Manuscripts Awesomeness

warning: The nerd factor of this post is about 8/10.  If you don't really care about making books...skip this post.  

In this, the second to last semester of Grad School, I am taking a Medieval Manuscripts Class.  I know, it's totally awesome.  We basically study the construction, design, history, and context of manuscripts from the 6th century through the late middle ages.  It's like I've died and gone to heaven and someone is giving me school credit for it.

When Max and I were in New York I insisted that we go to the New York Public Library- twice actually.  I didn't know if they had any exhibits going on, but I thought it was worth a shot.  When we got pas security I looked up to find a sign that read

"Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.  Scriptorium This Way"

What?  A scriptorium?  (The scriptorium is the room where monk scribes copied manuscripts and did the illumination and decoration)  Turns out we had stumbled into an exhibit on the "founding religious manuscripts of the three Abrahamic faiths" complete with scriptorium.  I spent most of my time in the scriptorium watching videos about making ink and parchment and doing medieval calligraphy.  This little backlit table below was set up so people could trace calligraphy from the various languages involved in the exhibit.

These other pictures help illustrate the book making process.  The first pictures are bottles of pigment that were traditionally mixed with egg white (called tempera) or gum arabic to produce flowing inks and paints.  It looks awesome, but somehow I doubt that 6th century monks had hot pink ink.  They did have a surprising amount of colors at their disposal, but I don't think hot pink was one of them.  The color pigments come from things that occur in nature - trees, rocks, dirt, plants, rust, special kinds of fungus, etc.  There is a long soaking and grinding and sifting process that takes place before you get to this stage.   
This is a piece of parchment as it stretches on a frame.  But let's back up.  In preparation for my final on Wednesday, I'll just give you some of the juicy bookmaking details.  Parchment was used for "books" after things like clay, wax, or stone tablets.  You make parchment, which comes from the skin of an animal, by soaking the skin in a solution of lye, sometimes alum, sometimes oakgall (little knots on trees left over from insects) - there are a variety of things.  This helps the hair fall off.  Then you scrape the skin with a sharp knife, soak it again, scrape it again and then stretch it out to dry on a frame.  While on the frame you scrape it again, making sure to remove all of the hair.  Lastly, there is a kind of polishing done on the parchment by rubbing pumice or the flat side of knife over the skin.  It was also common to treat the parchment with something that would help ink stay put on the skin later in the bookmaking process.  By the end the very thin skin is folded, cut, marked and text is copied onto it.  
They also had a display about paper.  Paper is made by separating the fibers of an existing thing, a plant or a tree, or natural fibers like the ones below, by soaking it in water, beating the pulp to break fibers apart, running the sludge through a screen and then leaving the newly formed fibers to dry and bind into a new sheet of paper.  There was a little egg shaped burnisher made out of a rock that we could try and burnish the paper with to give it a better look.  Very hard stuff.  

Wow.  I've really nerded up the place.  I'll leave the other mysteries of bookbinding for another day.  But if you want to learn more about the exhibit and watch the awesome videos, you can follow the library's link.  NewYork Public Library: Three Faiths


Nothin' a Pair of Sweatpants Can't Fix

When I was in college my dear friend, who was also my roomate, and I wore sweat pants most days.  I'm pretty sure we wore regular clothes to school (....) but for some reason the weekend and any time away from school was spent in sweatpants.  There were several pairs in rotation between us - one a cut off pair left over from High School Powder Puff with something like "Juniors Rock" written across the tush, a giant pair I think I stole from my little brother, a baggy construction orange number that my roommate contributed (and wore the most) and a black pair of wide leg pants, torn and dirty from dragging over the ground.  Which, come to think of it, must mean that this particular pair was worn many times outside of our apartment.  Whatever.  I fondly think of the 2003-2004 school year as "The Year of the Sweats".

I've have been feeling a bit under the weather lately, and what longing I've experience for the vast sweat pant collection of my college days!  Not to worry.  Today I woke up feeling just as cruddy as I had for the past few days and so I hopped on the internet and order a few new pairs of sweat pants.  Fancy ones.


But what does one do when wearing said sweatpants?  Read.  That's what.  I have read a few fantastic books lately so I thought I'd pass them along.
When I told Max I was reading a book about immigrant factory girls in China he groaned a little.  I have a penchant for sad books about world events.  It's just my bag.  HOWEVER, this book was anything but sad (ok, a little).  It is largely about the mass migration of young, rural, Chinese girls to the industrial factories of South East China.  But more than that, it's about the values of modern China that these girls represent - exchanging centuries of history and the idea of familial legacy for financial increase and fierce self-reliance.  The Author, Leslie T. Change, at once explores China's changing landscape from past to present, rural to urban, tradition to instability, and also her family's own history as they endured the cultural revolution.  It is one part biography, one part narrative, and two parts cultural analysis of Modern China - a place I knew next to nothing about.  It's a big 'un, but fabulous through and through.  Probably one of the best books I've read in the past 5 years or so.

  The subtitle of this book reads "a girlhood caught in revolutionary Iran".  And that's pretty much what it's about.  The daughter of a poet and poet herself,  Hakakian's book is a thoughtful and beautiful narrative of her experiences in Iran during a very tumultuous time.

And last the best of all the game.  If you don't know Nancy Pearl, you should.  She is a librarian and world class readers advisory guru.  (For all of you non-nerds out there - that is the action of advising readers, like at a library, what books they might enjoy reading based on their stated preferences).  She has several books that give wonderful suggestions about what books people with certain interests might like.  "Book Lust" and "Book Crush" are the title of some of her books.  She even has little action figure.    

On a most purposeful trip to Barnes and Nobles a few weeks ago to pick up a map, this book sneaked into my bag and I have since given it a place of honor on my nightstand.  Basically, she breaks down book recommendations by country or region of the world with a few chapters about mode of transportation and miscellaneous travel writing.  I can hardly wait to read all the books she has recommended!  Last week I said "hmmm, where do I want to travel?  What place do I want to learn more about?"  And turned to a section about Spain, but in the end I settled on a book about Afghanistan - a place I don't really want to travel, but would love to learn more about.  It's like a portkey!...Harry Potter fans? Anyone?   

Anyway, the full title is "Book Lust To Go: Recommended reading for travelers, vagabonds, and dreamers."  If you like traveling, or would like to travel or even just care about the world - get it!

And on that last note, I will end this post on topic that is rather sad for me.  People read for all sorts of reasons, but certainly one of the largest reasons has to be to learn stuff, right?  To learn about history, the world, the human body, human relationships etc.  For date night this week Max and I had a quick bite and then went to Barnes and Noble where we were each going to pick out just one book.  What possibility!  I was feeling like learning something about the world, so I headed to the current event section. Much to my still present dismay, the "current event" section had been overcome by political hackery written by each and every political hack that ever learned to write.  I would say 80% of the books were about President Obama ruining the country, or Republicans ruining the country, or why the crap I think is better and more patriotic than the crap that that other guy says.  I was down right furious. 

And I hear you say "but it's Washington.  Duh."  But no!  Shouldn't this be the place where people want to actually learn stuff?  Where they want to be informed about the world and its history, not imbibe in some ninny's sis boom ba "My book might get me elected to something" extravaganza?

Anyway.  I found a lovely book after all my foot stomping and I've made my peace.


Stuff We Ate and Stuff We Saw

Our main purpose for going to New York was to see a few Broadway shows.  But how could we pass up these tiny cupcakes that were being sold out of a "shop" the size of my closet?  Fitting, really. 
After the tiny cupcakes we saw a new musical called Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson whose tag line is "History Just Got All Sexypants!"  For real.  It's is a musical about the life of Andrew Jackson.  I know, not thrilling right off the bat, but Jackson is portrayed as the in your face, emotional king of populism as it was practiced in the 1800's....with hilarious and spot on commentary about the way it is practiced in 2010.  The Artistic Director had this to say about his interpretation of the show:

[Bloody, bloody] is using the immensely pleasurable tools of Populism to critique that most dangerous of American political phenomena.  I think it is entertainment appropriate for our time.  It may be about our seventh president, but it tackles that ebullient, sentimental, no-nonsense, self-pitying, anti-intellectual, rowdy energy that is at the core of our national identity - with a precision that speaks totally to our moment.  This is who we are, and if it's horrifying, it can also be a lot of fun.  What a contradiction.  America.    

We had, as they say, a rollicking good time.  The costumes and set design were this awesome mix of Victorian England, 19th century Frontier, and one dash Trailer Park 1991.  The theater (below) was unreal.  Don't pay too much attention to the stuffed horse hanging upside down in the middle of the theater.
 We also saw an experimental movement piece that knocked our socks off.  It was a bit like an organized dance party and we had to move around the theater space throughout the show.  At one point a giant clear tarp filled with water was lowered above the audience, and people swam around in it.  Wild.

More on the Museum of Modern Art in the near future.  I'll just say that we saw someone marginally famous AND drank these amazingly overpriced and undersized hot chocolates at the Museum cafe.  It was all we could afford :)   
oohh, along with a report about the Museum of Modern art I will reveal the NYC public library exhibit that set my little librarian heart a flutter.