Once upon a time at the Book Fair, I came across two of my volunteers who were having a knock-down, drag-out debate over whether Louis Armstrong was an icon of American music, or merely a legend. And you thought all we did during set-up was hide books so you couldn’t find them.
Everybody has personal icons. I know a golfer who is very proud of a lumpy little leather bag of feathers. Once upon a time, this was a golf ball, and it is the oldest golf ball he had ever seen. (Me too.) To the person who treasures a signed first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, that particular icon may be meaningless, just as that modern children’s book means nothing to that Book Fair customer with one leaf from a Gutenberg Bible.
If you read more of the newspaper than Garfield, you may have seen that an icon is dropping by the Newberry today. From 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., a really old book—an old hymnal at that—will be sitting out in a case surrounded by supplementary readings and security guards. It’s known as the Bay Psalm Book, and it is to American printing what the Gutenberg is to printing in general: a landmark, a watershed, an icon.
The folks in the Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t like any of the psalters they’d brought with them. (They were difficult to please; it’s why they came over in 1630.) So they had new translations of the Psalms made and printed their nice new version in 1640. There were 1700 copies printed; of those only 11 are known today. And only five of those are complete. (It was just a hymn book, after all: people tore out pages to use as bookmarks, or scribbled notes on the blank pages.)
It’s a nondescript little thing. And apparently you wouldn’t, um, read it for pleasure. The Psalms were rewritten to be sung, so the lines had to rhyme, no matter what damage was done to the sound and the sense en route. None of these translations seem to have survived beyond the seventeenth century as hymns to be sung.
But it is the First Book Published In America. Furthermore, it was published in Massachusetts. For a long time it was held that all our culture and literature and history started in little churches near Boston. (This is because for centuries a heavy percentage of our historians and literary critics lived near Boston.)
But it’s the book at which most of our histories of American literature or American libraries begin. It’s where we come from; it’s where we started. This is the ancestor of Emily Dickinson and Dale Carnegie, of Moby Dick and Sweet Valley High. Before there was Common Sense, Leaves of Grass, or The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, there was “The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated Into English Metre”, known to book historians as The Bay Psalm Book.
That’s why I’m planning to stop by and say howdy while it’s passing through. If it weren’t for Old Bay, I might be selling second-hand whoopie cushions come July.