Please don’t miss this wonderful post from Matthew Battles about Nathan Myhrvold’s lavish multivolume celebration of “modernist cuisine”:

Modernist Cuisine is essentially a vanity work–a spectacular, brilliantly-produced vanity work, but a work of vanity nonetheless. Myhrvold and the master craftspeople in his service have poured an overflowing measure of passion, brilliance, and technique into an undeniably beautiful work. I’m reminded of the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry, the monumental manuscript book of hours created in the fifteenth century. With 416 pages, including more than one hundred major images and three hundred decorated intitials, it is arguably the great manuscript work of the waning middle ages. Commissioned by John, Duke of Berry, in 1410, it was not finished until 1489 — nearly forty years after the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.

Perhaps this will be the work of the book in the waning days of print: to serve as a platform for the sacrifice of spectacular vanity.

A comparable project from the dawning days of print — it appeared four years after the Très riches heures was completed — would be the Nuremberg Chronicle. Andrew Pettegree — see this post — calls this “a project that epitomises the energy, ambition and pride of achievement of the German book world at the end of the fifteenth century.”

This was not an especially original work; in large part it is an essentially unaltered reworking of earlier histories. But the ambition to place Nuremberg at the centre of an encyclopaedic rendering of world history from the Creation made it an especially important project for the city’s merchant elite. Intellectual ambition was matched by the opulence and complexity of the planned volumes. The whole venture was financed by two wealthy Nuremberg merchants. . . .

It seems that at every stage in the history of books they are closely linked with vanity. Well, the Preacher knew that long ago: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he cried at the outset of his little treatise, and, near the end, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”


  1. I have for decades owned a beautiful facsimile of the Très riches heures. One of my treasured possessions. I don't open it often (enough) — probably because when I do, I just lose myself in it so need to have a big chunk of time and be in the mood.

    The Modernist Cuisine site got me thinking about how much technology over the last few decades has expanded what we might call the "expressive capacities" of printing. It's not just the web and Kindles and iPads where technology has made an impact. But will the latter innovations overwhelm the possibilities of the former? Or will "vanity" continue to drive production and consumption (since vanity is on both sides of the exchange equation) of what, in earlier ages, would be handcrafted objets d'art?

    I do know that the unique experience provided by my facsimile of the Très riches heures simply wouldn't be as rich or compelling, tactily or visually, if it were on an electronic device. A fine website that provided bells and whistles like zoom and links to more explanatory material might be great. And viewing the pages on a screen might produce more immediate "ooh and ahh" responses. But I doubt that the peculiar sense of immersion, of almost fusing with the illuminations, would be available.

    Thinking about the difference between a physical book and the screen, I guess the screen tends to impose on me a certain type of distance that the physical object doesn't. And certainly the sense of almost sacred awe and a feeling of gratitude that I possess something of such incredible timeless beauty, which I experience each time I open and handle the book, turning the pages with care, wouldn't be there if I just fired up my iPad to view "my" copy.

    Hmmm. Need to make some time for a few of my books that I don't take down from the shelves often enough…

  2. I think the difference between three dimensions and two is key. Of course, an iPad or a laptop is three-dimensional, but any book that appears on the screen is two-dimensional. For some encounters that doesn't matter; for others it matters very much. I am trying to figure out a way to articulate this.

Comments are closed.