Sunday, January 13, 2008

Judging an E-Book by Its Cover

A book by any other name (for instance, an "e-book") might not smell as sweet, but it might be a joy to read.

What makes a book lovable? Some insist a book is defined by its sensory qualities: the texture of its pages; the smell of its binding; the colors of its cover. These people would argue that a book is like a good meal, that presentation is all-important. The red of bell pepper and the green of cilantro against an oversized white plate complement the entrée. For them, that makes the meal delicious!

But does it? What is on that plate anyway?

Beauty is as beauty does. At least that's what my mother told me. And I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a book beautiful. Is it presentation, or content, or both? Given a badly written book presented on a beautiful reading instrument, or a book whose prose soared served on a clunky reading device, which would you choose? Of course, your answer depends on personal judgment. And I've offered a lot of room for judgment here. For some, the e-book format is more aesthetically pleasing than the paper version. (Yes, really!) And for others, the prose that might soar for me, plunges into heavy yawns for them.

So what really does matter? C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone." When I read something I really love, I transcend the physicality of the device I happen to be reading and join the author's sensory world. I don't smell the binding of the book, I smell the coffee the author skillfully brings to aromatic life. I feel the heat of the fictional sun on my skin, not the texture of the page. I see that well-described green of the African veldt, not the cover of the book. And I know I'm not alone. I'm with the author.

I'd bet some of the original bards objected heartily, maybe even musically, to written books. And there had to be people who found typeset works distasteful compared to the carefully hand-inscribed manuscripts.

As for me, I'll read anything that tells a good story, even a stone tablet.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Rescuing History

Danish History was almost lost in the early 1500s.

This is the story of two rescuers. One man was Knute, a resistance fighter in Denmark during the World II. The other man was Christian Pederson, a Danish clergyman in the 1500s, who rescued an endangered medieval manuscript that contained history available nowhere else, and managed to get it printed for posterity,

The World War II hero, Knute, helped smuggle Danish Jews out of Nazi-occupied Denmark to Sweden. When I met him forty years later, Knute had just retired as a printer and he was living on a waterway with a rowboat tied up at the dock behind his house. He explained that he wanted a history written of "the real Hamlet" also known as Amleth of Juteland (pronounced “yute-land”). It bothered Knute that the most famous Dane in history was this melancholy guy, lounging around feeling sorry for himself in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet.

The story of Amleth was one of many legendary tales told in The Danish History, the primary source of Danish lore, written in the twelfth century by Saxo Grammaticus. Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, Amleth was never undecided, although he did pretend to be mentally incompetent to mask his true intentions of revenging his father's death and taking over the throne. Hamlet sources.

But Amleth's story and all the others in The Danish History were nearly lost to us. Like all medieval books, Saxo's History was copied by hand by monks. Each manuscript was incredibly valuable and increasingly rare. About 300 years after Saxo's death, when Gutenberg's moveable type press became available to print books in large numbers, it was almost impossible to find a copy of the History.

Christian Pederson, the Canon of Lund, made repeated efforts to get a copy to take to Paris, an early publishing center, but it seemed hopeless "I twice sent a messenger … to buy a faithful copy at any cost, and bring it back to me," Pederson wrote. At that point it may have seemed that the work was lost forever.

Pedersen personally searched all over Denmark. "I visited and turned over all the libraries, but still could not pull out a Saxo, even covered with beetles, bookworms, mould, and dust. So stubbornly had all the owners locked it away." Those who might have a copy were not about to risk lending it for fear of losing the irreplaceable book.

At last, the Archbishop of Lund managed to find a copy, which King Christian the Second allowed to be taken to Paris on condition of its being wrought "by an instructed and skilled graver (printer)."

The first edition came out in 1511. After that it became distributed widely and was translated out of the original Latin into many languages including the 1905 English translation I read.

Flash forward to the 20th century, I wrote a book proposal about Saxo, how his History was almost lost and how Amleth of Juteland became Shakespeare's Hamlet, but Knute decided not to use what I had written. It was still a valuable lesson for me about rescue. Human life is fragile, and sometimes heroes like Knute will stand up to save lives when murderous evil threatens. Knute also wanted to rescue the reputation of Amleth/Hamlet as a legendary Dane. While, back in the 1500s, Christian Pederson rescued the very book itself.

Books can be extinguished, just as human lives can, the light they shed can be lost forever. As technology changes, books need to be rescued again and again. The ebook English translation of Saxo's The Danish History is now available online at the Gutenberg Project and also at Danish History for future generations to enjoy.