As collectibles go, none may be more charming than the tiny books on view through May 19, 2019 in A Matter of Size: Miniature Bindings & Texts from the Collection of Patricia J.Pistner, a free exhibition at Manhattan's Grolier Club. Two hundred seventy five little marvels are on view with the oldest a cuneiform tablet, a form of writing predating Egyptian hieroglyphics, dating from 2500 BCE.
Although the exhibit, like its subject matter, is small, occupying only a hallway and an adjacent room, it leaves a powerful impression. The books are drawn from the extensive collection of Patricia J. Pistner, whose passion for tiny tomes began when she was seven. At that age, Pistner (pronounced PEIST-ner) felt her first dollhouse needed books so she made them with a staple gun and ordinary paper. As an adult, her passion for little books was reignited after being inspired to fill the small library shelves of the miniature French townhouse she had commissioned.
The exhibition at the Grolier Club, the oldest book-lovers’ society in the U.S., represents the history of the book in miniature form. Every book on display fits into the palm of a hand. Some are as (relatively) large as three inches; the ‘ultra micro” minis are a mere quarter of an inch.
One plain-looking book is loaded with historic significance. Printed in 1892, the tan paper Emancipation Proclamation was deliberately tiny so that it would be easy to carry and distribute both in the North and South where it was handed out to slaves.
Some items don’t look like books. A hollowed-out walnut shell is presented open to reveal miniature sewing implements including scissors, thimble, pins, and an amanac; the tiny French necessaire was likely given around 1820 by a young man to his sweetheart. Another unusual item is a jeweled bracelet, probably from Iran, that unfolds into a “book” revealing writing. A carnet de bal or dance card has a cover inlaid with mother-of-pearl and space for a tiny pencil; the whole would have been clipped to a lady’s dress, handy for when a gentleman requested a dance.
The exhibit includes picture books, novels, poetry, histories, and devotional books. Some are printed and some are handmade. There are medieval manuscripts, modern bindings, collections of Shakespeare, and books bound with silver, gold, and jewels. There is also a collection of little libraries, some housed in revolving stands, others displayed in small bookcases or on (small) library shelves.
A teeny Qur’an is eight-sided with a pigmented cover and gorgeous floral designs inside. In the Modern Design section, there is a butterfly-shaped volume made in 1991 with a green leather binding and matching green on the page tips. A diary kept by a sailor on a transport ship during World War I is a single scrolling piece of paper housed in a little brass nut, perhaps a part from the ship.
I ran into Ms. Pistner and asked if she had a favorite book, allowing that, like children, it’s probably impossible to single one out. “That’s right, “she said. “No one favorite but some are particularly special because of their beauty, rarity, or sentimental value.”
The Grolier Club is located at 47 E. 60th St., 212-838-6690, grolierclub.org