I like Big Books (part 1)

Big Books are awesome. Humans are visual and Big Books check ALL those boxes. What they lack in type, they make up in glamour.

In the West, those Big Books with their fancy illustrations first turned heads before the age of printing. I’m talking the time of the cold, pale, Monk — his head down, painstakingly illustrating manuscripts for God and civilization. (Admittedly, I am borrowing that image from the movie, “The Name of the Rose”.) And although I am roughly beginning around the 8th century with the devout, Lindisfarne Gospels (Durham, England) there has been no end in sight for the need and want of beautifully illustrated books.

Detail from the Lindsfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (8th century, British Museum)

Illustrated or “illuminated” books were created with a combination of imagination, sweat and quill so the process was only as fast as a Monk’s ambition or lifespan. So, a few centuries later, the introduction of woodblock printing, sped up the process of printing and illustrating books but usually stripped it of color. Woodblocks, basically stamped an image onto a page. If there was to be any color (at an additional cost to the buyer, mind you) it would have to be applied…you guessed it…by hand.

We have come to think that new tech always comes at a cost — literally, figuratively and financially. But, old tech is often elitist. Think on this. Those illuminated Monk books were GLORIOUS. But, they were not meant for the illiterate and poor public…they were created for the church leaders. They were gorgeous, churchy Bibles created in very limited copies for a very small, audience. (That could read Latin.)

Not that I’m complaining. I’m the first to do a happy dance in front of The Book of Kells. Me love it. But, it took me quite some time working as a rare bookseller to put two and two and two more together. Next to those earlier, breathtaking, illustrated manuscripts, the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle was cool…but a bit of a woodblock letdown. Created as an encyclopedia, the Nuremburg Chronicle uses moveable woodblock printing to create the fantastic, and I will say, pretty impressive worldbuilding.

Take THAT! D and D.

Then I saw an edition in color! What?? Well, that changed my impression. Not only was it more beautiful, but, I came to a conclusion: I was naïve.

While the manuscripts were like Dior, the later woodblock Big Books, were more like Zara. One was couture, the other was pretty and wearable, but for mass appeal. The Nuremburg was for PURCHASE. And to sell something, it is wise to have more than one and give buying options.

By the 15th century, the printing press had been invented. (And exploited quickly!) With the rise of the classes in Europe, and literacy expanding (oh, so slowly), there was now a market to sell books. And not just to students of Philosophy! (shudder)

Just a head’s up…you will probably never see these books for sale on my website.

I’m illuminated…just not that way.

But, if you are a little more curious about the history of these Big Books. You can “holla”.

Stay Beautiful.

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