For collectors, miniature books are a big draw

Cases built to hold miniature books can be quite elaborate, such as this one with a tiny marble bust of  William Shakespeare.
Cases built to hold miniature books can be quite elaborate, such as this one with a tiny marble bust of William Shakespeare.

There are those who treasure teeny, tiny tomes like, for instance, an edition of the short story Chameleon by Anton Chekhov that's roughly the size of a grain of salt.

"It's very personal," said Mark Palkovic, the owner of the Chekhov book, certified by Guinness World Records as the world's littlest literary achievement. "You have to handle them in order to appreciate them, and you can't share. It is just for you."

Palkovic and about 60 other small-book collectors from around the world are in Lexington this weekend as part of the Grand Conclave of the Miniature Book Society. On Sunday, the group will offer its wee wares to the public for sale.

Miniature books have been around since the first chisel met clay, Palkovic said, and they stayed around as Gutenberg started his printing press. There is even a museum dedicated to them in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Typically, the books were considered toys or something for children. But, he said, they often contained text that people didn't want to be found — forbidden prayers or banned literature, for instance. In miniature form they could be kept in a pocket or a garment to ensure they were easily accessible and out of sight.

Although standards vary some around the globe, miniature books in America are officially no more than 3 inches in height, width or thickness. They come in all kinds of genres, including erotica. "Every topic," Palkovic said, "just like full-sized books."

It's not just the size — or lack of size — that is appealing to the collectors. The books are really works of art.

The Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington has an exhibit of mini books called Brush Up Your Shakespeare through Oct. 15. Organized by a New York collector, it features the entire works of the Bard in editions smaller than a matchbook. Some of the books are smaller than a quarter.

Amy Gundrum Greene, curator at the Headley-Whitney, said she didn't know much about miniature books until the exhibit, held in conjunction with the conclave, arrived in mid-August. She said she is impressed by the attention to detail and the fine craftsmanship that goes into not only the petite pages but the bindings and boxes that house them. It's not just that the work is so beautifully done, but done in such a delicate way.

Neale M. Albert, the New York collector who has loaned part of his miniature-book trove to the museum for the exhibit, said his interest started more than 10 years ago. He was collecting doll houses and buying fake books to line his faux shelves. Then, he said, "I found that there are really crazy people who make real miniature books."

From there a passion was unleashed. He retired as a corporate lawyer about four years ago, he said, "because there were more important things to do, like making miniature books."

He now has more than 4,000. One reason for his collection is practical.

"Look," he said, "I'm a collector, but I live in a two-bedroom apartment."

The other, he said, is hard to describe. He takes pleasure in commissioning some of the best miniature-book binders in the world to create micro-masterpieces.

The name of the exhibit, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, comes from a Cole Porter song in the Bard-inspired musical Kiss Me Kate. Albert bought the rights to make 50 books featuring the song's lyrics. He commissioned the best binders he knew to create their vision of how to interpret the song.

The song is, for the uninitiated, an ode to using the Bard's words to pick up babes, sung by two gangsters: "Just declaim a few lines from Othella/ and they think you're a heckuva fella./ If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er,/ Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer."

So, Porter's words share an exhibit space with Shakespeare's.

Albert is a total convert. He loves not only the books but the accessories that come with them. The Headley-Whitney exhibit includes a tiny sculpture and a marble bust of Shakespeare, a skull to go along with an edition of Hamlet and a re-creation of the Globe Theater. He has even gotten London-based designer Tim Gosling, known for his bespoke furniture, to create miniature bookcases for him.

Albert says he thinks it won't take long for others to see what he sees.

"People who like books should go to the sale because it's the kind of book they don't know about," he said, referring to Sunday's book fair. Even "people who have no interest whatsoever in miniature books, they will leave buying a miniature book."