GRAND RAPIDS — In the age of the Internet and e-mail, books might seem dull as the dust they collect. In fact, it has become common to say, “Print is dead.”
Yet Calvin College is urging residents to attend an exhibit opening this Thursday featuring some of the earliest and most influential books ever printed.
“Wisdom of the Ages” is a display of 50 classic books, many first-edition copies, which are 200 to 800 years old. And the college stresses that this isn’t a locked, glass-case exhibit, but a chance to pick up these tomes either for simple historical reflection or simply to read them.
Included in the exhibit are the twin pillars of Christian theology and philosophy: a 1610 English edition of St. Augustine’s “City of God,” and St. Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth century “Summa Theologica.” The exhibit edition of Aquinas’ work, in gleaming old leather, was printed less than 30 years after Johann Gutenburg produced the first Bible printed with moveable type.
Ironically, one of the first Web sites on the Internet was devoted to St. Augustine, a fourth century Roman. And “Summa Theologica” long since has become available on the Web in both its original classical Latin and most other languages.
Also on hand in the exhibit is a 1787 first pamphlet printing of the U.S. Constitution, plus a 1651 first edition of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” a work of philosophic pessimism that had immense influence on the framing of the Constitution.
The display, to remain open at Calvin until the end of June, is a project by the Remnant Trust, an Indiana-based educational foundation that is home to a collection of over 400 rare volumes and manuscripts dating back to the 1200s. The Trust lends its collection to colleges and universities on the condition that students are able to handle the collection.
Also on hand is an 1806 first edition of the first Koran to be printed on this continent. One also may examine a first edition (1838) of Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a 1792 first edition of Wollstonecraft’s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.”
President Gaylen Byker landed the collection for Calvin, having heard about it from several colleagues at other universities and colleges. He had a chance to preview the books prior to their arrival at Calvin.
Byker said the collection is stunning for its breadth and depth. He said the copy of “Summa Theologica,” for example, is one of only three remaining copies of that first mechanically printed edition. He said the other two, which are in poorer condition, are in the British Museum in London and in Chicago’s Newbury Museum.
Byker says “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” is considered a classic work on freedom, equality and education. It caused an outcry when it was published and is hailed as a cornerstone of feminism.
Remnant Trust president Kris Bex said the trust has undertaken the project because it believes it important for students and others to read these great works about freedom, liberty and democracy. “We’re trying to show people,” he says, “that the idea of liberty didn’t suddenly appear 200 years ago with the Founding Fathers
“It’s a great experiment over the centuries going back to Aristotle and others.”
The Remnant Trust built its rare collection both by working with book dealers around the globe and by traveling to estate sales, auctions, book fairs and even flea markets.
An opening celebration is scheduled this Thursday in the Calvin Archives at the Hekman Library.