Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Busarus and the Business of Scribes

In case you have ever wondered what rhymed with "thesaurus", I give you "busarus"--not a newly discovered dinosaur, but what they call the bus station in Dublin. I am, like so many of my forebears, about to depart from Ireland for America.

The weeks running up to this have been hectic. I have lacked the enrgy to write. Forgive the silence.

Yesterday we went to see the Book of Kells. It is always a pleasure to see the real thing after years of comments around and about it. As the guidebook said, the exhibits on the way to the book are well worth a close look. Pages from the Book of Kells many many times life size and illuminated from behind create a sacred space of arches and stained glass within a stark simple room. For all its religious power, the large pages are very welcoming, like stained glass windows in your favorite church.

Two books contemporary with the Book of Kells are displayed along with poems written by the scribes talking about their craft. We got to the exhibit in the Old Library building early and had the luxury of poring over the displays, peering closely at the text and catching the occasional word or looking intensely at the details of the illustrations. An interested collection of onlookers were reverentially quiet, which made it possible for the scritching of the quill on velum from a video embedded in an exhibit to reverberate throughout the room, rendering it a scriptorium again.

Almost as an afterthought, the long room above the Book of Kells exhibit has opened its doors. The guidebook comments on the barrel vaulted ceiling and the fact that the room is very long. I was struck by the fact that this was the continuation of the work begun below. The feeling was made all the more compelling as young people going about the business of preservation pushed carts of leather bound tomes up and down the length of the long room. A note at the door as we enetered said we could watch the preservationists in action, but preserving, as in scribing, is slow work. It is hard to make it a consumable event except for nerds of a certain flavor.

I am such a nerd. I like seeing behind the scenes of things. I started my working life in book publishing as the craft changed from hot metal impressions on paper to linotype and stayed on as computers took over more and more of the manual aspects. As books became more accessible they became less precious. This like the consequences of so many changes in technology is a mixed blessing.

As I watched the scribes at work I thought also about how we write ourselves into our world. One scribe was particularly aggressive in putting his own name into his work. Did the other scribes sneer about it? Did they have little talks with the head of the order about brotherly love? Did the monk with the BIG NAME have long sessions about pride coming before a fall? I would like to hear those stories behind the stories, but all I could hear was the quill on the velum.


At 2:20 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

lovely description. love the phrase "write ourselves into the world" - it's an apt way to think about it.

I saw a traveling exhibition of the Book of Kells years ago. Have never forgotten the terrible price paid for the beauty - most of the illuminators were between the ages of 10-13, because their eyes were sharp enough for the task. And many went blind doing it. "a sacrifice to god," I guess the monks must have thought, as they seated a new boy in a chair.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

I am quite sure I wouldn't have the patience for it. I respect it. I'm grateful that it's done -- but it's like the paleontologist using a toothbrush to separate rock from fossil bone in the field. I think it's wonderful stuff -- but I want it distilled down into a documentary I can watch on TV and see the bones animated according to the latest theory.

Welcome to Chicago. I hope you enjoy your stay.

At 8:27 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Hayden, that is a sad story about the hard working monkls but I can imagine it took a terrible toll on eyesight.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Cur, you are so right re patience. I scarcely have patience any longer even to write in long hand.
Thanks for welcome to Chicago. I do like your town.


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