Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Read started as a weekly column in March, and thus far has highlighted the bookish side of Somerville and Cambridge by chatting with local authors and authors speaking locally. Read will go on featuring Q&As but diversify with other approaches to coverage (such as this exhibition preview!) that we hope will be enjoyable for our Camberville book community.

If there’s a book-related event or exhibition we should write about, let me know at [email protected]. And as always, thanks for Read-ing.


Two “accordion” books with lithographs from around 100 years apart as well as having radically different uses – poetry and reference – and sizes. (Photo: Madeleine Aitken)

The Houghton Library, one of a few on Harvard’s campus, has more than 600,000 books in its collection. In a recently opened exhibition, co-curators Peter Accardo and Molly Schwartzburg have brought together some of its biggest books with some of its smallest.

Big Books, Tiny Tomes” aims to explore the impact the size of a book has on its reader by juxtaposing massive books with tiny ones from throughout history. Everything selected comes from Houghton’s collection, which is home to Harvard’s rare books and manuscripts as well as literary and performing arts archives.

The original concept was to feature a selection of large books, said Accardo, the scholarly and public programs librarian at Houghton. He combed through the stacks with Keren Tran, its communications and program coordinator, to select some initial titles.

“When my colleague Molly Schwartzburg heard about our plans, she suggested pairing the big books with ‘tiny tomes’ and volunteered to co-curate,” Accardo said.

Schwartzburg, the Philip Hofer curator of printing and graphic arts, was inspired by a 1950 Limited Editions Club set of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” conceived by book designer Bruce Rogers. He reprinted the book section about miniature people as “Gulliver’s Voyage to Lilliput,” a miniature volume (3 inches high) set in six-point type, and the section about the land of giants as “Gulliver’s Voyage to Brobdingnag,” a large companion book (more than 18 inches high) set in 40-point type.

Books from a 1950 set of Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” by book designer Bruce Rogers cover visits to the lands of giants and miniature people. (Photo: Madeleine Aitken)

A book of etchings of baroque Rome and its ancient monuments by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “Le Magnificenze di Romafrom 1751 (some 21 inches in height), is paired with a tiny version of John Keats’ “Sonnets,” published posthumously in 1906 (less than 3 inches in height). One of the etchings in the book is of the Fontana della Barcaccia, the fountain Keats could hear as he lay dying of tuberculosis in a room overlooking the Spanish Steps. Connections such as these are throughout the exhibit.

Another pairing is devoted to the 19th century inventions that “most transformed the traditions of the illustrated book”: lithography and photography. A giant chromolithograph plate book by Antonio García Cubas, “Album del Ferrocarril Mexicano (around 14 inches high and 19.5 wide) is juxtaposed with the earliest known miniature book to include photographs, “Gallerie Dantesca Microscopica: Fotografia dei Disegni di Scaramuzza (around 2 inches tall). The miniature book includes tiny reproductions of selected images from the “Divine Comedy” cycle by Francesco Scaramuzza, while the big book documents the spread of railroads across Mexico.

There’s a boxed and bound folio edition of the Magna Carta with a portable 14th-century copy of the Magna Carta in miniature; Houghton Mifflin’s 1884 edition of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” with a 1934 miniature edition of the same book, which was, at the time, considered to be the smallest book ever printed; and the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first printed polyglot of the entire Bible, side-by-side with a miniature version of the New Testament, the earliest wholly engraved English text, from about 1659.

The books span disciplines – law, medicine, astronomy, the graphic arts – and were produced over eight centuries by countries and cultures from around the world.

“Visitors will gain an appreciation of the great technical skill and the challenges involved in creating texts large and small,” Accardo said.

The exhibition is open to the public through Aug. 9 at the Houghton Library, at Quincy and Harvard streets in Harvard Yard, Cambridge. Ongoing Harvard Yard closings may affect Houghton Library; Accardo recommends checking Houghton’s website before planning a visit.