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Archive for November, 2011

This photograph is an image of some reclaimed history.  The knife was put there for dramatic effect when I composed the picture to be a background for my blog…but there is a story behind the manuscript and the book.

Back in the early 1990’s when I has a bookbuyer I got a call from my supervisor who was out in the field looking at someone’s books.  He was very excited and said, “quick, find out what you can about 18th century manuscripts with skippets and seals and 16th century breviaries”.

Uhm.  This was like, way before the internet would answer those questions in an eyeblink.  I sat there at my desk wondering what to look for.  I picked up my copies of price guides and a book on auction selling prices.  My supervisor returned with the books and manuscripts in a wooden ammunition box.  “I have such a story to tell you,”  he said.

“This older gentleman was a soldier in Europe in the aftermath of World War II.  He is now settling his estate and moving to a nursing home.  He wanted to sell his books to a dealer in Chicago.  In Chicago he says he was treated so badly by the dealers that he picked up his books and came home.  Even though I was not able to offer him as much as they did, he said he was happier to let the books go to a booklover than to the snotty antiquarian dealers in Chicago.”

I am so happy the book folks in Chicago are uppity.  My boss continued,

“He says he was stationed in, what was in the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia.  He was patrolling a manor house with his rifle over his back, ambling through the dark and drafty corridors.  He came to inspect the library because he could see an unusual amount of light coming through the doorway.  He stood there on the threshhold, shocked.  The people inside were systematically grabbing handfuls of books from the shelves and shoveling the contents into the fireplace.  He tried to stop them, but they pointed out that they were freezing and had already burned the furniture.

“He quickly grabbed at the next handful about to be tossed into the flames, tugging at the bundle of books.  The other person would not let go until the soldier promised to trade him a carton of cigarettes for the books.  At that point the soldier handed over his smokes and tucked his treasures inside his coat.  He had no idea what he had just saved from the flames.  He was not able to stop the folks from grabbing another handful from the shelves.  When he got back to base he placed his books in the ammunition box and that is how they made their way back to the US.”

The soldier had saved a breviary from 1516.  Two manuscripts, one on vellum and one on paper from 1713 and 1738 both with skippets and seals inside.  One is the Prussian eagle.  Three other books from the 17th century were also saved, but I was not able to buy those so I do not remember them specifically.  But I whipped out my credit card as soon as I saw these and never once regretted the year or two it took me to pay them off.

I can imagine what that library must have looked like.  I try to think about starving and freezing people and how little the historical artifacts meant to them when their survival was at stake.  I like to remember the old man and how, when he was a young man, saving books was akin to saving people.  He never sold these books.  He kept them in the ammunition case for 50 years, safe with him.  But the books outlived him as they have outlived their owners for 450 years.  Now I have them (and the case too).  I have his story, which is just as valuable.  When I am gone, they will belong to someone else.

I have tried to read the manuscripts.  They are in a mixture of Latin and German. I took both languages in high school, but am not proficient in the least.  Also, the script itself is difficult.  I can tell they are legal documents.  One is most probably the record of a loan for 800 rials.  The other I cannot make out the specifics, but it is signed by the Burgermeister of Stuttgart.  The breviaria has woodblock illustrations and a pasted-in bookplate with a coat of arms as well as red ink printed for certain sections and the calendar of holy days.

It was while trying to read these wonderful treasures that I got the inspiration for The Hermetica. I imagined these books and manuscripts might contain something important that someone wrote down 400 years ago…but I was never going to be able to know what it was.  I imagined how I would feel if the books were in another alphabet or in code.  The message would be just as lost.  These treasures are interesting, but without a translator, they are silent.

This adventure in bookselling is what started the adventures of Nadira the Reader.  I am pleased to be bringing these treasures and their story to my book launch December 8.  Folks who come can look at and handle the books and feel the soft vellum.  Maybe someone there can read Old High German in manuscript and tell me the message that has been silent for 300 years and almost lost to the flames.

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Isaac Newton is a man who should need no introduction.  He invented Calculus and discovered the Laws of Motion etc etc.  Kids remember the story of the apple falling from the tree…hopefully kids remember.

Anyway, Newton is the most esteemed scientist, up there in the pantheon with Einstein. (Kids remember him with the crazy white hair)  Does it bother the Materialists that he studied alchemy HARD for many years?  Nope.  They say he was just curious and abandoned the study after he realized it was all BS.  LOL.  I notice the same hard-core scientists say nothing critical about Newton’s fervent religious beliefs.  They can “forgive” him for that, but not for the alchemy.

Let us keep both the baby AND the bathwater.  We may find something valuable there in the muddy midst.

Newton was convinced that as much as he knew about the “nuts and bolts” mechanics of the world, the orchestration of all matter must be presided over by an intelligence.  His alchemy experiments only suggest that he was looking for the link between matter and god.

Modern physicists find themselves in a similar bind.  Most have rejected the idea that there is a god who set the clock ticking in the first place, but the mysteries of subatomic particles continue to plague them.  String Theory is an exciting development over the last 30 years or so that attempts to explain some of the weirdness that goes on at the nano-level of reality.

I read Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe” some years back, and delighted in how close physics and “magic” had become, especially if you use the definition that magic is science you don’t understand.  Does your iPhone work like magic?

I watched Greene’s beautiful Nova presentation “Fabric of the Cosmos” recently and waited for someone to say the word, “consciousness”.  Nope.

It is not Newton’s god, but consciousness that is lurking in the bathwater.

The ancient philospohers knew that consciousness plays a part in all manifestations of matter in the universe.  Some physicists did too:  David Bohm , who consulted with Indian guru J. Krishnamurti to see how much physics and mysticism had in common.  Dr. Fred Alan Wolf has quite a few things to say about this as well, and he will make you laugh.

Our new physicists are modern alchemists whether they want to believe it or not.

Read more about how mind and matter connect.

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Early Printed Books

 I am constantly reading history books and immersing myself in the lives of people who lived centuries ago.  In Europe, there are still houses standing containing libraries that no one has touched in 500 years.  These books sit patiently on their shelves waiting for someone to take them down and read them.  Some have to wait a long time, for in many cases the text is is Latin or Greek, and the literate people who originally owned them are long dead, and their children never studied the ancient languages.  Lonely books. The books themselves have lasted so long because the bindings are leather and wood, and the pages, likewise are either vellum, which is nearly indestructuble, or a very sturdy kind of handmade paper that does not crumble to dust like newspaper.

This page contains marginalia…a previous owner made notes in the margin.  He must have been an alchemist, for he is using alchemical symbols instead of words.  I wonder what he was thinking…

These particular pages are from alchemy books written in Latin or German and are from the 16th and 17th  centuries.  The books were not destroyed to make these images, but someone in Romania was clever enough to take digital photographs of each page and save the images to a disc.  I was able to buy the disc for the cost of a half a tank of gas.  I have the images of thirty alchemy books, all pages and illustrations…readable on my computer.  The beauty of this is that the person who owns these 30 books can sell them over and over again, and still keep his library intact.  And I get to look at his books.  The average alchemy book in good to fair condition from 1580 runs about 3 to 7 thousand dollars.  I am unlikely to be able to buy any real book…but I can look at them.

I like to imagine the books on the shelf in that Romanian library.  Maybe it is a manor house…maybe it is a castle!  Reading a book is the most intimate way to connect your mind with the mind of someone else.  A book contains the contents of someone’s mind put down on paper or vellum.  When you read a very old book like this, it is like communing with the dead.

The pictures are block printed, and then hand-colored.  I am imagining a little shop lit with candles and an assembly-line of people bent over the sheets with a paint brush and paint pot.  Imagine having to hand-color an entire print run.

I enjoy the idea that I am reading 16th century books on a 21st century laptop.

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Hermetica refers to information or knowledge acquired and disseminated by Hermes Trismegistus, some say the god Thoth, others a real man who lived a long long time ago and was responsible for all the amazing things the ancient Egyptians knew…and know no longer.

Collected writings attributed to him and bound in a book are called Hermetica.  Since we are talking about ancient times, there were no publishing laws or contracts, so anyone could bind manuscripts together and call it “Hermetica”.  This accounts for many variations and probably many different authors or contributors.  After a long time, the term “Hermetica” began to take on connotations of esoteric knowledge regardless of the source.

In the Hermetica of Elysium I have created an adventure that revolves around a coveted copy of an Hermetica in the late 15th century.  The Inquisition in Spain is expelling their learned and skilled to the Levant, burning books and people, and hunting the manuscripts they label “heretical”.  How can a book be so threatening?

Putting aside the obvious, that faithful Christians might be lead astray if they learned anything besides what their priests told them, can knowledge of how the world works really disrupt the powers-that-be?

This year the world has witnessed what is being called “The Arab Spring”, and “Occupy Wall Street” could not happen unless the participants knew about the actions of the Corporations.  I think that the more the people know about their leaders and masters the more they are likely to rebel against them.  It does not matter whether it is 1494 or 2011.

The Internet is the new Hermetica.

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