Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Plan of St. Gall and the sacred act of reading

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The Plan of St. Gall

I’ve wanted my own copy of The Plan of St. Gall ever since reading about it two decades ago in The Whole Earth Catalog, which called it “the most beautiful book produced anywhere in a generation or two.” Because of its rarity and expense—only 2,500 copies were ever printed, and used editions generally go for $300 and more—I never seriously thought I’d own it, although I’ve browsed through it lovingly at the old Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Berkeley. After literally saving my pennies and tracking it down online at a reasonable price at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, though, I decided to treat myself for my upcoming birthday, and it finally arrived last week. The result is worth the price and more: it’s the most physically gorgeous book I’ve ever seen, with three enormous folio volumes printed on exquisite paper, lovely layout and typography, and a thousand immaculate illustrations. Even if the subject matter weren’t in my wheelhouse, I’d still love it as an example of the bookmaker’s art, but its contents are even more fascinating, touching on many ideas and issues close to my heart, including monasticism, medieval life, vernacular architecture, and how the deep interpretation of text and image can provide a window on the entire world.

The Plan of St. Gall itself is an architectural blueprint drawn on a piece of parchment about 45 by 31 inches in size, dating from around the year 816, that has been preserved ever since at the Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland. It depicts an ideal monastery, complete with church, housing for the abbot and monks, buildings for guests and servants, gardens, workshops, privies, even a henhouse, and although it was never actually built, it served as kind of a paradigm for what monastic architecture could be. (The author of the plan is unknown, although it was likely commissioned by Haito, the abbot of Reichenau.) Using the plan as a starting point, the late authors Walter Horn and Ernest Born—both faculty members at UC Berkeley—have meticulously reconstructed how the building complex would have appeared, as well as what the lives of the monks there would have been like, in a remarkable feat of historical and architectural detective work. Not surprisingly, this requires the mastery and assimilation of an insane amount of material. If you want to learn more about the properties of parchment, barrel-making, wine and beer production, ecclesiastical design, bleeding, water management, timekeeping, horticulture, livestock, and more, it’s all here, with a density of content that goes all the way from the title page to the footnotes and index.

Map from The Plan of St. Gall

And the story behind the book is just as fascinating. It was originally conceived in the sixties as a modest project for the university press in Berkeley, covering a few hundred pages and three years of work. When it was finally published in 1979, it had taken fifteen years, with countless cost overruns and delays, thanks largely to Born’s obsessive perfectionism over the illustrations and design, as well as the project’s constantly expanding ambitions. It led to a highly publicized war of memos between the authors and August Fregé, the director of the press, who threatened to shut down production and retired long before the book itself ever saw the light of day. In his memoir A Skeptic Among Scholars, Fregé comes off as a little shellshocked by the experience, and he seems to think that Horn and Born exaggerated the importance of the plan in their own minds to justify creating such a monument. Yet if we think of the plan as a lens through which to examine the whole of life in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to imagine a better one. It’s a subject that deserves three big volumes and more, and it only could have been published by a university press. (In the end, according to a piece in the New York Times, the book cost $489,000 to produce and brought in $500,000 in sales, meaning that it barely broke even, even before you factor in the thousands of hours of work it required.)

When I look at proudly it on my office shelf now, it strikes me as exactly the kind of book we need, at a time when the physical act of reading seems especially vulnerable. Engaging with The Plan of St. Gall compels the reader to take on the role of a monk: it’s too large to be held comfortably on one’s lap, so ideally, you’d read it on a lectern, like the one provided to the reader who recited verses of scripture to the monks at every meal. (Fregé refers to it as “the only three-lectern book the Press will ever publish.”) As a result, you study it with special intensity, devoting an extra degree of attention to every page, to the point where the book ultimately embodies its own message. Think of it as the importance of humanism, the life of ideas, or the preservation of knowledge over time: whatever you call it, it’s a reflection of the same impulse that allowed the plan itself to survive over so many centuries. Reading it, you feel a sense of continuity with the unknown monk who traced it over a millennium ago, as well as all the others who kept it safe, and with Horn, Born, and those influenced by their example, including Christopher Alexander. As a reviewer wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s “an eloquent and exultant answer to those who still believe that print will soon give way to electronics.” That was written in 1980—and it’s a message that I’m glad this book, and all books that remember they were once sacred objects, is still around to provide.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2014 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. ‘The author fears the typesetter , the printer fears the binder, and the designer is afraid of all four’ Jan Tschichold on book design.

    Also, talking about beautiful books and typography, Daniel Berkeley Updike’s wonderful Printing Types is available for a look:


    June 1, 2014 at 8:14 pm

  2. Wow—thanks for the link. I love this sort of thing.


    June 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm

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