A few days ago I visited the Beinecke Rare Book Library, at Yale University. Gordon Bunshaft’s building is an opaque cube. Outside light filters through thin sheets of Vermont marble, creating a cool glow that triggers a sense of activity outside the silent archives within. The books are housed in a multi-story, climate-controlled glass casing, a second hermetic barrier to protect the collection.
The library is famous for its Gutenberg Bible and its Audobon’s Birds of America, but I was drawn to the documentary ephemera of artists, writers and historical figures. The building is a marble skull that preserves jostled and careworn scraps of thought, layers of stone and glass to mimic bone and myelin. The objects here include sketchbooks, handwritten memoirs, letters, engravings, music manuscripts, film and glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photographic silver prints, ambrotypes, tintypes, daguerrotypes, autochromes, holographs, posters, pamphlets, maps, codices, ledgers, illustrations, stamps, papyri, tankas, tarot cards and many other artifacts.
A quick scan of the catalogue reveals the letters of O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the handwritten memoir of a “haunted convict”, court sketches of the Black Panther trial, glass stereotypes by the photographer Carleton Watkins, the letters of Ezra Pound, the scrapbooks of the Italian futurist Marinetti, a syllabary in Cherokee, and the infamous Voynich Manuscript. The library has thoughtfully created hi-res digital scans of that book, filled with watercolors of unknown botanicals, astral diagrams, progressions of nudes encased in womb-like spheres, cosmologies, drawings of medicinal herbs, and an undeciphered, looping handwritten text. As I was drawn into its riddles, I began to see this book, focused on the vegetal, the sexual, the metaphysic, as something wild, captured by the Beinecke’s platonic proportions, as a rational mind resists the improbable.