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Re: BOOK_ARTS-L Digest - 13 Apr 1998 to 14 Apr 1998



This current thread reminded me of a passage from SOME WENT THIS WAY  (A forty
Year Pilgrimage Among Artists, Bookmen and Printers) by Ralph Fletcher Seymour
(1945):

"(Dr. Gunsaulus) helped me to meet people who knew about and liked books, and
once he helped me meet some books.  Among his friends was a rich book
collector who owned a Gutenberg (Mazarin) Bible, for which he had paid the
then astounding price of $40,000.  Dr. Gunsaulus thought I should see this
book and fixed things so I might spend a evening in the bookman's library
getting acquainted with it and other real books. Not sure that I should be
mixing into matters so far outside all my experiences I nevertheless went to
Mr. Ellsworth's home one stormy night, feeling that by contact with rare and
important volumes I would grow acquainted with them and improve spiritually.
The owner happed to have gone to New York, but the old caretaker let me in.
The wind was shrieking around house corners, rain whipping on the library
widow panes as I entered that long, quiet room.

For some time I looked respectfully about.  "Here," thought I, "are the real
treasures of this world, more valuable and trustworthy, probably, than the
people who wrote them, for men are weak and fall into sin but these books
record the triumph of their spirits over their faulty bodies.  The eternal
pursuit of truth and men's determination to become finer have all been
recorded in these noble tomes."  Standing in the center of the room was a
fireproof case within which reposed a paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
Unlocking the cover I placed the volume on my lap.  "How wonderful to be
holding this book," thought I.  "The significance of all books may be said to
be in this one; all the power of the printed word is in these heavy black
letters, which are impressions from the first metal type ever made; all the
authority of man's moral code is in those wonderful lines."  So I sat quite a
long while in that quiet library, listening to the storm, holding the
Gutenberg Bible.  I mused on how by endless struggles, aspirations and
persistence one group of animals had gained understanding, made themselves
into human beings, practiced virtue, lived by the greatest of all rules, the
Golden Rule, and won immortal souls.  And these men because of their
intentions and practices had established high standards for themselves and
shut sin and weakness out of their lives as these walls and windows shut out
the raging storm.  Having settled this in my mind I reluctantly replaced the
Bible in its container, for never before had I held so precious a book (nor
have I since).

I walked along the book cases of vellum books, the manuscripts, in incunabuli,
the block books levant and calf backed books, thin cloth first editions, paper
cased quartos, in their original condition, the little books, the French Books
of Hours, the Aldines, the Elzevirs, the tiny Latin bibles, magnificent and
tall books, printed records of all the vanities with which mankind solaces
himself, and from among them all, from a shelf of gleaming bindings, it
chanced that I drew a smallish book, with a grimy, ivory colored back.  It
turned out to be a full leather binding, but of unusual quality. the leather
had a slippery feeling, with little grain, neither pig skin nor calf.  It
stirred my curiosity and for a moment I speculated on just what sort of
leather it might be.  It was made into a binding for a set of original
impressions fo Holbein's woodcuts for "The Dance of Death."  From a printed
descriptive slip I learned that the pitted leather was human hide.  Horrified,
fascinated, I stood, holding this profanation in my outraged hand.  It had
never occurred to me that binding leather could be made from human flesh,
although I now held a piece of it I still could not believe that any man could
be so sacrilegious as to rip the hide off a fellow man just to indulge in the
stunt of making part him into leather--that any one would thus pillage the
Temple of the Spirit.  The dynamite contained in the idea of making binding
leather out of human hide threw my recent pleasant reflections on man's
nobility entirely off the track.  I slid the little book back among its
gleaming brother bindings and sat down to reconstruct my moral philosophy.
What could the motive have been that had prompted that scoundrelly tanner to
use human hide?  Certainly nothing pertaining to the nobility or the
brotherhood of humanity!  How could the owner of this library have even
considered buying such a book?  Perhaps he was as disillusioned as the binder
and the binder as bad as the skinner.  Perhaps the motives behind all man's
work were not high, but were founded on vanity, egotism, fear, greed.  Perhaps
men thought that the Dance of Death and not Life Eternal was their inevitable
destiny and therefore turned to the gratification of the senses while they
could, building up, meantime, pretentious facades of so-called good deeds, of
which this library might be an example.  Perhaps the owner created it to show
his associates how well he could do it; perhaps he had never intended that the
books in it should be read.

"No," thought I, "now I see it is highly improbable that men have souls at
all.  Their claims to have achieved immortality are prompted by egotistical
impulse, or by fear.  Every one of them, therefore, is hopeless.  Along with
all the other manifestations of Nature they will finally be swept away, as
they deserve, to become a part of cold stars and scouring winds."  Thus on my
first chance to experience improvement through association with good books I
suffered an attack of spiritual indigestion and was temporarily turned into a
cynic.  Asking the caretaker for permission to depart, giving no reply to his
surprised ejaculation of, "What, sir, so early?" I wrapped my overcoat about
my ears and stepped out again into the stormy night.


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