Literature in miniature has a 500-year history, but what's the appeal of a volume too small to read?
By Judith Pascoe
I met my first sixty-fourmo by accident when I ordered the complete print run of Albert Schloss’s English Bijou Almanac (1839–43) at the British Library. Freed from their box, the tiny books scattered like dice on a croupier’s table. While other readers two-handed the heavy pages of momentous tomes, I ruffled the pages of what looked like shrunken flipbooks. All around me, scholars read, collated, and mulled, while I squinted at little pictures, the textual features of the Almanac most available to the naked eye. When the elderly reader sitting next to me lined up his volumes to make a satisfying wall of books, I, the sole trifler amidst the Casaubons, stacked my Bijoux like sugar packets: a mouse fortress.
Miniature books date from before 1501, the cradle period of printing, but when we think of early printed books, we tend to conjure up strapping Shakespearean folios rather than the Alphabetum divini amoris (c. 1491) or the Breviarium monasticum Sancti Benedicti (1491), each small enough to classify as a sextodecimo. What is a sextodecimo? If you begin with a piece of notebook paper and start folding, you will produce a folio (one fold) the size of a paperback book, a quarto (two folds) the size of a polaroid snapshot, and a sextodecimo (four folds) the size of a matchbox. By this time the stacked paper will have become so stiff and intractable that you will probably abandon the bookmaking experiment, still two folds short of the more impressive smallness of a sixty-fourmo.
Charles Lamb called annuals like the English Bijou Almanac “toy-books”; Robert Southey dismissed them as “picture-books for grown children.” But Schloss’s tiny anthologies attracted an avid following, especially among stylish women, who tucked them in their handbags as fashion accessories. The miniature-book collector James Henderson describes “the dainty little jeweled Schloss Bijou Almanacs [as] about half the size of a postage stamp, enclosed in a small Solander case and this in turn reposing in a tiny silk or plush-lined and leather-bound case in which was also a diminutive magnifying glass shaped like a hand mirror.” A bespoke binding created for the Princess Royal featured white calf leather tooled in gold, kept free of royal handbag lint by a heart-shaped case of mother-of-pearl. The books were (and are) more enticing as material objects than as purveyors of poetry, and this is precisely what made Southey so testy. While it is possible that many people bought the magnifying glass that Henderson describes, how many of these people propped the glass in front of the almanac’s three-point print and actually read it?
Henderson, a Brookline, Massachusetts, real-estate dealer who amassed 10,000 books between 1928 and 1940, was the editor of the News Letter of the LXIVmos, which regularly published readers’ answers to the question, “Why collect miniature books since they are too small to read?” One respondent underscored their economical use of space: “A collection of miniatures, even of one or two thousand copies, will take up so little actual space as to be almost negligible, and this is no trifling matter in these days of contracted quarters for so many unhappy city dwellers where every inch counts.” Another contributor suggested that miniature books served to illustrate the history of typesetting, illustration, and bookbinding—these books, he insisted, could do anything big books could do in the way of teaching bibliography.
One reader of the News Letter of the LXIVmos compared the collecting of miniature books to stamp or spoon collecting. “Everyone should have a hobby,” he wrote, lifting miniature books from the category of books altogether and dropping them down gently in the general category of collectibles—so that the miniature book could be equated, happily, with a shot glass embossed with the Florida state bird. More often, however, people take a monitory, even scolding tone when writing about miniature books, aiming to separate womanish little books from manly large ones. H. T. Sherington, for example, only reluctantly agreed to the use of the term “miniature” to describe small books since it “gives an impression that a book with such a name is no book at all, but something in the form of one made to dangle with the charms on a lady’s chain.” What’s more, Sherington continued, this association of the small book with a lady’s ornament is all too often just, and so he borrowed Lamb’s distinction between “biblia, or books proper, and abiblia, or toys.” Sherington sorted the two categories based on readability. He wrote:
In the first class I shall place all the miniature editions which have, or have had, any claim to utility, and therefore have been both readable and read; in the second, those which are obviously not books, such as almanacs, chapbooks, and so forth, and those whose existence is a freak, and whose only claim to consideration is their beauty or oddity.
When is a book no longer a book? When it is most valued for its beautiful or ingenious material format? When it is too small to read? These questions haunt the avocation of miniature- book collecting, although they may trouble the individual book collector not at all.
To be considered miniature, a book must be smaller than three inches, but the hearts of many collectors are set singing by the possibility of owning the Smallest Book in the World, an honorific fleetingly bestowed. The Gleniffer Press edition of Three Blind Mice, for example, touted itself as “the smallest letterpress printed book in the world,” but it only held this title for one year before it was undercut by three separate Tokyo publishers’ even tinier editions, and, ultimately, by the Gleniffer Press’s own Old King Cole, which, at 1 x 1 millimeter, makes Three Blind Mice seem like an elephant folio. I have not seen the current smallest book in the world, or even the second or third smallest, but I have tried to read the several times demoted Three Blind Mice, which measures 2.1 x 2.1 millimeters, only a little larger than a capital letter on this page, and a format that offers a highly unpleasant reading experience. Turning the pages is like manually flapping a ladybug’s wings.
“I hate tiny books that I can’t read easily,” wrote Ruth Adomeit, a thumb-Bible collector who played a key role in the organization of the Miniature Book Society (MBS), a United States–based organization that boasts members from Latvia, Japan, Slovenia, and Argentina. The MBS got its start in the early 1980s when the miniature-book publisher Miriam Owen Irwin invited a group of like-minded publishers to gather at her family farm in Tipp City, Ohio. A few individual collectors received an invitation to this gathering, among them Adomeit, who encouraged her fellow collectors to organize a meeting of their own. The two camps met and formed a more inclusive union of microbibliophiles however self-defined; their first meeting, or “Grand Conclave,” took place in 1983, the same year the MBS became chartered as a nonprofit organization by the State of Ohio.
Begun as a chummy club for enthusiasts like Adomeit, the MBS’s house rules grew increasingly complex as the organization took on legislative scaffolding: bylaws, a slate of officers, an awards program, a newsletter. One might say the society members started exhibiting exactly the kind of organizational compulsion that philosopher Jean Baudrillard cites as a defining attribute of the desire to collect, an impulse he associates with a regression to the anal stage, characterized by accumulation, orderliness, and retention. Or, perhaps, the miniature-book collectors were merely going about the bureaucratic formalities of any small society.
At the 20th Miniature Book Society Grand Conclave, attendees encamped themselves at the Radisson Hotel Cincinnati Riverfront, a round tower looming from a tangle of freeways. I live in Iowa, and I arrived at the Conclave in an official state vehicle, a green Ford Taurus with a university logo on the door and an ethanol sticker on the bumper. I planned to take an anthropological approach to the MBS Conclave, so I carried a notebook to the opening banquet, where I did not observe anyone acting particularly controlling in the buffet line. But when I sat down, I detected a lingering trace of the society’s original schism between publishers and collectors. I was seated across from a nonagenarian who boasted that she was a collector of “everything,” but who was known in MBS circles as a collector of miniature books and antique glass balls. She was sitting next to a miniature-book bibliographer, a man who had amassed a bird-book collection valued at $30,000 and then sold it in order to buy a shoebox full of miniature books. To my left sat a lanky towheaded man who looked more like a surfer than a miniature-book collector, and who, when I asked him if he collected miniature books, hastened to explain that he was a papermaker and book artist. He had no desire, it seemed clear, to be lumped together with the dollhouse collector sitting across from him, one-inch books dangling from her ears.
Many miniature-book collectors get their start as dollhouse collectors, and only come to miniature books out of a need to stock library shelves in three-foot-high French townhouses or Dutch-revival mansions no bigger than footstools. The logo of the MBS depicts an open book behind the lens of a magnifying glass, but more scholarly MBS members disdain books that cannot be read by the unaided eye. Even a miniature book of Adomeit’s preferred larger format is incapable of accommodating more than a short story’s worth of print. You will not find a miniature Ulysses, or even a miniature Jane Eyre, unless it has been so severely abridged as to go from being a novel to an anecdote. You can get a sense of the literary genres preferred by miniature-book publishers by perusing the catalog of Achille St. Onge, who published inaugural addresses, sermons, dedicatory remarks, eulogies, and testaments. Charlotte Smith, an Iowa bibliophile, followed St. Onge’s example by founding her own minimalist press and publishing poems, short stories, and lists. (She donated 4,000 miniature books to the University of Iowa.) The thumb Bible so cherished by Adomeit presents an epitome or synopsis of Scripture. For example, John Taylor’s 1693 Verbum Sempiternum boils the book of Proverbs down to this pithy six-line redaction: “The wisest Man that ever Man begot, In heav’nly Proverbs shews what’s good, what’s not.”
Still, one can read a thumb Bible without a microscope. Dollhouse books are another matter. With their pages left blank or covered with the inchoate hash marks Woodstock uses to communicate with Snoopy, dollhouse books hint at widespread dolly illiteracy. Glorious exceptions, however, are the books in the library of Queen Mary’s dollhouse, a Georgian edifice designed by Edwin Lutyens as a gift for the current British queen’s grandmother. The mastermind behind the dollhouse was the Princess Marie Louise who took it upon herself to invite living authors to write original contributions or miniaturized versions of existing works suitable for royal dolls. Princess Marie Louise recalled, “The only author who refused to contribute—and I am going to say quite plainly that he wrote in a very rude manner—was George Bernard Shaw. His letter was not even amusing, and, at the risk of offending his many admirers, I say that it was not worthy of one who claimed, as he did, to be a man of genius.” By contrast, Max Beerbohm welcomed the opportunity to disclaim greatness. “My dimensions seemed to me excessive,” he wrote in his contribution to the dollhouse library, Meditations of a Refugee. “I felt, in my modesty, that I took up too much space in the world and attracted more notice than I deserved.” Beerbohm’s narrator recalls having written books that were published in the smallest possible format: “But always the smallest format that my publishers could achieve seemed to me immensely too large for my talent.” The author of Peter Pan was also happy to contribute. J. M. Barrie wrote an autobiography based solely on the evolution of his own signature. Chapter 1, in its entirety, reads: “At six ’twas thus I wrote my name,” followed by the six-year-old Barrie’s autograph.
The poet and folklorist Susan Stewart places the miniature book on the interface between the manuscript and printing, an interface traversed most startlingly by the Brontë children, who attempted to replicate published print in remarkably fine writing. According to Elizabeth Gaskell, the children fashioned “the wildest and most incoherent things,” tiny chronicles of the imaginary realm of Glass Town that conveyed “the idea of creative power carried to the verge of insanity.” The Brontës made small books from whatever materials they could scavenge—a flour sack, a sheet of music, a wallpaper scrap—and the arresting physicality of these artifacts lends them an ambiguous status.
The Brontës were the precursors of 20th-century art bookmakers who fashion books out of wine corks or ukuleles and who come up with playful names for their miniature presses: Borrower’s Press, Feathered Serpent Press, Sunflower Press, The Ha’ Penny Press, Lilliputter Press, Silver Thimble Books, Red Squirrel Press, Wild Hare Press, Whippoorwill Press. Whimsical book design takes precedence over ease of reading. In order to “read” Moby Dick Meets the Pequod (a production of Robert E. Massmann’s R.E.M. Press, and one of Charlotte Smith’s favorite miniature books), one must open the front cover, hold one’s eye up to a porthole in the front page, and let the book’s pleated pages unfold at arm’s length. You will spy a small hand-drawn whale bobbing on some green waves, and a sketched ship looming on a wash of blue. One collector described the volume as “a miniature peep show with three hand-colored panels.” A recent publication of Peter and Donna Thomas’s press is An Excerpt from John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” which does, as promised, reprint part of Steinbeck’s novel, but only the opening paragraph. The book is round and bound as an accordion between two iron covers, “recalling the mention of iron canneries in the text,” according to the Thomases’ Web site, which also notes that the paper on which the text is printed is “decorated in a net-like pulp pattern on the back.” But what really complicates the status of this “book” is its packaging: it is sealed inside a shrimp can. To see the book, one must open the can with a can opener, a state of affairs guaranteed to flummox library archivists. At the library where I tried to view the book, a special collections librarian explained that Cannery Row is and will remain sealed until a second copy is purchased especially for opening.
For help in understanding the appeal of collecting such fanciful editions, one can look to the writings of Walter Benjamin, who was himself drawn to miniature books. His friend Gershom Scholem describes Benjamin’s foray into micrographia—he aspired to writing 100 lines on an ordinary notebook page—and also his fascination with two grains of inscribed wheat in the Musée Cluny. As Hannah Arendt writes:
For [Benjamin] the size of an object was in an inverse ratio to its significance. . . . The smaller the object, the more likely it seemed that it could contain in the most concentrated form everything else; hence his delight that two grains of wheat should contain the entire Shema Israel, the very essence of Judaism, tiniest essence appearing on tiniest entity.
Arendt specifically refutes the idea that Benjamin’s passion for the miniature was a whim, but in his writing on collecting, Benjamin celebrates childish whimsy. In a section of his work on the Paris arcades that was organized around the topic of collectors, Benjamin gives a nod to the familiar stereotype of the collector and conjures up an elderly hoarder stockpiling hairpins and bits of string. Benjamin ends the passage with this exclamation: “But compare collecting done by children!” In One-Way Street he describes the collections of an untidy child:
His drawers must become arsenal and zoo, crime museum and crypt. “To tidy up” would be to demolish an edifice full of prickly chestnuts that are spiky clubs, tinfoil that is hoarded silver, bricks that are coffins, cacti that are totem-poles and copper pennies that are shields.
If one loves books, Charlotte Smith wrote, one loves them “not only for their literary content,” but for the “quality of the paper which delights the eye as well as the fingertips, and for the exterior beauty of a fine binding.” A fascination with the physical attributes of books inspires all book collectors; witness the phenomenon of “deckle-fetishism,” an “overzealous, undiscriminating (and often very expensive) passion for uncut edges,” writes John Carter in his ABC for Book Collectors. But this emphasis on the book as material object is enhanced in miniatures because they draw particular attention to tactile properties by virtue of their tininess. Miniature-book collectors almost inevitably morph into miniature-book publishers, which explains why the MBS’s Conclaves regularly feature work sessions to teach bookmaking skills. At the 20th Conclave, an older woman wearing an apron that announced “Cleanliness is next to impossible” showed her audience how to swipe acrylic paint across watercolor paper in an amateur approximation of marbling. In a separate room, a papermaker stirred marigold petals into a vat of sludgy water. I watched a tidy-looking man construct Shaker boxes, and then I wandered over to the hospitality suite where collectors gathered for a swap meet. Seeing that I had nothing to swap, one of my tablemates from the banquet gave me a two-and-a half-inch Wisdom of Solomon as a gift. I turned the book over in the palm of my hand; it was bound in royal blue sciver leather and had a tiny bookplate with the gift-giver’s name. A tilt of the book’s spine put the back out of square with the front board. “Hey, what would you give . . . ” I started to ask a woman holding a micro-mini Wordsworth. But, before I could finish, she made a beeline for the letterpress booth.
The task of the souvenir is to assist—but also to invent—memory. Souvenirs cleanse the past of technology, trauma, and soul-crushing clutter. The horrors of history impinge almost not at all on the avocation of miniature-book collecting, and when they do, they seem isolated and indeterminate. A keepsake dating from the 1991 Conclave consisted of a card bearing the statement, “Aids does not discriminate or does it?” Offered up for sale at the 20th Conclave as part of an auction lot made up of leftover keepsakes, this inscrutable card could represent the contribution of either an aids activist or a religious zealot. Decontextualized, the card signified little more than the cow sticker, mini bookmark, and flower triptych that surrounded it. Benjamin depicted the angel of history with the wreckage of past catastrophes piled around his feet. If Benjamin’s angel touched down at the MBS Conclave, he’d find history heaped around his ankles in tiny abridged editions.
It is easy to recognize the limitations of a microbibliophile’s view of history and to acknowledge the loopier aspects of miniature-book collecting, especially given the propensity of miniature-book collectors to get photographed flashing Brobdingnagian grins as they cup whole libraries in their hands. But it is also easy to understand this activity’s appeal for the individual collector. Charlotte Smith’s involvement in miniature-book collecting helped her to burst the constraints of Newton, Iowa, a town known chiefly as the home of the Maytag Corporation and of a superior brand of blue cheese. When she established her own press, Smith sought out European purveyors of the finest marbled paper and binding leather, and she made contact with famous authors.
Among Smith’s treasured possessions was a letter from E. B. White, who had granted her permission to reprint his essay “The Geese” in miniature format. In a letter of thanks, Smith described herself celebrating “a one-woman
E. B. White festival” in Newton, Iowa, and mentioned the “love and nostalgia” she felt upon reading White’s “Once More to the Lake.” White wrote back:
Dear Mrs. Smith,
I was about to go once more to the lake when I fell on some rough ground and cracked a few ribs, so I decided to stay home and read nice letters like yours. Thanks a lot.
To my knowledge I have never seen a miniature book, but I suspect I have written quite a few. If you bring out “The Geese” I’d very much like a copy. It would successfully louse up the even tenor of my book shelves.
E. B. White
By the time I made it to the 20th MBS Grand Conclave, Charlotte Smith had died. Although I had composed for her a heroic back story—the plucky bibliophile on the prairie—I was disinclined to grant a similarly ennobling history to the collectors I saw annotating their catalogues and eyeing the other bidders at the auction that marked the MBS gathering’s end. Even though I had circled lot #28 in my own catalogue (a reproduction of Beerbohm’s offering for Queen Mary’s dollhouse—“Tiny mark on cover, o/w as new”), I looked askance at the miniature-book collectors perched on folding chairs and waving auction paddles in the air. I questioned the wisdom of the bidder who paid more than $50 for a book listed as An Olio Bookmen’s Bedlam of Literary Oddities with damaged corners. And I momentarily forgot the words of the most famous bookman of all time. “There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man,” Samuel Johnson opined, going on to say, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.” If collectors derive much of their pleasure from the ingenious material forms taken by miniature books, what of it?
Full-size books, too, go mostly unread. Even Keats only looked into Chapman’s Homer. Derrida, a few years before his death, ran his eyes over the books in his library and said that he’d read only four of them. A fan of miniature books might take solace from the words of Callimachus, the third-century Greek who tersely noted, “Big book, big bore.” One can make a case that all books should be smaller, that nearly all of them are bloated beyond the size of the small original contributions their writers have to offer, that we would all read more, not less, if, like elegant travelers on the 18th-century grand tour, we carried small portable libraries in our reticules, instead of marooning on our nightstands stacks of large books that we will always be too tired to read.
The miniature-book collectors, for three whole days, had been having a great time. How can you fault people for figuring out how to be happy? One MBS member made off with a set of four Mini-Bear Story Books in a plastic case with three mini teddy bears, while another took away the Twin Heart Press edition of A Garden Peep on card stock with garden illustrations. As I left the auction room, the miniature-book collectors’ heads were raised; they were gazing intently at the auctioneer’s podium, where there would soon be a Lilliput Dictionary, only slightly loose in binding, that someone in the room would get to carry home.
Judith Pascoe teaches in the English department at the University of Iowa. She is the author of The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors.
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