e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the category “Ancient books and manuscripts”

The books that bind – Jane Austen and Timbuktu

burning book

Yesterday the BBC TV news carried two literary-related items.

Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Yesterday the French army seized Timbuktu, only to discover that a library of ancient manuscripts had been burned and most of the books destroyed.

What a contrast! The peace of English village life/the violence of war; a book loved/books destroyed; appreciative readers celebrating/an act of childish spite.

The arsonists have achieved nothing but to rob the world of a treasure, and to weaken an age old connection between the local people and their ancestors.

I sometimes think of books as links in a chain joining the past to the future via the present. The chain is anchored in the past when the book was first made and its links uncoil into the future for as long as it’s remembered. Each generation adds a new one.

If the book still exists the links are strong, but once it’s gone the chain depends on human memory to keep forging.

Memories of some of those old scholars who built the library and wrote the books will start to fade. They do not deserve to be forgotten.

Austen however goes from strength to strength and this year will be celebrated all over the world.

Picture from dontstepinthepoop.

Seasons of Sacred Celebration: Flowers and Poetry from an Imperial Convent

Cover artWhile attempting to organise some of my books, I came across this one. I’ve owned it for some time and have read it before, but now, re-reading it I was thrilled all over again.

It presents a set of poetry cards from the Diashoji Imperial Convent in Kyoto. Each card is reproduced on its own page and opposite are a Japanese and English version of the poem. The publishers are the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, part of Columbia University, New York.

The poems are waka (also called tanka), a style of short poem with a long history in Japan. Like most Japanese poems they are direct and seemingly simple but say so much:

Could it be that the maple leaf

fathoms the heart of one who feeds the fire …

The book is beautiful – the illustrations are magical; the poems show new ways of looking at flowers and trees; the scholarly introduction and essay are fascinating – I learned an amazing amount; the index to the calligraphers is well organised and useful.

And there is a mystery – who initiated the production of the set of cards and why?

And they are part of women’s Buddhist history and were published to celebrate a great woman, Zen Abbess Mugai Nyodai (1223 – 1298).

What more could one want?

The cover art is from Floating World Editions.

Hay-on-Wye and Timbuktu

While browsing the web trying to find an answer to the question:

Why does the small, Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye have so many bookshops?

I came across the information that it is twinned with Timbuktu.

The reason is not hard to find – Timbuktu is also famous for books, this time in libraries. These libraries contain diverse and important collections of Islamic manuscripts.

There have been recent instances of extremist rebels damaging shrines and monuments in the area. So far the libraries are safe but they are still very vulnerable. To make them safer the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has been studying and digitising their contents, but with so much material this is a long process.

In addition to important works of Islamic scholarship, these collections also form a major source for the study of African history. Even in apparently purely religious texts there are often little notes in the margins giving local details. This is part of the charm of old books – other readers have been here before and left their mark. For a modern version of this take a look at Bundle of Books for 9 July.

My question:

Why does Timbuktu have so many libraries?

is quite easily answered. It was a major trading settlement that grew into an important city on a meeting point of desert and river valley, with a mixed and intellectually active population. From different parts of the Islamic world people came (and still come) to study and contribute to the scholarship in the city.

I still haven’t found the answer to my first question. The nearest I can get is that  Hay-on-Wye sits on a meeting point – this time of England and Wales – and is full of enterprising and intellectually active people. Through its festivals it has numerous visitors from the world of readers and writers.

Read this book and weep

The book of my title is The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. It’s subtitle is very appropriate:

An incomplete history of all the great books you’ll never read.

The author looks back through the history of literature and tells us what is known of great lost books. The history of literature is a long one – going back to the earliest days of writing in places like Sumeria, Egypt, China – and the opportunities for even famous books to vanish are numerous.

The classical age in Europe is one of the best known, partly because the authors who have survived commented on their colleagues and predecessors who haven’t. But even the very literary Greeks and Romans produced many Mr and Mrs Anonymouses not to mention Mr Who-was-Homer?.

We leave the realm of this vagueness the nearer we approach the present. It’s interesting to read about what we haven’t got of Lord Byron, Jane Austen and other well-known people. Most of them are Westerners but Asia has its own ‘lost’ catalogue and a few chapters introduce us to it.

The last author dealt with in the book is Philip K Dick. Three of his known works have vanished. I suspect that Dick himself was responsible for this; by the 20th century he should have had access to ways of not losing things if he didn’t want to.

The works Kelly covers are just the ones we know about – how much more has turned to dust over the centuries?

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