- The “Translators’ Preface to the Reader”
- The Genealogy of Christ, 1611 King James Bible
- Illustrations of the Book of Job
We all know that books come in different shapes and sizes, but it’s especially important to remember this simple fact when looking at them in a digital environment such as this virtual exhibit where every book, whether tall or short, thick or thin, is stripped of its physical context and presented to the public in images that efface the broader socio-cultural meanings conveyed by the comparative qualities of different volumes’ sizes and formats. By paying attention to the varying sizes and shapes of books, we can understand more about how they were produced, whom they were produced for, and how they were interpreted and read.
A key term to consider in any discussion of a book’s overall size is its “format.” While a book’s format often directly correlates to its size, properly speaking format is not an official marker of size but rather an indicator of how the basic constituents of any book—the paper sheets upon which their text is printed—are folded. The three most familiar formats (and the most common formats found in this exhibition) are “folio,” “quarto,” and “octavo.” Folio books consist of printed sheets folded once to create bifolia, or individual units of two leaves, or four pages. A quarto sheet, in contrast, is folded twice to create four leaves, or eight pages, while an octavo is made by folding the sheet over a third time to create eight leaves, or sixteen pages. You can continue to fold the sheet to create even smaller formats.
Needless to say, each different format would influence the final cost of the book as well as the uses to which it could have been put. Pictured here is a range of biblical texts produced in different formats. The largest, the 1611 folio edition of the King James Bible, quite clearly would not have been a portable volume to be used for easy reference, but instead was a volume to be studied carefully on a large table or lectern. Additionally, its large size imbues it with symbolic value, proclaiming it to be a magisterial book intended to make a profound statement about its own authority and gravity (and expense). In contrast, the quarto edition of Coverdale’s New Testament and the eighteenth-century octavo edition of the King James New Testament, are more user-friendly. Their smaller sizes make them easier to read and transport, and they were likely cheaper to produce and, consequently, to purchase. We can easily imagine many devout souls reading their favorite scriptural passages from volumes such as these while sitting in their easy chairs next to a roaring fire before bed on a cold winter’s evening. The two smallest volumes pictured here, a seventeenth-century “tricesimo-secundo” (or 32mo, for short) edition of The Whole Booke of Psalmes and a facsimile copy of a ninth-century manuscript “thumb book” containing the Psalms, are even more portable than the quarto and octavo editions. But their much smaller sizes suggest that these books were more than just texts to their owners; they were also devotional objects that were meant to be kept close to one’s body at all times. In these miniature volumes, the Psalms are not just something to be read, but are texts to be cherished, handled, and manipulated.
In sum, a book’s format directly impacts how the text it packages is to be understood and used. As you examine the different books included in this virtual exhibition, pay attention to each item’s size and shape and think about the different ways they might have been produced, read and interpreted by their original creators and owners.
You can experiment with comparative book formats for yourself at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Impositor” website where you can virtually fold sheets in different formats taken from volumes housed in the Folger’s wonderful collections.
*If you are interested in learning more about bibliographic formats, take a look at Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (1995), which is also available on Amazon.com.
“Bibliographic information for the items featured in the photographs above (from largest to smallest item):
1. [King James Bible, 1611], 398 x 275 mm.
The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and reuised by his Maiesties Speciall Commandement. Appointed to be read in Churches. London: Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Maiestie, 1611.
2. [Coverdale Bible, 1550], 225 x 187 mm.
The Whole Byble, that is the holy scripture of the Olde and Newe testament faythfully translated into Englyshe by Myles Couerdale and newly ouer sene and correcte. Zurich: C. Froshove, 1550.
3. [King James Bible, 1715], 176 x 119 mm.
The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and The New Newly Translated out of the Original Tongues and with the former Translations dilligently compar’d & revis’d… Edinburgh: James Watson, 1715.
4. [Psalm book], 88 x 55 mm.
The Whole Book of Psalms. Collected into English Meeter by T. Sternhold, J. Hopkins, and others. London: Imprinted for the Company of Stationers, 1639.
5. [Psalm manuscript (facsimile)], 39 x 31 mm.
Psalterium Sancti Ruperti (Cod. A I.0, Library of St. Peter, Salzburg, Austria). France, ca. 850-875.