If you are one of those damned souls who has traveled “the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire,” the well-worn path from lisping your ABCs, to juvenile reader, to adolescent bookworm, to adult bibliophile, and finally to full-blown bibliomaniac, then you know that “of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
You begin with a Penguin paperback Hamlet for English 101, and quickly decide you should have the Bard’s complete works in the Riverside edition. Soon you must have the Applause facsimile of the First Folio and then you hit the brick wall of knowing that the closest you will ever come to one of the 240 or so extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio is viewing two pages of it through the glass pane of a vitrine. Now there is an answer to your problem without resort to theft or psychoanalysis.
When John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems, hit that wall, he decided to turn some of his rare tomes, as well as others from such venerable institutions as the British Library, Library of Congress, and Folger Library, into CD and DVD-ROMs so that the common reader could almost touch some of the world’s rarest, most beautiful and most significant books.
These discs make it possible to examine and magnify in minute detail not just text and illustrations, but even the paper, watermarks and binding. Although for now we still see through a glass, it is no longer darkly. It is as if someone, our computer genie, were willing to take an infinite amount of time to display every detail of a treasured object, its hand-tooled leather bindings, translucent watercolors, the very texture of the paper. There is none of that greying out of the page that you find in many facsimiles. The presence of each book is almost palpable.
The Octavo Editions series covers classics in art, architecture, botany, zoology, religion, science and literature and, although the actual book is viewable in its pristine form, plenty of explanatory background material is provided as well. While the prospect of owning Gutenberg’s Bible, Redouté’s Roses or Tory’s Champ Fleury rang my bells, the following titles made this old English major positively salivate:
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), the chef d’oeuvre of Aldus Manutius, the greatest printer of the Italian Renaissance, has fascinated poets, psychologists and iconographers for half a millennium. Anyone interested in dreams, erotica, alchemy, architecture, hieroglyphs, emblems, allegory or symbolism has probably stumbled upon this title and its hermetic illustrations and wondered about its author, its euphuistic language and its meaning.
It reads like a collaboration between Baron Corvo and Carl Jung. The real author is unknown even though the name Francesco Colonna is encrypted into the text. Joscelyn Godwin, whose 1999 translation is the only complete English version, pays lip service to Colonna in that volume, although two years earlier in Prague he told me that he was convinced by recent scholarship that Leone Battista Alberti, the humanist author and architect, wrote this strife of love in a dream. Whoever wrote it, the book is one of the most beautiful ever printed and all of that loveliness comes through in this disc.
Octavo has three Shakespeare offerings: Sonnets (1609), Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (1623), and Poems (1640). Sonnets, one of only 13 extant copies, allows us to see the sequence of 155 poems, including potentially significant typographic peculiarities, as it was first published. That means that “A Lover’s Complaint,” with its complementary parallel themes, often incorrectly separated from the sonnets, is here to give closure to the cycle.
Shakespeare’s dramatic works, the First Folio, is the sole authority for half of his plays and the single most important book in all of English literature. As Joyce said when asked what single book he would take to a desert island, “I should like to say Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman because he is richer.” The quality of this copy, formerly owned by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts who kept it in an ornamental casket carved from the famous Herne’s Oak of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a gift from Queen Victoria, surpasses that of the copies I have seen at the Huntington, Morgan Library, or the one loaned to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Poems is a bit of a curate’s egg since the publisher, John Benson, omitted eight sonnets, reordered the rest and altered the pronouns to obfuscate the fact that some of Shakespeare’s most passionate utterances were to a young man. Some but not all of Shakespeare’s other non-dramatic poetry is here as well as poems by such of his contemporaries as Marlowe, Jonson, Raleigh and the too-little-known Richard Barnfield. His “If music and sweet poetry agree” and “As it fell upon a day” were long thought to be by Shakespeare himself.
When Dr. Samuel Johnson almost single-handedly compiled his Dictionary (1755) he created both a masterpiece of English lexicography and of literature. He gave elegant definitions and cited classic examples for 45,000 words. My favorite has always been his definition – vexing to the Scottish – of oats: “A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” With these Octavo discs, you have instant access to every entry.
William Blake is also represented by three works. Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794 and 1826) allows us to compare an early and late version of the great mystic’s most famous and beloved illuminated work. The stained-glass-like reproductions, the monitor’s light coming from behind the image, surpass even the old Trianon Press printings. Blake hand-colored his printed works, his style evolving as he got older, so each copy is a unique variant.
Blake’s 43 engravings for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1797) reveal that the artist was greater than the writer whose words he was illustrating. Blake’s images bring out a depth in Young’s poems that lay dormant before their pairing. Again, two stylistically different hand-colored copies are presented in full.
The Book of Urizen (1818), a gnostic meditation on the sources of human consciousness, with Urizen (“your reason”) as an imprisoning demiurge, is among Blake’s greatest achievements as poet, painter and printer.
My printing teacher, Harry Duncan, used to say that the greatest printers of all time were Gutenberg, Blake and William Morris. The Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer’s Works (1896) is Morris’ crowning achievement. The illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, whose copy this was, fit the text and exquisite borders perfectly. The making of the handmade paper, the acquiring of the German ink, the cutting of the Troy typeface demonstrate the same intentionality we associate with the alchemist or the rites of the Golden Dawn mages.
This project is exciting not only because of the texts chosen, their low cost and high quality, but because it puts in the hands of the average reader materials that normally are examined by only the most prestigious scholars. This series is doing for the study of books what VHS and DVD have done for film study and what the CD has done for music study: make them not just the private preserve of a few elitist collectors and scholars, but the common cultural property of all of us, as it should be. It is the democratic fulfillment of Gutenberg’s dream.
For more information about Octavo Editions see www.octavo.com, or call (800) 754-1596.
Courtesy of Octavo Editions
Octavo’s reproductions of the title page of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. B