That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1. It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells. The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality. Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation. No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.
This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.
Here is just one short excerpt:
My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line. It was a response entirely within the theme of copying. If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.
Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University. He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy. I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.
Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review. I believe I ordered it on Amazon.uk, all five-star reviews by the way. Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.