Of the Books of
in the land of shahanay—that most glorious archipelago of fertile islands on the planet of the Yellow Oceans—they made the most beautiful books.
The choicest animals were tended for their skins and not killed young but coddled into old age until natural death made the hides or pelts available. These mature vellums and leathers yielded covers and pages that brought tears to the eyes of any person lucky enough to touch them. The leathers were worked and embossed by the finest craftspeople, whose art improved from generation to generation. Other books had covers of cast silver or brazen sheets, cleverly hinged and chiseled, inlaid with intricate illustrations: instructive while magnificent.
Each page of these exquisite books bore illuminations worth more than most people’s homes. Months, even years, went into the process of design alone; and equal time into the execution. In several instances wars had been brought to a halt lest this process be disrupted, for even the most bloodthirsty tyrant knew that such art would last far longer than the petty ambitions, however excused or self-justified, that drove their military excursions.
In just two remembered cases had princes, both surely mad, attempted to continue a campaign in opposition to a bookworker’s request for peace. On both occasions the soldiers had mutinied when the bookmaker simply stood before them displaying the uncompleted page. Neither patriotism nor the quest for glory, it seems, could supersede the love of a good book.
In those days, the historians tell us, and the archeologists confirm, no firth-side broch would be burned, nor oppidum or hill-fort sacked, until all the libraries within had first been emptied and the contents carefully removed to safety. The greatest taboo of that age lay against a book becoming the possession of those who conquered its owner’s territory, lest this alone spread warfare, through greed, across the lands. This held true even when Loughran the Magnificent unified the islands under one throne. Excepting only the four volumes Loughran inherited from his maternal uncle, Tcheryl the Childless, every book had to be put upon ships and sent into exile on the nearest continent.
When the Indigo Double Folio of Prince Platon became lost at sea, Loughran despondently repented of his military career and abdicated in favor of his fiercest enemy and critic. Loughran then spent his remaining years and fortune commissioning not one, but four imitations of the lost and treasured volume.
These four substitutes were triumphs of the art, and universally acknowledged to have surpassed the original in every way. This lessened the conqueror’s shame, perhaps, but not his regret. He alone of all his lineage did not find burial in the cairn stalls of his fathers and grandmothers, but at his own strict instruction was incinerated on the servants’ trash fire and his ashes cast into the common midden.
Thus the glorious history of the books of Shahanay which continued some three thousand years. Eventually, however, a dissident faction grew among bookmakers who had tired of their works being known by the honorifics of their patrons—The Ariacaster Codex, The Fifty-third Folio of Earl Ostfurness—and these proposed that books should bear titles of their own, just as though they contained some marvelous tale of a heroic era, or the struggles of mighty gods against fate and chaos. This fashion replaced the former style, and invaded the very structure of the pages within and the decorations without. Instead of one page displaying a representative selection of the sky-ships of angels cavorting among the thunderheads, followed by a page revealing the inner structures of colorful sea creatures, followed by yet something else, the new style called for unity of theme and sometimes even a linear progression of images with a narrative relation to the book’s title.
This fashion yielded some centuries later, and not without severe controversy, to the previously heretical idea that some verbal content should be included in the books. The merchant class reluctantly permitted the artisans to borrow the system of recording speech through an alphabet and to apply it to the nearly sacred enterprise of book creation. At first this verbal incursion was limited to a few captions to the illustrations, then it expanded to the occasional verse, aphorism or prose poem. Finally, among the avant garde patrons, there grew up a belief that books—which already partook of the arts of painting, carving, and, through illustrations, even architecture and dance—were somehow incomplete without the additional incorporation of music and the verbal arts. Small wind instruments were worked into the book covers by the craftspeople associated with this trend, or percussion devices or small lyres, so that one who handled the book might also play or strum. And the late-blooming arts of rhetoric, lyric and narrative were included in the form of the written word.
And so, by such gradual steps, did the art of bookmaking decline from age to age. What had originally been the setting for a display of great beauty and free imagination succumbed to demands of an increasingly diverse and poorly integrated collection of disciplines. A book which in the golden age of Shahanay would have required only fifty or sixty artisans to create might now need the attention of hundreds. The expense of all this labor led to compromise, and compromise to mediocrity.
To counter the trend toward multiplicity of discipline, book patrons began to insist on the so-called “unities”, which required that the entire project should reflect a single theme, perhaps even a single idea or closely related group of ideas, no matter which disciplines contributed to the work. From this fashion came the further thought that a book should have a single foreperson in charge of its creation, and these coordinators began to place themselves in the foreground and the book itself in the background of artistic expression. Soon the public found that they could easily name the day’s best-known book creators, but not as easily name the books that had been assembled under each creator’s hand. Thus did an attempt to stem the decay of the art of bookmaking instead accelerate the decline.
It proved just the same with attempts to restore the magnificence of the art by controlling the expenses entailed in production. As inventions arose to reduce certain costs moveable type, lithography, photography, electricity, advances in tanning chemistry and metal casting - it also became possible for minor officials and relatively impoverished members of the lesser nobility to commission books of their own. Such patrons, overly eager for status, could neither afford nor often understand the slow pace and careful artistry necessary for true bookmaking. Their books were under-funded, gaudy, and hastily made. Such monstrous and debased creations, which should never have seen the light of day, ruined the august reputation of the book.
The tradition finally collapsed when it became increasingly clear that the process of bookmaking had lost all limitations, and that the lowliest member of the middle class might soon be able to afford to own a book. In all truth, the day approached when such a person should be able to own several, and this realization at last ended the decline of the once-famous art of bookmaking, though it could do nothing to restore the now utterly lost grandeur of the tradition.
As is the nature of such things, the lesser books soon disappeared, and by their increasing rarity the fine old examples gradually regained much of their former fame and artistic respect. The societal contexts for the fashions which unraveled the book were forgotten, and their offspring discarded or confined to the musty storage cellars of the most arcane museums and scholaria. The ridiculous idea that words should be associated with bookmaking fell away, and eventually the true nature of the bookmaker’s art revealed itself to the public mind and again attained to universal respect, if not to the powerful and universal admiration of the classic days.
A few persons, at infrequent intervals, broach the idea of once again trying to make books. Critics and historians, however, are now consistently able to discourage this unwise intention by citing the numerous lost arts which underlay the classical book, and the utter hopelessness of ever reviving these many disciplines, ex nihilo, especially in the modern age.
Books are admired again in Shahanay, and will remain so, it is hoped, as long as no new ones are undertaken.