather, and the raised design is clay on the wood panel that the goatskin is pressed over. The goat skin was wetted and wrapped around the wood. It shrunk as it dried and clings to the wood on its own.

Here’s the library my daughter studies in at Cambridge University in England. It was built in the 1700’s and looks exactly the same today as it did, then. And yes, that pukey peach color is original. No wonder America split from England—it had lousy taste in décor! My point is, many of the books on those shelves casually pre-date America. 

(Don’t you just want to explore these stacks, find a cool book, curl up in a comfy chair, and discover new things?)

And here’s my library at home and a portion of my personal book collection:

Not much difference in 1300+ years. Which connects us all, if you think about it. The human experience of holding a book in your hand, of being transported out of your everyday life into a different world, of being exposed to new ideas, of experiencing the world through the lens of another person’s mind—it’s still exactly the same. 

As an aside, I’ve read about two thirds of the books in my library. I’m currently starting a project to read all of the ones I haven’t read yet. I figure it’ll take me a few years. I have a couple of collections of books where I don’t necessarily get to read each book the moment I buy it. 

For example, I have biographies of every president of the United States. (Some interesting reading when you hit the 20thcentury, lemme tell you…) I confess, I skipped most of the 1800’s the first time through.

I have Shakespeare’s collected works. Honestly, I’ve only read the big plays. I haven’t plowed through his more obscure ones. But the sonnets? Dude. Some seriously hot stuff in there. That man KNEW how to seduce a woman!

I have a bunch of science fiction books, and I’ve read almost all of those, same for the fantasy novels, although they’re hard to find in leather. I’ve read most of books I categorize as classics of literature. I’ve read most of the children’s books, although I’ve just acquired a set of books by a guy named George Henty, and I’m just starting those. The main character is always a teen boy experiencing a great event in human history through the lens of a young observer. Fun books. Good history lessons.

The trick with modern books to get them to last a long time is to make sure they’re printed on acid-free paper, that the pages are sewn in and not glued into the cover, not to expose them to direct sunlight, and to take proper care of the leather covers. Oh, and wash your hands before you handle a nice book so the perspiration on your fingers won’t degrade the book with its acids or introduce bacteria into your library. 

While I may have a small addiction/obsession with collecting leather books that has arguably gotten out of control, I do encourage you to invest in a really nice copy of your all-time favorite book or two. There’s something really special about holding a copy of a beloved book that you know will outlive you by centuries. It’ll make a heck of an heirloom to pass down to your descendants, too. Although I pity my daughter for having to inherit my entire library someday. Maybe she can stick my books in my coffin, too, like the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

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