Looking at books on display is qualitatively different from reading them.
The reader's heart belongs to the content of the book, while the reader's mind belongs to the ideas behind the words.
The viewer's eyes are drawn to the form and color, the visual appearance of the book. The book’s “look” tells a story, adding to the aura that surrounds every manuscript and every book, an aura that joins a myriad of other auras, together forming what I would term, with ardor and wonder, culture – material and spiritual.
There are those rare moments when the contents of the book, its raison d'être, are one with the personal history of the book as an object, as a unique entity, as a cultural artifact blessed with a life of its own. Rarer still are those times that the form and the content of
a single book are interwoven with the forms and the contents of others.
These are the moments we looked for in choosing the small collection on display here.
The remains of Ka-Tzetnik's 'Twenty-Two' are juxtaposed with the discarded drafts that S.I. Agnon thrust into his oven – both have so far refused to burn. The crazy love in 'Layla ¯va Majnun¯ ' , with its marvelous illustrations, is playfully paired with the arrestingly simple artwork of 'Meshal ha-Qadmoni'. Together, they tell the story of the transition from manuscript to print. Sir Isaac Newton’s mystical Hebrew handwriting meets Franz Kafka's Hebrew practice notebook, where the Hebrew words for innocent, snitch, genius, and tuberculosis live side by side. Each of these objects is exciting in itself; together they weave a resonant web of meaning.
Over the years, authors and artisans undertook additions and modifications, honing their work and aiming for accuracy, polishing and refining the volumes to the extent that is humanly possible. All those who work with books – novelists and poets, illustrators and scribes, printers and binders, restorers and librarians – are engaged in an endless cycle of damage and restoration.
The exhibition presented in this catalogue is modest in size, but showcases a number of unique objects. With assistance from the long-time custodians of the National Library's treasures, we drew up unusual criteria for the selection of objects. Rather than choosing representative items, whether in terms of subject or content, we elected to allow the guest to peek through a polished lens, to sample the riches that await those who walk through the Library's doors.
I hope that the visitors to the exhibition will experience the same excitement I felt when I first became acquainted with these books and objects and chose them for this display.