OnReligion.com points me to an intriguing exhibition at the Huntington Library (too bad I’m on the other side of the country!), “The Bible and the People,” exploring the history of the book that we call the Bible–its status as a physical, obtainable object, and how that object has been regarded through history.
Our story begins in the eleventh century, when the Bible was available only in expensive, hand-copied manuscripts–the exclusive property of clerics and a small Latin-educated elite, nearly all male. Manuscript Bibles could be breathtakingly beautiful, but they could also be inaccurately transcribed and confusingly formatted, their constituent books in varying sequences, their chapters and verses unmarked. As active participants in a Bible-saturated culture, ordinary people were familiar with scripture, but not as a text to read or a book to own.
Our story ends, however, in a very different world: the current Bible marketplace, with its extraordinary number of translations, formats, and versions designed to appeal to readers of every age, race, native language, reading ability, and budget. Today the Bible is the best-selling and the most widely distributed book in the world.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of “books” on my Palm Pilot-so these “books” have no true physical existence. But some of my favorite objects are physical, bound, books-and even the smell of a large collection of used books can give me a certain thrill of excitement.
I have a guilty addiction to the “Reality TV” and “Home Improvement” shows we have here in the US (“Trading Spaces,” “While You Were Out” and so on), and the thing I constantly notice in the homes on these shows is how very, very, few books I see. Usually there are none at all. Do people even have books in their houses? My main “home decorating” concern has always been finding enough shelf space for the stacks, piles, of books which are always littering my living space.