I grew up going to the Huntington Library often. My mother was a stay-at-home-mom, and she had it all figured out. On days when we were insufferable and cranky, she would bundle my sister and I in the car, take us someplace beautiful and open, and let us run ourselves ragged. She could then enjoy our mellow exhaustion for the rest of the evening. I developed a collection of wax animals from the LA Zoo and perfected my peacock call at the LA Arboretum. I learned at the Huntingtonin a flurry of tickling grass blades and green stains that if you roll yourself down a long enough hill, you start to go crooked.
When I was older, we would go on the weekends and stop at the exhibit hall where Audubon birds gazed from the walls and illuminated manuscripts peaked from glass cases. I mostly found it boring. I wanted to get to the Japanese garden with the gong and the delectable arched bridge.
“Look, it’s the Gutenberg Bible,” my mother would say.
“Uh huh,” I replied.
“It was the first book ever printed on a printing press.”
It didn’t look like anything special to me. I was an avid reader and had seen hundreds of thousands of printed pages. The letters on the Gutenberg Bible looked just the same as those. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, other than the fact that it was old.
I took a medieval history class at Chapman two years ago. I don’t know what it was about that class, but so much of it made me see the world differently. The water was unsafe to drink back then, and disease was rampant. The known world was being run by drunk twenty year olds. Picture the guys of Jackass empowered to run a nation. Doesn’t the medieval world make so much more sense now? It also gives me hope for the future. I mean, humanity survived that and went on to flourish. Our political system may be gridlocked, but at least drunk and reckless with a side of murder isn’t an admirable trait in a world leader anymore.
And then there was the Gutenberg Bible. Suddenly, I got it. I understood why it was amazing and I fully appreciated its beauty. It was made using a modified fruit press in a time when people thought disease was spread by gaze. The ink was a combination of soot, wax, and squid ink. It has lasted hundreds of years. The thing that left me so unimpressed before is what makes me so fascinated today. The edges of the letters are crisp. The letters are black. It looks like it could have been printed yesterday. It was printed in a time so far removed from me that I cannot fathom it. It blows my mind. I could stare at the two pages behind the vast Plexiglas case for hours in the Huntington’s gallery, marveling at each contour of the letters, perfect and crisp, wondering whose hands have touched it in the hundreds of years since it was bound.
The printing press changed the world. I think of this every time I stare at those perfect pages. Instead of one copy of things that took years to create, suddenly there were hundreds that could be disseminated across the world. Catholic heresies spread faster than the church could stamp them out and Protestantism was born. Scientists in different parts of the world could now compare their volumes of Aristotle’s works and see that the reason the math did not add up was not a scribe’s error, but an error in the theory itself. Advancements in science and technology followed like wildfire on dry grass. The catalyst for all of it stands there in its case, its perfect lettering still black.
“Look, it’s the Gutenberg Bible,” I say to my husband.
“Uh huh,” he says.
“It’s just so perfect.”
So I tear myself away and we move out to the gardens, which are almost as impressive.