The Beowulf manuscript, as Kevin Kiernan writes, "was presumably saved for us by being thrown from the window" (Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, 2nd ed., p. 68; my subsequent reference to Kiernan will be from this same book and edition). The Beowulf manuscript was felt to have no greater importance than any other book on those shelves, and it was less important than many of them. The librarians of the time would surely have seen it as less important than the manuscript of Asser's Vita Alfredi [The Life of King Alfred], a book which was thoroughly destroyed in the fire.
There was, however, one book that the librarians of that day felt did deserve a special effort to save: the book we now call the Codex Alexandrinus (London, British Library Royal 1. D. v-viii). This book, a Greek manuscript probably dating from the early fifth century, remains a key early example of a nearly complete Greek Bible.
At the time of the fire, however, it was likely that David Casley, who made the special effort to save this book (Kiernan 68), saw it not only as the most important book under his care, but as the single most important physical book in the world.
Perhaps it says everything about me as a book collector, but I have, I can admit, sometimes entertained the question of what book I would save from my own library, should a fire somehow break out in my home. It would have to be a book I value for its uniqueness, I think, and thus probably a manuscript, rather than a printed book.
|Perhaps I would save this fine, large leaf.|
But here, I am afraid, I stumble: I have a small collection of manuscripts and fragments, and some of them are beautiful, and unique, and I cherish them. But I don't know that I own anything that is truly important in the world. Or, rather, all of my fragments have an importance--but it is so small in the world at large, so featherweight, that I find it impossible to judge which is the one I ought to save. Probably, I'd just resort to throwing whatever I could from the window.
But I have begun to wonder, too, about the other question Casley's choice of books raises for me: is there, today, a single book that people might find to be the single most important physical book in the world? If the Codex Alexandrinus is no longer seen as the single most important Bible manuscript, would we still believe or claim that a Bible manuscript is the most important book in the world? We might--but I think there are many who might qualify it by saying it is the most important book for Christians.
If I accept such a qualification, I am not at all sure I could point to any single book or manuscript of such significant, worldwide importance. Perhaps, after all, they are all important, and their importance is just difficult to weigh.