NEW YORK — The first miniature books to enter Patricia Pistner’s life were ones she made with paper and a staple gun for her childhood dollhouse many years ago. She placed them on tiny doll tables in tiny doll rooms and read them aloud to tiny dolls. “A house has to have books in it,” she said recently.
There would be more dollhouses — ones she and her husband built and furnished for his granddaughters, and the now famous Pistner House, a 5 1/2-foot-high marvel of 18th-century French architecture and design that features perfectly scaled miniature reproductions, made over half a decade, by 65 artists and artisans. That led to a new obsession. “I made a life-changing decision to put in a library,” Pistner said, “and instead of using faux books I decided I would have real books.”
Fast forward a number of years — and a number of courses on antiquarian books, miniature books and the history of bookbinding — to now, when Pistner has become one of the country’s foremost collectors of miniature books. About 950 books from her collection are on display at the Grolier Club, the nation’s oldest society of bibliophiles, in New York City. (The exhibition, curated by Pistner and Jan Storm van Leeuwen, closes on May 19.)
Pistner, 69, sees her tiny books not just as intricately designed, differently scaled versions of things she loves already but also as important artifacts in the development of books through history, reflecting “the finest examples of various binding styles,” she said.
Most of the books in the exhibit are about 1 to 3 inches high and would nestle easily in the palm of your hand. Some are the size of a thumbnail. (There are also a few ultra-micro-miniatures, with no dimension greater than a quarter of an inch; one, shockingly, looks to be about as big as the period in this sentence.) The oldest is a cuneiform tablet from about 2300 B.C.; the newest was published last year. They are valued in the tens or hundreds or thousands of dollars; the rarest of miniature antiquarian books can sell in the six or even seven figures.
There are religious books and history books; almanacs and devotionals; picture books and novels and poetry; printed books and handmade manuscripts; collections of Shakespeare and books about the alphabet. Many are elaborately and extravagantly bound, with covers inlaid in materials including gold and silver and jewels. Some were made as exquisite little objects; others were meant to be read frequently, tucked inside a pocket and carried close to their owners’ hearts for ease of consultation. Some are feats of extreme miniaturization. A few are tokens of love.
At the Grolier, the exhibit takes up just a modest-sized room and hallway. But it turns out that you can fit a lot of teeny books into a relatively small space. A few days before the exhibit opened, Pistner was there to put the finishing touches on the display — she made the tiny stands for her tiny objects herself, out of Vivak plasticlike material — and to talk about her passion for her books.
Asking her to choose favorites is like asking parents which of their children they love the best, but here are a few highlights from the collection:
‘Galileo a Madama Cristina di Loretto’
In its original Latin, albeit smaller, Galileo’s famous 1615 letter to Cosimo d’Medici’s mother lays out his (heretical) reasoning for why the Bible should not be used as a basis for scientific belief. The fact that it is printed in 2-point “fly’s eye” type — by comparison, the type in many printed newspapers is 8.7 points — makes it all the more exciting. It is considered to be one of the most famous miniature books in the world, Pistner said, because of its size (the binding is 18 millimeters, or about 0.7 of an inch, high) and the quality of its craftsmanship.
One of two tiny eight-sided Qurans in the exhibit, this is a complete transcription of the Islamic holy book, probably from the 19th century. It measures in at a mere 50 by 45 by 12 mm and has fetching gold pigment on its cover and elaborate floral designs inside. “A miniature Quran permits a protective intimacy with the revealed word of God through wearing, carrying or close placement,” Pistner writes in the exhibit’s catalog. In the Ottoman era, mini Qurans were also placed on banners carried into battle.
Obsidian Magical Gem Covered With Greek Inscriptions
This very small 2,300-odd-years-old solid-black object is replete with writing, much of it consisting of apparently indecipherable magic spells. But around its sides is a four-line invocation calling on the creator of the universe “to give strength, health and salvation and to protect the wearer from evil and harmful spirits.” Such objects were actually amulets often worn or carried by their owners during the Roman Empire.
An American Naval Scroll Diary
The exhibit includes many weird and unusual types of books, including a single sheet of 25 by 25 by 7 mm paper on which the Lord’s Prayer has been micrographically inscribed in black ink; a 51 mm tall Ethiopic manuscript from the 19th or early 20th century, written on wooden boards and stored in a two-piece leather case; and a heart-shaped 19th-century possibly-French book that opens into an elaborate puzzle of poetry and prayers. It also includes a diary written, in contravention of Navy rules, by a sailor aboard the transport ship Henry R. Mallory during World War I. (He cunningly concealed it in a little brass nut that may have been part of the ship’s pipe system.) The diary, on a single scrolling sheet of paper, chronicles meetings with enemy submarines, ones that fire at the Mallory and ones that the Mallory fires upon; ones that sink, and ones that get away.
Triple Dos-a-Dos Binding: ‘Ètrennes Patriotiques’ and ‘Almanac pour l’Annèe 1785’
This is a very rare example of the phenomenon known as triple dos-a-dos binding, meaning that three bindings are connected to each other by shared inner covers. In this case, two separate books were bound together by means of various complicated maneuvers in late 18th-century France, with the two parts of the first book, the “Etrennes,” split apart and all of the Almanac concealed inside. When you pick it up, you find it opens like an accordion, in a sense, with one of the books facing toward you and the other facing away.
‘Things I Like,’ by Joseph Gama
In 2016, a 9-year-old boy, Joseph Gama met Pistner by chance at a meeting of the Miniature Book Society in Texas (he was there with his father). Charmed by his wonder and enthusiasm, Pistner presented Joseph with a miniature book he had particularly admired. “Things I Like,” a compendium of his favorite things, with illustrations by the author, was his thank-you gift to her a little while later. The things Joseph likes, it turns out, include trucks; bicycles; rockets; books; his dog, Astro; and Pistner herself, represented by the words “And You” on the last page of the book, along with instructions to smell the heart he has drawn with a strawberry-scented crayon.
A ‘Valeur et Constance’ Almanac Tucked Inside a Walnut Sewing Kit
The book is presented inside a hollowed-out walnut with a golden inner edge, alongside a thimble and other sewing implements. Such so-called sewing nécessaires were in circulation in France in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is very rare to find one that contains a teeny book as well as the more obvious practical tools. “Valeur et Constance,” or “Value and Constancy,” is a Parisian almanac for the year 1823, and it slips out of its slot and can be read (albeit with some physical maneuvering) even as its owner sews.
Samaritan Homilies and Sermons
This 14th-century book from Damascus contains two complete homilies and a partial one relating to the founding of principles of the Samaritans, the longest-lived religious sect in Jewish history. Written mostly in Arabic with a few passages in Paleo-Hebrew, the book also contains a biblical account of the creation of the world, a great many calls to repent, and various prayers for, among other things, the well-being of the sultan. It is fraying at the edges but its words, in ink on parchment, are still perfectly clear.
Two Speeches by Abraham Lincoln
Not only is this one of the teeniest manuscripts ever produced by the renowned London bookbinders Sangorski & Sutcliffe, it also contains two of the most stirring speeches in American history: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The book was exquisitely handwritten and illuminated around 1930 by Alberto Sangorski, brother of one of the firm’s founders, and includes a tiny painting of Lincoln. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century, Sangorski & Sutcliffe became known for reviving the Middle Ages custom of creating sumptuous jeweled bindings, in which leather covers are elaborately inlaid with gold, silver and precious and semiprecious stones. Its most famous work — a luxurious binding for a (non-miniature) copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which took 2 1/2 years to make and had a front cover decorated with three golden peacocks and inlaid with 1,000 jewels — sadly went down with the Titanic.
A London Almanac, 1805
The cover of this cunning little almanac is made with, among other things, bloodstone, glass, gold, woven textile and braids of hair, along with the initials A.C. Two gold frames, on the front and the back covers, show a snake biting its tail in an endless circle symbolizing eternity. It is believed such books were given by a person to his or her beloved as a pledge of endless devotion.
Flowers of the Four Seasons
How tiny is this volume? So tiny that it is known as an ultra-micro book, with dimensions of 0.75 by 0.75 by 1 mm. So tiny that when you look at it in its display case, what you see is an almost imperceptible black speck in the middle of a tiny circle inside another, slightly larger circle. The book, one of 245 copies printed in Tokyo in 2012, contains printed letters that are 0.01 mm wide as well as ridiculously small illustrations of 12 types of Japanese flowers found in the four seasons of the year. To help put it in perspective, it is displayed with an enlarged version of the book, with a (relatively) gigantic 13 x 13 mm binding, and an 8x magnifying glass.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.