Christopher de Hamel is a bookworm – or, to be more precise, a manuscript weevil for whom “mere printed books” are modish novelties – who has the rare capacity to turn a scholarly specialism into a humane and humorous adventure. In The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscript Club, silent sessions in libraries are enlivened by De Hamel’s imaginary conversations with long-dead collectors and, at the end of a history that extends across a thousand years, he invites medieval monks, Renaissance princes, Florentine merchants and American industrialists to a notional dinner at which they all unstoppably talk about their shared obsession.
The model for De Hamel’s book, as his title proclaims, is The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. At one point, he describes a stout and jovial keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum who could have been Pickwick’s prototype; he also mentions an 18th-century bibliophile, Sir Gregory Page-Turner, whose allegorical surname even Dickens might not have dared to invent. Pickwick and his friends were muddling amateurs and De Hamel, despite his professional expertise, has a little of their homespun dottiness: determined to weigh a bulky Cicero manuscript held in an Oxford college, he brings along his kitchen scales. Otherwise, by contrast with Pickwick and his whimsical colleagues, the members of De Hamel’s club tend to be crazy monomaniacs. One collector congests his country house with thousands of tottering papery piles, blocking the staircase and prompting his wife to complain that she was “booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other”. A German professor who upsets a candle in his library and incinerates its contents is suspected of planning a sacrificial suicide on a funeral pyre of manuscripts.
De Hamel’s picaresque travels have a morbidly un-Pickwickian terminus when he visits the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where the tombstones form “an outdoor library of one of the oldest forms of writing, in its oldest format, cut into stone”. Despite all the archival dust, De Hamel retains an almost lyrical sense of wonder as he unclasps each groaning tome, opens its parched pages and lightly steps into the alternative world painted by its illuminators. Some miniatures disclose a Disneyland of elegantly turreted castles, while others excavate an abyss of rotting cadavers and winged demons racing to the inferno with their human prey. An early monastic script looks prickly “like holly leaves”, while the delicate lettering of another scribe seems to have been tapped out by “a fairy’s typewriter”. Aptly called “très riches”, the Books of Hours collected by the Duc de Berry in the 15th century are jewel boxes, encrusted with precious stones.
The books De Hamel examines are not machine-made; before he can justify writing about a Gutenberg Bible, the earliest product of the printing press, he has to classify it an “an honorary manuscript”. De Hamel approaches these handmade volumes with a sensitive, tactile respect for their organic ingredients. On his way to a Benedictine monastery in Normandy, he eyes a herd of lethargic cattle “whose ancestors would have supplied the parchment for manuscript pages”; when he turns calf-skin pages in the monastic library, he notices how the kinked margins recall the shape of the animal’s neck or leg joints. Ink, he deduces, came from gall nuts grown by the local oaks. A contemporary scribe in Bruges uses quills obligingly donated by swans that cruise the town’s canals and he relies on shells from Belgian oysters to hold his pigments: their rugged outer surface keeps them from wobbling and slopping the colour.
De Hamel acquired his first antiquarian book at the age of 15 and promptly defaced it with his signature “in black ink in a faux-gothic hand”. Since then, there have been further misdemeanours and mishaps. He remembers a rerouted flight in midwinter when he carted a priceless treasure through Heathrow in a shopping bag. On another occasion, he paid a dealer for some waste parchment that fell apart in his car on the way home: fragments – actually relics of a fifth-century codex, lost since antiquity, though he didn’t realise it then – were scavenged from under the passenger seat by his wife a few days later.
In passing, De Hamel reveals that one of his Victorian forebears, having come into money, added a “de” to his name to claim a pedigree that was “almost certainly spurious”. Inheriting the pretence, De Hamel outs himself as a fake antique, like the forgeries he exposed during his decades as an appraiser at Sotheby’s. The endearing confession is typical of the man: he speaks of “meeting a beautiful manuscript” rather than reading it and his own book makes you feel you’ve spent time – a very long but absorbing time – in his convivial company.
The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (£40). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply