Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - February - 2005 Issue

500 Years of Books from Helen Kahn Rare Books


Five Hundred Years of Books from Helen Kahn

By Michael Stillman

Helen R. Kahn Rare Books
is offering a new catalogue of "Five Hundred Years of Books." Actually, that's a bit of an understatement since some go back more than five centuries, but we prefer understatement to hyperbole any day. Naturally, you can expect to find a variety of themes when you have books published in six different centuries all together. That you will find in this latest catalogue, including at least a few items that will undoubtedly be of interest to you. These are some samples.

Here's an example of one of those books that is more than five hundred years old. It is Aurelii Augustini de Ciuitate Dei, written by St. Augustine. Old as it is, it is not contemporary with St. Augustine, who died a millennium before the press was invented. Still, it is almost as old as printed material gets, having been published within a quarter century of Gutenberg's Bible. Augustine wrote "The City of God" from 413-427. It begins with descriptions of the tragedies that have befallen Rome and works its way to a description of two cities, one of earth, one of God. Both are on earth, and neither is a literal city, but rather communities of people, the City of God being of those people who will merit salvation. This edition was published by Mathias Moravus in Naples in 1477. Moravus did most of his printing in Naples where he operated from 1475 until 1491 and is considered one of the best printers of the fifteenth century. Item 6. $14,000.

Fast forward a millennium and a half from Augustine's time and you find Darwin. Item 29 is a first edition, first issue of his The Descent of Man...from 1871. This edition marked Darwin's first printed use of the word "evolution." The concept caused great controversy in its time, and in some places, still does today. $6,250.

So what would St. Augustine and Charles Darwin have said to each other had they met? Perhaps Darwin might have noted how well Augustine looked for someone 1,500 years old, but other than that, who knows? Not even George Lyttelton in his Dialogues of the Dead attempts to answer that question. However, he does present some theoretical conversations between other equally unlikely suspects. Fernando Cortez speaks with William Penn, Mercury speaks to a "North-American Savage" (you can guess who the "savages" were in this Englishman's view), Alexander the Great converses with Charles XII of Sweden, and Plutarch speaks (negotiates?) with a "modern bookseller." Author Lyttelton was a learned man and former Member of Parliament, but Kahn cautions, "he was well-liked and wrote fairly prolifically but not very creatively." However, he was quite popular in his time, three editions being published in its first year of 1760 and several in later years. This one is a second edition. Item 64. $400.

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