Minibibliomania: a saga of miniature books

Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasury

Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasury

Bromer, Anne C and Julian I. Edison. Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures. New York: Abrams Books, 2007. Print. First Edition. 215 pages. 9½ * 10½. 260 illustrations.

From tiny cuneiform tablets created around 2,000 B.C. to Empress Shotoku’s diminutive scrolls to a silicon chip featuring more than 180,000 words from the Bible, miniature books have intrigued people since written history began. Anne C. Bromer, an internationally respected antiquarian in Boston, and Julian I. Edison, an ardent bibliophile and a miniature-book collector, celebrate the art and history of miniature books in their debut collaboration—Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures.

Eleanor Farjeon. The Seventh Princess and The Goldfish. Hyattsville, Maryland: Rebecca Press, 1993.

Eleanor Farjeon. The Seventh Princess and The Goldfish. Hyattsville, Maryland: Rebecca Press, 1993.

Miniature Books is a catalogue of the miniature book published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York, featuring books from the earliest Babylonian clay tablets to modern creations, organized in chapters by major collecting areas: illuminated manuscripts, book arts, religion, almanacs, micro-miniatures, children’s books, politics and propaganda, books on life’s pleasures and objets d’art. The miniature books described are drawn from Edison’s private collection of over 15,000 books, one of the finest collections of miniature books in private hands. The authors tell the stories of miniature books to appeal to both amateurs and rare-book collectors, aiming at explaining “why they are fascinating, odd, amusing, and important and why [collectors] have been entranced by the subject for dozens of years.”[i]

This lavishly illustrated and gilt-edged volume contains 260 full-color photographic reproductions of books pictured in actual size. The illustrations consistently appear in proximity to the text discussing the works shown so that the text flows nicely, allowing any reader a glimpse into this very specific area of book production and collecting.[ii] No wonder Publishers Weekly praises the book as “a feast for the eye.” [iii] Indeed, the photographer, Steve Adams, is famous for taking photos of delicate food and wine. Therefore, to label Miniature Books as a sumptuously illustrated history of the miniature book will never be an overstatement.

Bromer and Edison begin their minibibliomania with reinvigorating the definition of the miniature book. While most bibliophiles call it a book with a maximum of three inches in height, Bromer and Edison define it as a “one-hand’s book,” a definition that implies a certain sensual pleasure. They then proceed to delineate the reasons why people make miniature books. The authors seduce us with stories in which the tiny almanac is made as “ornaments of gaiety and beauty,” while a miniature library is used to “entice children to learn” or as a travelling companion. Young printing apprentices since the 15th century have also produced miniature books to hone their skills and techniques in order to “avoid sloppiness when working with larger books.”

Miniature Books used for political propaganda.

Miniature Books used for political propaganda.

However, a professional bibliophile might find this definition not inclusive or expansive enough to cover their approach to researching the history of miniature books. They assertively call the miniature book an “intimate object,” adopting the Anglo-American approach which focuses on the content and textual analysis of a book. We do not know whom a sixteenth-century French almanac belonged to, but we know that it has “delicately tooled leafy sprays…gilded onto sumptuous morocco leathers.” Meanwhile, they go beyond their definition and carefully study the great stories and fascinating people behind the making of miniature books, adopting the French Annales’ approach which focuses on the historical, political, religious, artistic, literary and social functions of a book. Because of their diligence, we now understand why miniature Hebrew books are essential to the Jewish heritage because their portability and inconspicuousness protected Jews from persecutions. We also understand why miniature Soviet books are effective tools of political propaganda because they were a means of communicating pride in the Soviet social and political systems to the people. In this sense, the authors’ definition of the miniature book limits their own scope of discussion, making the sensuality and physicality of the miniature book override its functions.

Despite this limitation, Miniature Books is still considered as the most authoritative book telling a popularized account of the books no taller than three inches, based on the fact that The Oxford Companion to the Book uses it as the main scholarly reference in its entry on miniature books.[iv] The authors establish their authority from their professional experience in the field of the miniature book. Graduated from Simmons College with a Library Science degree, Bromer became a member of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America in 1974. Besides Miniature Books, she also authored the other two renowned works on this topic.[v] Her co-author, Edison, has been the editor of Miniature Books News for more than 40 years and thus built his reputation as the reliable and authoritative voice among his counterparts. Most importantly, their reference to their predecessors’ scholarly landmarks in the field, Louis Bondy’s book[vi] on the history of miniature books and Percy Edwin Spielmann’s comprehensive catalogue[vii] of miniature books, makes this volume an unprecedented one in both depth and scope.

Sixteen French almanacs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in leather covers, whose engraved contents include verses or songs with a calendar. These tiny books were given at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops.

Sixteen French almanacs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in leather covers, whose engraved contents include verses or songs with a calendar. These tiny books were given at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops.

One fatal feature of this book, however, is its failure to explain to us why we get fascinated with the gathering of miniature books and their significance in history as well as in today’s bibliophilic world, which the authors have promised to address in the introduction. Bromer and Edison introduce “the smallest surviving renaissance manuscript” and “the first miniature bibliography in typographical literature” to us without explicitly explaining the value of their acquisition. Similarly, the authors do not unveil the price of miniature books or the identity of miniature-book collectors. Without this piece of information, we would not know the status of miniature books in the book-collection world.

In addition, the authors seem to be too engrossed in the sensuality of the miniature book to overlook the expectations of their target readers. Oftentimes, bibliophilic jargons are handled tenderly for amateurs. The authors explain most unfamiliar terms such as incunabula and marbling except for a few cases where they lose consistency. For instance, when Bromer and Edison proclaim that “the illuminated letters with minute scroll work are reminiscent of the treatment of initials in Renaissance manuscripts,” they instinctually assume that all of us understand what the treatment of initials during Renaissance was. In the same vein, rare-book expertise might find that there are too many instances where the authors write sweeping statements without any justification. Why is Verbum sempiternum the most important title in the world of miniature books? Why is the first use of photography in a miniature book, Galleria Dantesca Microscopica, revolutionary? Why little people like little books? The overwhelming subjectivity found here, on the one hand, demonstrates the authors’ fervor with the miniature book, but on the other hand, blinds our objective judgment and prevents us from learning the history of the miniature book in an open-minded way.

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Towards the end of this volume, the authors ask us a rhetorical question: what is a book? While scholars are discussing the status of the artist book in the bibliophilic world fervently and relentlessly, what about the miniature book? In fact, Bromer and Edison have their answer. “So long as the human race values books, there will be miniature books for historians and collectors to appreciate.” Bromer and Edison think that the miniature book represents mankind’s evolution in creativity and intelligence. They celebrate this human endeavor of making miniature books, which brings about technological advances such as “Didot’s polyamatype mold” and “Claes” glue-less binding technique” along the way.

“Have we reached the absolute limit?” Of course not.

Endnotes

[i] Disclaimer: all quotations in this review, if not indicated, are directly from Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures.

[ii] Woodhouse, Mark. Rev. of Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures. Library Journal Jul. 2007: 88.

[iii] Rev. of Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures. Publishers Weekly, Apr. 2007: 45.

[iv] “Miniature Books.” The Oxford Companion to the Book. 1st ed. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

[v] For Anne C. Bromer’s biography, see “Anne C. Bromer.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Biography in Context. Web. 1 Apr. 2016. She also authored 35 Miniature Books in Designer Bindings in 1987 and Strings Attached: Dorothy Abbe, Her Work and Wad in 2001.

[vi] Bondy, L.W. Miniature Books: Their History from the Beginnings to the Present Day. Longdon: Sheppard Press, 1981. Print.

[vii] Spielmann, Percy Edwin. Catalogue of the Library of Miniature Books Collected. London: Edward Arnold, 1961. Print.


Supplementary Reading Materials:

Stewart, Susan. On Longing—Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Bradbury, Robert C. Twentieth Century United States Miniature Books. Clarendon, Vermont: The Microbibliophile, 2000. Print.

 

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