I just finished reading the small volume Libraries in the Ancient World
. At 192 pages, it compresses thousands of years of the evolution of the book and library into an easily digestible bite. While it made me thankful to live in a period of world history we might call "A. A." (After Alphabetization), it also sent me to our bookshelves in search of the oldest books in our stores and warehouse.
Here they are, in descending order:
De Bello Judaica. [And] De Antiquitate Judaeorum Contra Apionem. Printed in 1480, this is one of our two incunables. Taken from the Latin incunabula, meaning "things in the cradle," to qualify as an incunable the book must have been printed before 1501.
Bound in beautifully decorated parchment, the paper is fresh and supple. Here's a picture of the text with a copy of a 1943 printing of Dorothy Sayers open to compare the paper quality.
To give some historical context, this copy of De Bello Judaica was printed the year that Ferdinand and Isabella began the Spanish Inquisition.
Sphaera Mundi. Printed in 1482 in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt, this is a medieval text on the basics of astronomy. Johannes de Sacrobosco wrote it centuries earlier, and our copy predates the first voyage of Columbus by ten years.
Though the pages are not as brilliantly white as those in De Bello Judaica, the paper is still quite beautiful. To get an idea of just how well the 525-year-old paper has aged, I took a photo of Sphaera Mundi and our 1916 printing of Einstein's Die Grundlage der Allgemeinen Relativitatstheorie
Opera Joanis Despauterij. Printed in 1533 and 1534, this Latin grammar has suffered the fate of most textbooks throughout history ? notes written in the margins. This copy was printed the year England's Kind Henry VIII married Ann Boleyn, the second of his wives and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I.
Philologus Hebraeo-Mixtus, Second Edition. The front of this vellum bound book should serve as a warning to all: don't ever use a book as a coaster! The engraved title page has seen some wear, but the printed title page is charming. Note the woodcut device of winged angels, and the use of the Apostrophus form of Roman numerals to spell the printing date of 1682. For historical context, Louisiana was a newly acquired French territory when this book was printed.
The title page of The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, the Tenth Volume does not contain a misspelling of the great author's name. Spelling was not fixed in Elizabethan times, and this variation on "Shakespeare" is carried through in this edition of his plays and poems. This title page also illustrates what is called the "long S" in the middle of "Shakespear."
Captain James Cook was born in 1728, the year that this volume was printed.
Unfortunately, this history of these books is the history of paper. Through the centuries the quality of paper lessened as production rose. Mechanical pulping processes that didn't remove the lignin resulted in paper that never had a chance to age gracefully.