Archives For Mayans

The Ugliest Book

October 26, 2018 — 9 Comments

mayan image.png

Every reader knows “not all books are created equal.” This fact has two applications. Most importantly, since books are built from words, the comparison refers to comparing the content or message of different works. In a totally distinct sense, it may distinguish between the differing presentation or physical aspects of the book itself.

Fifty-four years after its discovery, the oldest surviving Mayan text has been officially authenticated. One of the reasons for the delay was that “for a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn’t Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ of them in terms of figures and color.”

What does that mean? It means that just because the tree bark pages were composed by a less skilled artist . . . in a more primitive age . . . living in a relatively impoverished region . . . with a smaller pallet of colors available . . . its authenticity was questioned.

Not quite what I would consider top flight analysis. Fortunately, Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology has finally righted that wrong. They declared, “The Mayan Codex is authentic and the oldest, legible pre-Hispanic manuscript in the Americas,”

Seriously, the only flaw I can find in the facsimile of the pictograph portrayed above is the attachment of a right hand to a left arm. Then again, if Mark Twain could make the very same mistake roughly eight centuries later, I can forgive the ancient Mayan illustrator.

Illustrative Options

Frankly, the more one learns about the publishing industry, the less responsible we can hold authors for the final look of their works. Rarely do they even get to choose the cover art for their books, although sometimes particularly prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are granted that privilege. That is how the artwork of Pauline Baynes became intimately associated with the two Oxbridge giants.

The lucky few may even be able to select their own fonts, with many wisely opting for the more trustworthy serif families.

For the common woman or man, we are lucky if our publishers even let us have a veto over the artwork that they commission. The exception to this comes with the nature of the self-publishing industry, where the author possesses sole authority in choosing their cover, illustrations, fonts and format.

Still, those hoping for “traditional” publication should recognize in advance how much control over their book they will forfeit to editors and publishers.

With Paper at a Premium

Even with influence in the selection of artwork, some aspects of publishing lie outside the control of writers. A perfect example of this is found in rationing of paper in Britain during the Second World War. The British War Economy Standard meant books visually declined in production quality.

rationing

Paper was rationed, beginning in March 1940, when publishers were allowed only 60 percent of what they had used in 1938-39. The proportion fell to 37.5 percent by January 1, 1942, when the Book Production War Economy Agreement took effect.

The scheme mandated smaller type, less white space, and inferior papers and bindings. It resulted in some remarkably ugly books, but it conserved raw materials. (“Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970” by Jonathan Rose)

A number of Lewis’ books appeared in these wartime editions. They are quite collectible.

Scarce first impression of the true first edition, produced on wartime economy standard paper, and thin boards, published during the Second World War, especially hard to find in its complete original dustwrapper in collectable condition.

Let’s consider an unlikely scenario. In eight centuries, C.S. Lewis’ writings have been forgotten. Then, one archaeologist stumbles across a rare physical copy of a book, that survived the universal “grand purging” following the transfer of such items to some post-digital, post-electronic format.

What would historians assume about the value placed on Lewis’ work if it was a wartime edition compared to other “regular” books by other authors? They could not be faulted for assuming that the people of our day valued the inferior publication less than the “nicer” editions. (This is assuming that the acid-laden paper of the war years would not simply flake apart in their hands.)

The quality of the paper and print make a strong impression on readers. Just as we often judge books by their cover.

C.S. Lewis, a true bibliophile, illustrates how even a modest book (in terms of content) can be deemed “exquisite.” In a 1935 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he humorously describes the impending publication of The Allegory of Love.

I have finished my book which is called The Allegorical Love Poem, and is dedicated to Barfield. The Clarendon Press have accepted it and hope to have it out by May.

As I am to get 12 free copies (Dents only give one 6) you and Tchanie shall each have one and save your silver: and whatever you think of the matter, I hope, from experience of the Clarendon Press, that binding, paper etc will be—in our old formula—excellent, exquisite, and admirable.

In other words, if you can’t read it, you will enjoy looking at it, smelling it, and stroking it. If not a good book, it will be a good pet! It will be about 400 pp, they say. (It will be funny, after this, if they do it in double columns and a paper cover.)

Returning to the Mayan pages with which we began, we sadly are unable to judge them by their original codex in its pristine state. However, the extant pieces possess great historical value, even if scholars took a long time determining the fact . . . and whether or not they would ever consider it to be “a good pet.”


In case you are interested, Mere Inkling has explored Mayan books before, in “One Weakness of Modern Books.”

 

mayanC.S. Lewis offered one of his keen insights into literature when he wrote: “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” (Letters to Malcolm)

The racks of clearance titles at bookstores provide ample evidence of that truth. It’s particularly evident with nonfiction works dealing with technology. Their shelf life can be counted in months (if they are fortunate).

But the short lifespan of modern writing is not restricted to science-driven topics. It also relates to the literary “fads” that come and go like mists dispelled by the afternoon sun.

There appears to be a direct correlation between touting the modernity or timeliness of a book and it imminent obsolescence. Many readers of Mere Inkling vividly recall the deluge of books warning about the dangers posed by Y2K. The new millennium was guaranteed—in the eyes of publishers milking the rare event—to bring momentous change, perhaps including catastrophic disasters.

When that crisis failed to materialize, there was a slightly less voluminous—but equally ominous—discussion of the threat of Armageddon heralded by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It was newsworthy enough that NASA posted this message the day after “doomsday.”

News flash: the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. You’ve probably already figured that out for yourself. Despite reports of an ancient Maya prophecy, a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, or a reverse in Earth’s rotation, we’re still here.

The Mayan connection “was a misconception from the very beginning,” says Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. “The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date.”*

It is unfair, though, to single out time sensitive publications as doomed to pass quickly into the recycling bin. After all, it wasn’t technological or calendar-focused texts Lewis was referring to.

What Lewis was critiquing is books that consciously attempt to catch the latest wave of popularity . . . without recognizing that only a small fraction of such movements are of lasting value.

He despised books that lacked substance and were utterly transient in their “value.”

Lewis knew from personal experience about the varying quality and potential lifespan of books. The following passage from his autobiography describes vividly how in his childhood he was exposed to books of all sorts, even though some had been purchased only because of his parents’ “transient” interests.

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.

Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. (Surprised by Joy)

Lewis believed that any good book was worth rereading. As a relatively young man he wrote in 1916, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” Sixteen years later he would write to Arthur Greeves once again and say, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” And, without belaboring the subject, in 1933 he would once again voice this conviction to his lifelong friend. “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.”

The “good books,” of course, were those that had proven themselves over the passage of time. They were polar opposites to the shallow, insipid writing Lewis derided.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis elaborates on this notion. He argues that no truly worthwhile text can be fully digested in a single reading.

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

It is honest to acknowledge that a book only recently published is not inherently of lesser value than something that has remained of sufficient value to have been preserved over the centuries. After all, every book was at one time new.

Lewis offers a persuasive rationale for his position reading outside one’s own historical context is beneficial.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

It should be noted that Lewis did offer an exception to his rule about revisiting texts. He regarded it as feasible that a volume of facts or “information” could be processed in one reading.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. (“On Stories”)

Lewis could exclude “books of information” from requiring rereading due to his prodigious memory which made that unnecessary. Lesser minds, such as that of the writer of this column, often benefit from returning to even these books.

Lewis, however, was absolutely convinced that the classics (using the term in a broad sense) were vital to developing the mind. He even proposed a specific ratio for one’s literary consumption.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

One reason for alternating one’s reading is to ensure we don’t ingest too much mental “junk food.” After all, as Lewis writes in “Learning in War-Time,”

You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.

The Classics as Curricula

Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in reading what Lewis called “old books,” as the essential foundation for an excellent education. He would certainly have applauded this movement.

Numerous American colleges and universities offer Great Books programs. The Association for Core Texts and Courses tracks them here.

One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:

Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.**

The Great Books Foundation is an organization established to provide resources for younger students. It’s never too early, supporters believe, to undertake this approach to grounding one’s education.

The C.S. Lewis Society, which operates the Study Center at the Kilns where Lewis resided, has been attempting to fund C.S. Lewis College in the States. They have a grand dream, inspired by the worldview of their namesake. “C.S. Lewis College will be a college of the Great Books and the Visual and Performing Arts.”

God-willing, in the future, more and more enlightened readers, taught from their youth to value quality literature, will echo Lewis’ words, saying, I too “am a product . . . of endless books.”

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* The full article is here and offers an interesting insight in to Mayan religion. According to Carlson,

“If we could time warp a Maya to the present day, they would say that Dec. 21, 2012, is a very important date. Many Maya believed that their gods who created the world 5125 years ago would return. One of them in particular, an enigmatic deity named Bolon Yokte’ K’uh, would conduct old rites of passage, to set space and time in order, and to regenerate the cosmos.” The world would be refreshed, not destroyed.

** “Mother Church or Uncle Sam” by Kevin Roberts (unfortunately not available in full online).