The Incident at the Library

When I was a child, my father came home one day and surprised us with boxes filled with The Great Books Of The Western World, the series of faux-leatherbound books printed on thin paper - books that look great on your shelves but that nobody reads. Hell, we didn’t even have a bookcase. Dad had to build a couple of shelves that my Mom said would have looked a whole lot better if someone else had built them. And these books remained there, unread, for most of my life.

But these books got me hooked on books. Not hooked on reading… just on books. I loved the way they looked, the way they smelled, the feeling of holding them in my hands. I could really appreciate all the details: the typeface, signature binding, dust jackets, edge gilding and so on. The older the book the better. They didn’t need to be rare or first edition or anything valuable. Just a book. In any language. It didn’t matter, because I loved only the physicality of the book.

So it was that on a day that felt different from other days, as I was rummaging through the stacks of a used book store on a side street in the East Village, I struck up a casual conversation with a fellow bibliophile, as much of a bookworm as ever lived. His knowledge of books was exhaustive, but mine was passionate whereas his was fact based.

We talked about the books we owned, the rare finds we happened on, the ones we liked the most and the ones that disappointed us. We quizzed each other to test our knowledge, and were quick to point out lapses and discrepancies. He excelled at 19th and 20th century books, the classics essentially, and I exhibited an expert knowledge of antiquated books and manuscripts.

When I mentioned that I ardently search for the oldest books I can find, he paused and turned to me, and after another moment asked if I were able to keep a very dark secret. (Now, my feeling is that the nature of a secret should determine one’s willingness to keep it secret. In other words, to ask if I can keep a secret before knowing what that secret is poses a serious ethical conundrum.)

“Sure,” I responded. So much for conundrums.

My new acquaintance suddenly took on a conspiratorial appearance, a look that unnerved me. As he leaned closer to me I could almost smell the musty odor of the aging books he claimed to own. I was expecting him to reveal to me that he had a first edition Faulkner, or an out of print Catcher In the Rye, something along that order. But what he told me was more than I could have imagined. Stan (for that was his name), upon learning that I was on the search for very old books, said to me, or rather made the outlandish and preposterous claim, that he has in his possession the oldest printed book in history: one of the fifty existing Gutenberg Bibles.

What in the name of Holy Moly! Regular people just don’t own Gutenberg Bibles. What a bunch of crap! And I said that to him. Even called him a liar and suggested he was out of his mind. His lie was further infuriating to me for its audacity and its factual inaccuracy - there are only forty-nine existing Gutenberg Bibles in the world and they are all accounted for. I threw that fact in his face with an anger that was unbecoming of me. I was angry that I wasted my time talking with him, that he lied to me, and that up until this time I had believed his stories about his book collections. I knew more about the Gutenberg Bible, “Biblia Latina”, than he would ever know. I could talk about the Textura Quadrata typeface, I could identify the intricate border illustrations of birds and climbing monkeys, and I could discuss the unique way the oily ink would spread on the high quality German paper. He knows nothing about it, and yet he has the audacity to lie to me about owning it!

As I turned to angrily walk away he pulled on my sleeve, giving me a start.

“There are forty-nine known Gutenbergs in the world,” he whispered. “That is true. But mine, the fiftieth, once known as the Bishop’s Bible, has never been catalogued and remains unknown to the world.”

Throughout my life’s journey of book collecting, I’ve occasionally heard whispered stories of a missing Gutenberg Bible, the Bishop’s Bible. There were all sorts of strange rumors about this. Usually they involved an archbishop in 17th century Belgium, but sometimes 16th century Lichtenstein, who claimed the book was missing or stolen from his bishop’s residence. From there, the stories diverge. One saying that it was not stolen, as was assumed, but was lost due to the archbishop’s gambling debts. Another saying that he went mad from drink and in a rage destroyed his library and everything in it. And then there was the outrageous story claiming that the archbishop, who was eventually defrocked, had fallen under the influence of a satanic sect and hid the book in a cellar, and neither he nor the book was ever seen again. That one is a bit far-fetched.

Ok, so my curiosity was piqued, and I hesitantly began listening to Stan because I wanted to believe him. I have long yearned to hold a Gutenberg Bible, to caress its textured paper, to run my fingers along the weathered spine, to close my eyes and hold it close to my face and breathe in its essence. I wanted to embrace it tenderly, lovingly. The excitement would build with the turn of every page, culminating with true bliss. To touch this book has always been my Holy Grail, my raison d'être, my life’s aspiration.

I composed myself. “Can I see it?” I timidly asked.

Stan cordially invited me for the next day to see his library, a spacious wing of his large house across the river in Jersey City. The man was obviously very well off and owned thousands of books. According to him the library contained hundreds, maybe thousands of first editions, autographed copies and rare out of print books. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Hemingway, Dickens, Proust… Thousands of reasons for me to want to believe his preposterous story and to be in his library, seeing and feeling the books, doubting but hoping that among them would be the secret hidden Gutenberg.

The next day, having worked myself into an exaggerated state, I found myself in the most astounding private library one could imagine. Books were stacked on cases twenty feet tall, piled up on shelves and in boxes, and about a hundred or more books dumped in a disheveled pile on the floor. Beyond two imposing doors was another room, also filled with books, the number of which cannot be fathomed. Thousands of books! I was trying to make sense of how he set up the library, but realized that there was nothing like the Dewey Decimal System, alphabetized listings, classification by subject or any other logical means of organization. Stan’s books were placed randomly without any sense of order. Tall books, short books, paperbacks and hard covers… all mixed together with no rhyme or reason. Even books from complete sets were placed separately on shelves.

And here, in the middle of all this, I humbly stood in what was my idea of heaven.

“I believe you came here to see the Gutenberg,” Stan said with a slight, almost sinister, grin - the kind of grin you see in movies when the antagonist is about to do some evil thing. I tried to ignore it at the time, but I think about it even to this day.

He surveyed his library as a lord would look over his manor. “But let’s play a little game, shall we? I will allow you to hold my Gutenberg Bible in your hands, to experience the joy of physical contact with the oldest book you will ever see. I will allow you to be with the book for as much time as you want, but….” Here he paused for several long dramatic moments. “But you must give me something in return.”

Closing the library door behind him, he approached closer, and with a breath that smelled of sulfur and a voice more animal than man, he whispered, “You will give me your soul!”

That did it! Was this whole thing some kind of joke? If it was, I hated it. Whether he was trying to be clever or funny, I felt uneasy being here with him. Who knows what he might do?

At that moment I was holding a book: The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, when I suddenly noticed that all the pages were blank! I reached for another: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Blank also. I ran from book to book opening each one, all of them devoid of words, all blank pages, all fakes! The Sleeping Ballerina - Fake! Prometheus Bound - Fake! The Three Musketeers - Fake!

“You’re nuts!” I shouted. “A lunatic! I should have known that as soon as you told me you had a Gutenberg Bible.” I thought I saw a bit of smoke or vapor surrounding Stan’s face as he grew angrier, but I might have only imagined that. Pushing him aside as I told him to go to hell, I nearly tripped over his cloven feet as I made my way out of the library and quickly onto the streets of Jersey City, leaving behind all those fraudulent books.

Give him my soul! How stupid I was. How gullible, falling for the lie because I needed to believe it. And the devilish lie was from this madman, Stan, who by every appearance was definitely deranged - I could see that now - and nobody but me would have ever believed his crazy story. To this day I don’t know what his plan was for me, but I know I wouldn’t have liked it.

Gutenberg Bible my ass!

Coming soon: The Grand Imposter