Baskerville versus the Kindle versus the Medici Psalter – in praise of ordinariness

In my two previous posts I staged a mock battle between a 1760 book printed by John Baskerville and my Kindle. The ‘e-reader’, for a newcomer and late arrival, did surprisingly well, although I made no secret I like the subtle but rich pleasures of the traditional form of ‘the book’. I hope I have been generous too about the Kindle’s good things.

I looked at both objects through multimodal glasses – though ‘looking’, literally considered, is not rich or interesting enough as a way of turning a thing-in-itself into a thing-for-us. I realize my approach is a little unusual. Some people might say the smell, feel, sound and taste (?) of the book are nothing to do with reading. This is ingenuous – no one would go twice to a restaurant where the chef ignored the look of the food.

Just because these other modes of sensory apperception are not ‘necessary’ does not mean they are not valuable, or interesting, or important, or enjoyable: scoring easy points is the safe choice of the inner puritan in us that is afraid of being fully alive. Perhaps in the past we may not have been aware of the sensory complexities of ‘the book’, but our media world has now changed: we see the old differently because of the new.

Just in case this doesn’t make sense for you here is an example from the visual arts. (This is for the pleasure of our looking too.) See if you can arrange the two images to be on the same screen.

Rhythm of Black Lines (c. 1935–42). Image from Fotopedia/kamikazecactus

Lady Seated at the Virginals (c. 1673). In the National Gallery, London; image from Wikimedia Commons

The first is a web-based representation of a painting by Piet Mondrian, Rhythm of Black Lines (c. 1935–42). Compare it with this web image showing fellow countryman Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Seated at a Virginals (c. 1673) – just seen and very much enjoyed at the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition.

My point is that the older picture looks different because we see it alongside the more modern one. We see the Vermeer’s colours, rectangles, lines and shapes more abstractly, more Mondrian-ly. The solid black vertical bar, two-thirds of the way down on the right in the Mondrian, draws attention to the wittily two-dimensional side-on back of the chair in the Vermeer. I also see rhythm and subversion – Mondrian’s intense blue and yellow rectangles play against the black lines and white voids; in the Vermeer the richly sculptural textures of the dress and the strangely humaniform viola da gamba counter an otherwise highly rectilinear arrangement of forms. The placement and size (and colour fields) of these areas of subversion are comparable – without forcing, I think – in both.

Making the comparison doesn’t exhaust the fullness of the meanings of the Vermeer, of course. And the Mondrian, to me, also looks more warm and human. I am guessing (and wildly generalizing) that seventeenth-century people in Holland saw less abstractly than we do and Mondrian did. But even without the Mondrian we must always see Vermeer’s painting as people from our own time. We have no other choice – only somebody from our own time might even think we had. As our time changes – as it has most profoundly during the Digital Revolution – our perception of all of what we thought we knew must change too.

To repeat, then, books are different now because we have Kindles, the same way that Vermeer looks different because there is Mondrian. This is not something unique to our own time. I am not trying to argue that books are ‘special’ and are (or should be) outside history in any way.

Here is a book that makes the Baskerville look like a Kindle. Click on the image to enlarge it to a fuller deliciousness:

The Medici Psalter-Hymnal (c. 1480) by scribe Antonio Sinibaldi (1443–1528) and artist Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1446–97). It was made for the private devotions of a member of the Medici family in Florence. Please note that it has not in any way been typeset or printed – it is unique and has been made entirely by hand. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 37-1950, fols. 1v–2r. These pages show King David repenting for his sins. The verso page says ‘Incipit Liber Psalmorum Vel Soliloquio; David Prophete de Christo et Hymno’: I think this means ‘Here begins the Book of Psalms or Meditations; David, Prophet of Christ, and Hymns.’ The recto Latin text is from the first psalm of David: ‘Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum et in via peccatorum non stetit in cathedra derisorum non sedit’, translated in the King James Version as ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.’

This is a magnificent art object, a manuscript codex from the humanistic rather than Gothic era, but it is so beautiful and so intimidating I cannot imagine holding it, turning its pages and reading it – even if I could understand Latin well enough.

I wonder what Sinibaldi thought of what we now regard as the exquisite Venetian typefaces of Francesco Griffo and Nicolas Jenson. These are indeed ravishing and recognizably modern after more than 500 years, but I am comparing them with the handwork of an artist. Was printing the Kindle of its day? Perhaps it was.

Sample of roman typeface by Nicolas Jenson, from Laertius, printed in Venice 1475. Why does the mechanical inexpressiveness of this text (only compared with the Medici Psalter) make this more inviting to read? Image from Wikimedia Commons

For me, though, the Medici Psalter is not really a book. A book, even a book as beautiful as the Baskerville Book of Common Prayer, is something in itself quite ordinary, as ordinary as a doorway between two rooms – perhaps a doorway between where we are and where we would like to be. The doorway is not an empty space. It is blocked with obstacles to our capacity to understand; it is dirty with compromises to machinery, history and economic necessity. But the book doorway is also beautiful because without it there could have been just a wall. It is at the same time both start and finish of the evolution of touch to sight, or (to borrow a metaphor of our humanity from Wilfred Owen) the clay grown tall. Perhaps the book is as ordinary (and wonderful) as you and me, or even – as we lie in the gutter along the road of history, looking up at the stars – the Kindle.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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