Friday, February 25, 2011

The Book as Sacred Object, and Recollections of the Paris Codex

So, this morning I received a nice, big box of very old books on Spanish and Mexican history that I had purchased on the cheap at auction several months back.  I already have a fairly large collection of books on the Maya of Guatemala and the Yucatan, and my hope was that I would find a couple of useful--or at least intriguing--volumes in what I otherwise understood to be a grab bag of dusty, old history books.  I was not disappointed. 

But even more than the useful or intriguing knowledge that may be contained within their pages, I found myself relishing the look and feel and musty old smell of each and every volume that I pulled from among the styrofoam packing material and unwrapped from its tissue paper.  And I realized once again that, despite all the support for ebooks and audiobooks that can be found in these posts, there is nothing quite like a good old book to fire my imagination.  For me, as for most of you I would suspect, books are sacred objects, and I find myself caring more about them than I do about even my most important and useful possessions.  Every time that I stumble on a worthwhile old tome, I want to take it in like a stray kitten and nurse it back to health or at least put it to the use for which it was intended.  I know that I'm not alone in this appreciation.

The whole experience got me thinking about the most significant book that I've ever held in my own two hands--the Paris Codex.  For the uninitiated--and I'm perfectly willing to admit that the field is obscure--the Paris Codex is one of four surviving manuscripts written by the Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest.  That there are only four may be blamed as much on Spanish zealotry as the ravages of time--they famously burned thousands of such manuscripts in their less than subtle efforts at conversion.  And only one, known as the Grolier Codex, remains in the Americas today.  The rest are scattered about Europe in Madrid, Dresden, and Paris, where they are known less than creatively as the Madrid, Dresden, and Paris Codices.

Each provides an example of the well-developed written language of the Maya, the only such writing system that originated in the Americas and, arguably, one of only three written languages that developed organically  (i.e. was not borrowed or adapted from some other civilization) throughout the entire world.  The written language of the Maya died out in the generations following the Spanish Conquest, though amazing strides have been made in the last several decades with respect to the understanding and preservation of the language, which can still be found not only in the codices, but on stelae and temples throughout Central America and Mexico.

The Paris Codex is kept in a sealed box at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and is not generally accessible to the public.  I was able to handle it only after a lengthy formal request process during which I explained repeatedly that I was working on a book in which the Paris Codex figured prominently.  By sheer persistence, I wore them down.  And I was even able to sneak my wife in as well as my "translator" on the day of our viewing.

To hold a five hundred year-old book from a "lost" civilization that is written in a language that no longer exists is absolutely indescribable.  I remember carefully paging through the codex from beginning to end over the course of several hours, its pages still bright and beautiful, though delicate and fading in spots.  And I couldn't help but think of the author, seated cross-legged, paintbrush in hand, half a century behind me, and born of a civilization that owed nothing to my own.  I might as well have been reading the marks of an alien world light years away.  But one thing I knew that I shared with him was an appreciation of the written word and a love of the books that contain it.  In many ways, I think it is the written language that allows us to finally transcend time and place and to sympathize with those around us--and isn't that the very thing that makes us human?

I've gone on far too long--I get wrapped up in books, what can I say?  But what about the rest of you?  Do you consider any books sacred?  Do you remember a particular experience with a particular book above all others?  And what do you think it is about the written word that transfixes and binds us?   




  1. I absolutely believe that there old and rare books are sacred-whether of historical or personal significance. I've never had the pleasure of handling a really significant piece of historical value, but I will admit to a vicarious thrill when Robert Langdon in Angels and Demons got to actually touch Galileo's work. On a personal level, though, there are books I consider sacred. I still have my first copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is one of my favorite reads as a child. Ditto with Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

  2. Can you access via bbc iplayer (Web) a programme titled The Beauty of Books, they have been covering the history of books, including some of the oldest books from british history , thru illustrated works such as Gormenghast, Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear etc. I'm thinking this may appeal.
    On another note have you read Alberto Manguel's A Reader on Reading, a really fascinating, thought provoking beauty of a book.
    enjoyed your post thanks.

  3. @Heather - It's funny that you bring up Dan Brown because one of the attendants at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris was very proud of the fact that the opening scene of the Da Vinci Code took place there. I can't remember if that's true or not, but she was certainly very proud of it. In any case, Dan Brown has certainly tapped into the thrill of discovering or re-discovering historical objects that is shared by all of us. And I envy you all your childhood books--my own burned in a storage facility fire some 15 years back. They are perhaps the most sacred of all!

    @parrish lantern - You always have such great recommendations (both literary and alcoholic). Unfortunately, I get "Not available in your area," as I try to access each episode. I'm going to play around for a bit and see if I can't order the program some other way as it looks fascinating from the descriptions. And I just downloaded a sample of A Reader on Reading--thanks for that.

  4. Pat Conroy also just wrote a book about his reading life, with some of his favorite books mentioned, as well as the people in his life who encouraged him in different ways with reading and writing. I heard an interview with him on NPR not long ago discussing it.

  5. Conroy's My Reading Life--check. Thanks, Heather! I always did love The Prince of Tides.