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The Beauty of Books

In the run-up to World Book Day, whilst Sebastian Faulks may have stolen the prime Saturday night slot, BB4 have aired a wonderful series called the Beauty of Books. It has tracked the development of books, from individual commissions  symbolic of wealth and power, to e-books, via the explosion of Penguin paperbacks.

Starting with the Bible, where the story of books begins, they have shown us the Codex Sinaiticus. The largest book to survive from antiquity, it may even be the first book. Before the Codex, the Old Testament had been formed of 48 different manuscripts: it had never appeared in one volume. The idea of combining the old and the new testaments was masterly. New technologies were required: parchment, ink, bindings. But not only this: the text, beautifully written, is littered with corrections, appoximately 23,000 of them, or 30 per page. It clearly tracks the development of religious thinking. Dating back to 350 AD and produced in the aftermath of Emperor Constantine’s death, a time of religious tolerence, it was kept for over 1000 years in St Catherine’s Monsatory. When it was brought to London, people took their hats off, such was its impact.

Another treasure is the Luttrell Psalter, a book of psalms commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in the period 1330 – 1345, after the Great Famine. Rich illuminations in gold and cobalt show fashions of the day, the lifestyle of the working man and Jabberwocky-like grotesques, representing the Medieval fear of death. Starving and disabled figures are depicted, the impact of poverty all too clear. Whilst some of the illustrations have been subject to literal interpretation over the years, other explanations are offered: not only satire, but the results of the Medieval diet which included beer in the place of water and rye bread infected with hallucinogenic fungus, which lent themselves to a distorted view.

Chaucer was the first author who, rejecting convention, offered the English books in their native language (French or Latin being the norm). Together with William Caxton, who owned the first printing press to Britain, he brought reading to a wider, albeit still an exclusive, audience.

Skip forward to the Victorian era, the golden age for illustrated books, bringing delights such as Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although many attempts to produce updated versions have followed, John Tenniel’s original 1865 illustrations remain iconic. Having illustrated the original manuscript himself, Caroll decided to use an established artist, whose work on Punch had earned him a considerable reputation. It was Tenniel who rejected the first edition of 2000 copies when he found that the quality was inferior, delaying the release of the book until 1866. Rare 1865 versions, imperfect as they are, now exchange hands for hundreds of thousands of pounds. I felt that other illustrators were worthy of mention, perhaps E H Shephard who brought Winne the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows to life. Perhaps Grahame Baker Smith, whose Leon and the Place Between – the most beautiful thing – I purchase for all of my Godchildren, whether they like it or not. But this is only a half-hour slot.

And so to paperbacks. Now within the reach of most people – sold in 1935 for the price of a packet of ten cigarettes, they were at first thought to be disposable, with some ripping out the sheets as they read them. Perhaps no longer things of beauty, publishers have maximised on the marketing potential of covers. From the collectible colour-coded Penguins, to highly recognisable images like the 1972 version of A Clockwork Orange (designed overnight by Art Director David Pelham and described as a ‘Graphic Design Emergency’) we display them on shelves as evidence of the type of people we are. Cultured, thoughtful, well-read, well-travelled. And, No, the Stephen Kings do not belong to me.

Finally, the electronic reader. Where is the place for beauty, except in the sleek black design of the highly covetted object? But we end on a positive note: “I think we are at the most interesting period in the history of publishing, way more interesting than the coming of Penguin Books, almost since the invention of moveable type. And its utterly rivetting to see what’s going to happen.”

You still have six days left to watch: