You look at books, right?
Dr. Chatterjee sharing an illuminated manuscript facsimile with one of her classes.
That is to say, whatever form they take, you probably think of books as something you take in almost wholly through the sense of sight. In a world of “disembodied” books on Kindles, Nooks, Crannies (which do not exist just yet), and other e-readers, it is easy to get used to the idea of a book as a visual phenomenon divorced from a physical, touchable, smell-able shape. In my work with manuscript facsimiles, however, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some of our patrons about how they use our facsimile collection. As it turns out, some of them have very different ideas about how best to experience a book.
Professor Paroma Chatterjee has been teaching medieval and Byzantine art here at UNC for the last three years. Her particular interests are in “textual and pictorial narrative, concealment and revelation, the creation (and sometimes destruction) of cult images, the delights and discontents of illusionism, and silent cinema.” When we met, she explained the benefits of bringing her classes to the library to use our manuscript facsimile collection — which she does at least once each term.
“For them to actually see the stuff and to touch it, and to use it, to see how even the shape and the weight of the folio is different from a regular book, that is what I’ve tried to do.”
The unique physical experience of these facsimiles is not limited to books, either. For example, there is also the Codex Vaticanus Palatinus Graecus 431 — better known as the Joshua Roll. The Joshua Roll is a large scroll facsimile which Professor Chatterjee enjoys showing the students because it exposes them to an alternative form of the book.
The Joshua Roll in action.
“A lot of the students are very unsure of how to use this object; and then there’s the whole box in which it’s kept, so you open the box, and it has those rollers… but then you begin to play with it and they get more comfortable,” she said, describing the experience.
The “experience” seemed to be the most important part of our facsimile collection for Dr. Chatterjee, and the ways in which that experience differs from more typical means of viewing manuscripts.
“You realize how much your body is implicated in that (handling a manuscript). I’ve had to lift some of these facsimiles to show, and I can tell you it really was a workout. And then there are these tiny ones, which also require your body, because you literally have to peer (at it); there’s so much detail and you feel clumsy compared to it, your size is so out of proportion to these beautiful little things. That is what I want the students to get a sense of, there’s NO way a slide lecture does that. There’s no way a museum does that either, because you can’t actually touch it. That’s the fun thing about the library, that’s what I try to make them see: look, you can touch it, you could tear it if you wanted!”
“Which we won’t!” she hastily added.
Feeling the love.
Apparently her approach works, too. Professor Chatterjee described situations in which students simply could not stop handling the facsimiles, staying even after class had ended. I’ve attended a few of these sessions myself and their excitement is palpable.
If you’re interested in learning more, Professor Chatterjee will be presenting some of our illuminated manuscripts at the Art Library on the evening of October 11 at 6 p.m. I’ll also be continuing to explore our facsimile collection in a series of similar interviews here on the blog. Stay tuned for more discoveries and insights!
– Eva Sclippa