The Smithsonian Book of Books

Anyone who loves books will want to own this particular book. From a papyrus of the Egyptian Book of the Dead to a tenth century book cover carved in ivory, from a Koran printed in Venice in 1537 (the first printed edition of the Koran) to the Kelmscott Chaucer, the rich diversity of the books illustrated here beggars description. A feast to the eye and a fire to the mind, these illustrations constitute a vast anthology of the human imagination over the centuries and across the continents, conjuring images of the universal library envisioned by Borges.

The text does not match the quality of the illustrations. Throughout the book—which reads like a series of magazine articles— Michael Olmert maintains a breezy tone apparently intended to be ingratiating and unthreatening (“Across the Channel, Johnson’s DICTIONARY made him a superstar”). Serviceable at best, Olmert’s prose frequently descends to a compound of cliches and non sequiturs: “In 1649, Samuel Green took over the operation of the Cambridge press and, over the next few decades, made its imprint famous. His most remarkable production, however, was the first Bible printed in the 13 colonies, a work that appeared in 1663.” Why “however”? No contrast or qualification is implied. Even worse is the attempt at ironic social commentary that follows: “And in making a book for people then generally considered to be savages”—the Bible in question was a translation into Algonquian—“was not Green committing a social, if not technical, felony?” Here Olmert reveals an astonishing ignorance of the long history of Bible translation and of the missionary impulse which, for better or worse, was so strong among the colonists of the New World.

Another problem with the text is the lack of documentation. When the reader encounters a surprising statement—such as the flat assertion that “Most literature in 17th-century England was published in manuscript”—there’s no way to know what source(s) Olmert drew on.

Disappointments aside, there are many intriguing snippets in Olmerts’s text. But quite apart from its text, THE SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF BOOKS will delight many a book-lover on Christmas morning.