Here we go again, folks: another fun article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about very large, very small, and very weird books. Enjoy!
Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution, The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling, The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today -- as a writer I’ve naturally been fascinated by weird and wonderful books like these (winners of the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year).
Some of the earliest unusual books have got to be the celebrated illuminated manuscripts. First created in such places as Ireland, Constantinople, and Italy by amazingly diligent monks, illuminated manuscripts reached their height in the Middle Ages. Very difficult to create, and so very expensive, they were mostly created as “altar Bibles” for churches or cathedrals or for very wealthy patrons. What’s fascinating about illuminated manuscripts, beyond their elegant and beautiful craft, is that often the text was almost neglected for the artwork, which explains why many illuminated Bibles contain simple typographical mistakes.
With the advent of Guttenberg and his press, as well as the immense cost and workmanship required to create illuminated manuscripts, the market for them dropped off. But that didn’t stop other artisans from creating works less beautiful yet still extraordinary in their right.
Take, for example, the book that’s in Mandalay, Myanmar (which used to be called Burma), specifically the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Guttenberg is commonly considered to be the man responsible for bringing cheap, affordable books to the European masses, but King Mindon of Myanmar didn’t have portability in mind when he commissioned the creation of his book in the middle of the 19th century. His Tipitaka Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism is the world’s largest book, and it’s not going anywhere -- each page, and there are 1460 of them, are marble, with the lettering done in gold.
Alas, in the late 1800s, the British invaded and much of the pagoda’s treasures -- including the book -- were damaged or stolen. But, fortunately, the structure has been restored, as much as possible, and the world’s largest book is still on display in all its non-paperback, non-portable majesty.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the copy of Chekhov's Chameleon owned by the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. This special edition isn’t preserved against invaders, looters, or erosion, but instead a stray breeze: at .9 by .9 (that’s millimeters, by the way), the book has been authenticated by Guinness as being the world’s smallest. Just to give you an idea how small .9 by .9 millimeters is, next to this Chameleon, a kernel of corn is like a mountain: the book is about the size of a grain of salt.
But if you want to talk about weird, you have to connect these three words: KISS (the rock band), Marvel (the comic book publisher) and human blood. If you happen to own a copy of KISS’s Super Special comic book, published in 1977, then you own more than just a mediocre promotional gimmick. You actually own a tiny amount of Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, and Paul Stanley: namely their blood, which the foursome had extracted and was subsequently added to the ink used to print the comic.
To stay on this somewhat morbid topic, there’s an anatomy book in the possession of Brown University that’s more than just a book detailing how the human body’s put together. In fact there are two weird things about this particular book. The first oddity is that while the cover might feel and look like fine leather it didn’t come from a cow -- it came from a human being.
The second odd -- and more than a bit creepy -- thing about this anatomy book bound in some person’s skin is that it isn’t at all rare. In fact many prestigious universities, museums, and certain private collectors have books also made from human skin. Mostly made from criminals or people too poor to afford a burial, the practice was fairly common in the 1800s. One 1816 edition even had the cheek to be titled The Dance of Death.
So the next time you pick up some bestseller -- or just a book I wrote -- think about how books themselves are worthy of many interesting books, and very unusual sizes as well as bindings.