Frequently Asked Questions about Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Newberry figures prominently in Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling book The Time Traveler’s Wife. We have compiled some frequently asked questions about the Newberry and its collections.
Q. Is there really a “cage” with no means of escape in the library?
“At first glance it looks like an elevator cage, but there is no elevator and never was. No one at the Newberry seems to know what the cage is for, or why it was installed… The Cage is painted beige. It is made of steel.” (Niffenegger 305)
What Niffeneger is referring to is actually an old book lift in the Newberry’s east stairwell – which does rather look like a cage. While at one time the lift had openings for removing books, these are no longer functional. If you visit during one of our free public tours of the library, we’ll be happy to show you the east stairwell.
Q. Does the Newberry really own a book bound in human skin?
“ ‘Does the Newberry really have a book made out of human skin?’ Charisse asks Henry. (Niffenegger 132)
Case Wing Y 4902 M27 is the call number of the book we commonly refer to as our “human skin binding”. Although this book has a call number, it does not have a card in our main card catalog or shelf-list. It is thought that it was assigned a number but never cataloged because of the lingering Victorian scruples of the staff at the time it was acquired. Furthermore, we do not have very much information about the book itself. Here is what we do know: The book was owned by John M. Wing, eccentric Chicago publisher, book collector, and benefactor of the Newberry’s Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. There is no information as to how he came to possess the book. The book has two inscriptions on the first leaf of the volume: the first, signed by James Wise, M.D. refers to the Sepoy Mutiny, the siege in which the book was allegedly taken. It states: “Found in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857. Seven days after the assault.” The second inscription “Bound in human skin” is the only evidence that the book is bound in such and does not appear to be in Dr. Wise’s hand. The text is in Arabic script on burnished paper. A note tipped into the back of the volume states that the work is a manuscript written in the year of the Hijrah 1266 (1848 A.D.).
The “human skin” question led librarians to the Newberry’s conservation lab, where the staff made several observations of the binding material under a microscope. Comparisons were made with new and old calf, goat, and sheep leathers. It is the opinion of the conservation staff that the binding material is not human skin, but rather highly burnished goat.
Q. In several places in The Time Traveler’s Wife, characters mention other items held by the Newberry. Can you provide some information about these things?
“I’m writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer.” (Niffenegger 3)
Call Number: Wing +ZP 845. K335
William Morris (1834-1896), poet, social reformer, and a leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. As a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris rebelled against the harsh utilitarianism of the machine age. He sought a solution in the return to the methods and the materials of the fifteenth century, and to designs he hoped would convey the flavor of that age. His greatest achievement was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, printed in 1896 and limited to 425 copies. All aspects of this book’s design and production refer back to the characteristics of the medieval manuscript. The Gothic typeface, the use of margins, the decorated initials and borders, and even the quality of the paper speak to an earlier sensibility.
“I’m at work in a small windowless humidity-controlled room on the fourth floor of the Newberry, cataloging a collection of marbled papers that has recently been donated.” (Niffenegger 5)
Audrey Niffenegger’s specific reference here is probably to the Norma B. Rubovits Collection of Marbled and Decorated Papers, donated between 1992 and 2009. It is available by appointment (email us at email@example.com). There are also many books in the cataloged collection with specimen papers. Here is one example:
Payhembury marbled papers sampler: with twenty-six samples of hand-marbled paper
Call Number: Wing ZP 945 .A3686
Marbling is a single print process that is achieved by manipulating colors, either in the form of inks or paints, which are floated on the surface of a thickened water solution. The particular charm of marbling is that the patterns created cannot be fully controlled, thus making each piece unique. Although the earliest known types of marbling date back as far as the 8th century in Japan, marbled paper became popular in 17th century Europe, especially for book endpapers. At first a secret art exploited by few professional makers, it became a popular handicraft in the 19th century after the English maker Charles Woolnough published his The Art of Marbling (Case Wing Z271 .W65 1985).
“I dream that I am at the Newberry, giving a Show and Tell to some graduate students from Columbia College. I’m showing them incunabula, early printed books. I show them the Gutenberg Fragment, Caxton’s Game and Play of Chess, the Jensen Eusebius.” (Niffenegger 485)
Gutenberg, Johann. A Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible: Ezekiel 37:11 to 39:7.
Call Number: *Ruggles 27
Eusebius Pamphili, bp. of Caesarea. De Evangelica Praepartione.
Call Number: Inc. folio 4066
Jacobus, de Cessolis. The Game and Playe of Chesse.
Call Number: Inc. folio 9643
The Latin word incunabulum (plural incunabula, and often anglicized as incunable) literally means cradle, and more loosely refers to the infancy, birthplace or origin of something. It is most often used in reference to early printed books, and in this sense an incunabulum is further defined even more specifically as being a book printed using moveable type prior to the year 1501 AD.
“I rummage around on the cart, looking for this special book I just found in the stacks, something I never knew we had. It’s in a heavy red box… . I open the box, and there, pink and perfect, are my feet.” (Niffenegger 485)
Mitelli, Giuseppe. Alfabeto in Sogno.
Call Number: Wing fZW 14 .M692
Niffenegger, Audrey. Aberrant Abecedarium.
Call Number: Wing ZP 983 .N683
While the Newberry owns many unusual items, a book made of feet is not one of them. For this dream sequence, Niffenegger may have been inspired by artists’ alphabet books (including her own) that use bodies, or body parts, to illustrate the alphabet.
Q. Does the Newberry hold other books by Audrey Niffenegger?
In addition to the alphabet book described above, the Newberry Library owns the 2005 trade edition of Niffenegger’s Three Incestuous Sisters (Call Number: Wing folio ZPP 2083 .N54). We also have copies of The Time Traveler’s Wife in 20 languages, including Croatian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese, Swedish, and Turkish. Audrey Niffenegger’s papers are available at the Library as part of the Wing Modern Manuscript Collections. The papers contain documents related to the publication of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Q. Is it possible to tour the Newberry?
Yes! The Newberry Library offers public tours each week. Please see Visit to learn more about visiting and touring the Newberry.
Q. Where can I find out more about the history of the Newberry?
Brown, Richard H. “The Ideal Library of the Continent:” Public Goals and Research in the Founding of the Newberry. Call Number: Case Ref Z 733 .N797 B85 2008 (open shelf, 4th floor)
Humanities’ Mirror: Reading at the Newberry, 1887-1987. Call Number: Ref Z733.N797 H86 1987 (on checklist table, 3rd floor)
Towner, Lawrence. The Newberry Library … a Brief History. Call Number: Ref Z733.N65 T6b (on checklist table, 3rd floor)