I recently met Jim Green, the librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia - not the Free Library, but the one founded by Benjamin Franklin and friends in 1731. On learning of my interest in typography, Jim invited me to see some books.
When I arrived, he already had three books out to show me. The first was the 1632 Second Folio of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I have seen other copies of this book twice in my life, but strictly in "do not touch" circumstances. Jim let me hold this one in my hands, turn the pages, and hold it right up to my eye so I could see the minutest details of paper and ink.
Four hundred years seemed to vanish. I leafed through and there were Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff and Hal, all of them. Except instead of seeing those characters as venerable antiques, somehow, with this book in my hand, I saw them as I might have seen them in 1632 - fresh, unheard-of, hilarious, tragic, and irresistible.
Next was a Latin edition of Virgil, printed by John Baskerville. When he came along, printing in England was a poor shadow of the refined art then being developed on the continent. In 1757, Baskerville set about changing that. He learned the entire art of printing, from hand-sculpting individual letters to binding.
He created his own typeface, with all the refinement and elegance of Europe's, but somehow English (or perhaps we associate this style of type with England because of Baskerville). To do justice to his delicate letters, he invented a new way of making paper (vastly smoother and whiter than ordinary paper) and also introduced the idea of generous margins and spacing between lines to make a page more pleasing to the eye.
He revolutionized English printing. His fingerprints are still all over the printing and graphics industry (including the Baskerville font that comes preloaded on your computer).
To pay for the creation of this amazing book, Baskerville sold subscriptions in advance. The first five pages of the book contain the list of subscribers, including "Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia."
Franklin's copy survived the long, perilous sea voyage and reached his hands. He studied it and then donated it to the library. A quarter of a millennium later, the librarian took it from the shelf and handed it to me. I had Ben Franklin's book in my hands.
Jim saved the best for last. Nicholas Jenson, one of Gutenberg's early pupils, went on to set up his own shop in Venice. In 1476, Jenson created an edition of Pliny's Natural History translated into "Florentine." That book was Jenson's masterpiece. It's 500 or so pages of fine vellum (calfskin), printed, with hand-colored illuminations. It was as beautiful as any hand-lettered medieval masterpiece.
But what made this book special was the typeface Jenson created. Before Jenson, type was either "black letter" (think of the lettering on the cover of a hymnal) or "uncial" (think Book of Kells). Neither was particularly readable, and both presented numerous difficulties in translation to movable type. Jenson solved all those problems by inventing what he called "Roman type," because he based it largely on the carved inscriptions in the surviving monuments of ancient Rome.
His type was so readable that it transformed the industry. It is generally considered one of the great engines of the Renaissance.
Even today, almost everything we read - including The Inquirer - is printed in some variation of Jenson's Roman type. It has been emulated thousands of times in the subsequent six centuries but has never been surpassed. Jenson is still the yardstick by which all typographic art is measured.
And that is the book I held. As with the other treasures described above, I was astounded at the condition it is in. It's as if almost no time has passed. The elegant lines and crisp perfection of Jenson's type still shine as brightly as if on the first day the book was printed. I can hardly believe the book still exists, let alone in such perfect condition - not to mention that I had it in my own two hands. Just thinking about it has me all excited again.
Most people would probably not consider me a religious person, but those books are more sacred to me than the thumb bone of St. Peter. To touch them was a deeply moving experience.