Well – here’s something a little different. It’s a constant preoccupation of course as to how to reach out to a wider public, to raise our profile, and generally to leave no cliché unturned in our quest to sell more of our wonderful books to the even more wonderful people who buy and collect them. But – action, speak, words, louder, all of that – and here is an exemplary effort at trying something a little out of the ordinary.
Sokol Books of London and Herman H. J. Lynge & Søn of Copenhagen have got together to hire some exhibition space for a week at The Gallery in Cork Street, in the heart of Mayfair, and to put on an exhibition of their finest books. Beauty & Brains (link and details in the blog-roll) is the theme – books both exquisitely beautiful and resounding down the years with their intellect, imagination and curiosity. And how very impressive it is. Extraordinary that just two bookselling houses can still in the twenty-first century create an exhibition which many an ancient institution would be proud to mount. A feast for anyone with a passing interest in anything at all or a profound interest in everything the world has to offer.
Impossible to ignore the editio princeps of Archimedes and all that meant to our understanding of mathematics – except that there is also the editio princeps of Euclid’s Elements in the original Greek, “the greatest mathematical textbook of all time”. A fifteenth-century edition of Aristotle – “the warp and woof of the whole of Western thinking”. Oh – and look – over here there’s a first edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica – “unparalleled in the history of scientific thought”. Kepler and Linnaeus too. Somewhat unnecessarily, Sokol’s Brooke Palmieri murmurs at this point that they like to concentrate only on the best.
Some exquisite Books of Hours, including the Carnaby Hours, with a provenance straight from the court of Henry VIII. Some early musical manuscripts. History too, and travel, with a Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), De Bry on the Americas (1602), the first edition of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (1589) and The Cronycle of Englonde with the Fruyte of Tymes from Wynken de Worde (1515). Art, botany, natural history. Wittgenstein’s copy of Tristram Shandy. Oh – look, a first edition of Spinoza. The first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). And on down to the twentieth century, with a presentation copy of Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (1943) and the founding of existentialism.
It’s a quite thrilling exhibition, carefully selected and presented. Full of beauty, full of brains. Text, image, artefact and meaning inseparable from one another, fully integrated and adding layers, shades and nuances of further meaning the more you look, the more you think, the more you interpret. This is a history of the book, a history of illustration, a history of binding, a history of thought, and a history of the Western World all in one room. Medium is message and, as the catalogue says, “These are not books threatened by the age of digital facsimile: the craftsmanship … puts iPads to pasture and e-books to shame”. Congratulations to all concerned – I wish you every success. A bold and exciting approach that deserves to succeed. And I do urge you all to go and see it.