If all the books in the world were being burned in a fire and you had the chance to save just one, what book would you save? For some this might be an easy answer; for others, this question might need the utmost consideration—as an avid book reader, with piles of books lining all corners of my house, I’m in the latter category.
I’ve asked many people, from all walks of life—friends, relatives, the UPS carrier—the same question. While everyone’s answers were insightful and interesting, it showed me what people were willing to put their life on the line for. I received answers that differed from one spectrum to the other: Wuthering Heights, 1984, the Holy Bible (is always an extremely popular answer), and Everybody Poops, which a friend said she’d rescue for future mothers of the world.
Everyone I asked had a ready answer—everyone except for me. What one book was ultimately superior to the next, to be saved from a fire, and moreover, what sort of world would I be leaving this book to? We live in an age where book burning still exists: just take a look at the Banned Books page at the American Library Association. In my search for a book worthy to safe for the next generation, I decided to turn to someone who knew books.
Who better to ask than a librarian?
As the library director at the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, Randy Ashton-Pritting walked with a lively gait that matched her infectious smile. She was the type of person who could deliver bad news with that very smile. When I sat down with Randy, in her office which overlooked a river overrun by purple flowers, I didn’t waste any time and asked her what book she’d risk saving from a fire. With sure certainty, she said, “The Nuremberg Chronicle.”
I’d never heard of it. She explained. “It’s the history of the world from the beginning of time to 1493.” Randy sized up the proportions of the book in the air with her hands. “Come over and have a look, but give me a few days to dig it out.” She went on to explain that the book was housed in the library archives and kept under lock and key. In fact, two keys, one of which she carried with her at all times, and must be turned at the exact time with the other, in order to unlock the case it was housed in. (A lot of security for a book!)
The William H. Mortensen Library resembled a greenhouse, more so than a structure for housing books; the high vaulted atrium allowed the autumn sun to cast its warmth into the main foyer. A staircase stretched into the heavenly realm of the stacks on the second floor where a display case exhibits an original copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, another of Randy’s favourites.
Returning a few weeks later, she waved me into her office as she finished her phone call. I noticed the immediate intensity of heat, and felt drawn to put my chilled fingers to the heating grill. The entire building, The Harry Jack Grey Center, which housed everything from the library to the club restaurant to the bookstore, was usually like an ice-box, and the mere fact Randy had heat showed her exceptional clout.
According to Randy, there were many important books. She read more non-fiction than fiction and was currently in the midst of reading two separate biographies on our Founding Fathers. She was not a fan of Harry Potter, nor of mystery, but raved about the Kite Runner and emphasized her interest in women’s rights books.
“The Nuremberg Chronicle came out at the height of technology.” One can think of it as the first oversized coffee-table book, with its hefty proportions and weight. Most notable are the hand-carved wood cutting illustrations, of which there are 1809 total in the book. They depict familiar scenes from the Bible; everyday city life indicative of the times; and full views of prominent cities, a first in history. The text is set in an old style called ‘Gothic Rotunda’ and was originally written in both Latin and German. With the introduction of moveable type printing, The Nuremberg Chronicle was put out for the mass market of its day. It was available to the average person to buy, not that the ‘average person’ could afford it. Wealthier folk could pay additional money to have colour added to the pages or have a special regal binding made.
What interested Randy most was the transition from religious history into scientific discovery. As a student of science, Randy explained that the Nuremberg Chronicle, properly known as Liber Chronicarum, ‘The Book of Chronicles’, demonstrated the first time medicine was viewed as something separate from God. The author, Hartman Schedel, was a humanist scholar and physician. At the time of the Chronicle’s creation, Germany had an influx of medical breakthroughs that were brought by Islamic physicians from Palestine.
“The book starts out with biblical history, and then takes a whole turn into what knowledge they had about science and medicine.” The illustrations in fact change from showing the miraculous healings performed by God and are replaced with those of physicians curing people through medicine.
“This was the world as they knew it!” Randy drew my attention to a photocopy of the fold-out map from the book, lying on her desk. At first glance, it looked like a hand-drawn Dali forgery, but was really a skewed version of the Earth. “They knew the world was not flat.” What they didn’t know was how to get to India. The landmass of Africa had no end and seeped off the bottom of the map like a toy Slinky. They didn’t know about America either. One could almost imagine the expression on Schedel’s face when the news of its discovery made its way to Nuremberg several years after the Chronicle was already printed.
Randy led me to the elevator, which took us to the vaulted rare books collection that housed the Nuremberg Chronicle. On the way, I learned from her that there was a picture of a rhinoceros in the Chronicle, but it didn’t look like one you might find at the Bronx Zoo. Instead, explorers brought back the knowledge of these African beasts, but having never seen one, the artists replicated an image that they thought might fit the one-horned animal.
After the two keys and the heavy door was opened, I found the book lying on a table in a plastic case, taken out earlier for a presentation later that day. It was not as old looking as I expected it to be. In fact, it was in great condition. The book was opened to a two-sided picture of the city of Nuremberg; this same famous wood-carving block was used over many times to depict other cities; the artist simply changed the name. The ink was a rich black, probably made from the ash of bones or grape vines and linseed oil. Randy pointed out that the paper itself was made from linen provided by the best mills. One can almost imagine the bones-and-linens man wheeling a cart around town collecting the deceased, profiting from the remains: the bones would go to the ink maker, while the clothes would go to the paper maker.
They used 400,000 sheets of paper.
Twenty-four thousand books were said to be printed.
It was completely handcrafted, by the most prominent artists of the time.
It was opposed by churchmen who saw it as a threat to their livelihood—most especially because of the entry of the legendary ninth-century Pope Joan among the lineage of popes.
Randy and I stood over the book. There was a brief moment of silence. We realized in that moment we were connected to something profoundly greater than us and that the book served as the link into a time so distant from our own world.
“I can imagine them making this very book,” I said. “When you asked me what book I would save from a fire, this would definitely be it.”
My eyes fell on the flag perched on the tower of the castle in Nuremberg, as it would have appeared in 1493. I closed my eyes and could hear the hustle and bustle of the city streets; I could feel the coarse nature of the stones that made up the wall surrounding the city; I could taste the water that trickled beneath the bridge leading into the city; I could see the sun shining across the faces of the people of Nuremberg.
Inside the air-tight case, I found a book worthy to save from a burning fire.
What about you—what book would you save?
Hunter Liguore holds degrees in history and writing. She’s an award-winning writer, whose work has been received internationally, including her screenplay, Everylife, a 18-time festival winner in 2019/2020. Her essay, Equanimity, was part of the ‘Anthems’ podcast series produced by director Hana Walker-Brown, in partnership with Broccoli Content, May 2020. Hunterliguore.org @skytale_writer