The 500-year-old book that overwhelms its owners

The Lost Gutenberg
By Margaret Davis
Atlantic, 304pp, £16.99/$27

What has been nicknamed “the commode”, “the whale” and “#45”? Those of you who answered Donald Trump (the 45th president of the United States, who, like all presidents, enjoys referring to himself by number) should be ashamed of yourselves. The correct answer is, of course, the Gutenberg Bible. Or rather, a very
special copy of said Bible.

What kind of people refer to a Bible as a commode? Bibliophiles, historian Margaret Leslie Davis reveals in her extraordinarily entertaining new book, subtitled The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey. It’s not that they’re blasphemers, or irreligious (in fact, the biggest star of this book is a devout Catholic), but rather they believe they’re living in an espionage novel, where everything needs a code name, no matter how inappropriate.

What’s truly surprising about The Lost Gutenberg is that Davis makes the 500-year journey of this one book more exciting than any spy novel. For the imaginative Hollywood producer, this book’s life story could provide the basis for a richly enjoyable big-budget blockbuster. The action travels across centuries and moves from England to Los Angeles to Tokyo, bringing together the avaricious, duplicitous and deeply religious, all driven by the same desire: to own a copy of one of the most famous books in the world.

Johann Gutenberg originally produced 180 copies of the Bible in Latin in Mainz, Germany around 1456. One hundred and fifty were printed on paper and 30 on vellum. Fifty remain in circulation, but Davis’s book mainly follows the journey of just one (though a couple of other editions make brief appearances).

At the heart of this story is Estelle Doheny, who owned the book from 1950 onwards. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in female rare book dealers, spearheaded by the American AN Devers and her London-based Second Shelf shop, but at the time Doheny was collecting, she attracted as much disdain as approval, and had to conduct much of her 40-year hunt for a Gutenberg Bible in secret.

Referred to as “Mighty Women Book Hunters”, collectors such as the devoutly Catholic Doheny (and the poet Amy Lowell) risked being manipulated by the agents they employed to lay the groundwork for auction purchases. Doheny had a fairy-tale introduction to personal fortune when her husband, the Catholic oil tycoon Edward Doheny, fell in love with her voice when she was working as an telephone operator connecting his calls to investors. Doheny was famous for digging the first successful oil well in Los Angeles before later being implicated in the 1920 Teapot Dome Scandal after being accused of bribing the US Secretary of the Interior. After his death, Estelle proved herself his equal in business. Book-collecting was her passion, and when they married she had made him promise to buy her a Gutenberg Bible –
eventually making the purchase herself.

It’s clear that Davis is on the side of the book collectors and never really questions whether Doheny’s act is one of pure acquisitiveness or religious impulse. But she does address the unexpected requirements asked of the new owner when Doheny finally manages to bag a Bible. Fifteenth-century books are more robust than most, but the Gutenberg still arrives with a list of formidable instructions: the book must be kept in darkness, and securely positioned in a vault kept between 58 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit – impossible in a Los Angeles home lacking air conditioning. Soon, Doheny is so overwhelmed by the responsibility of her purchase that she turns it over to the city’s St John’s Seminary.

This makes it all the more extraordinary that, 30 years later, a group of scientists were using a nuclear accelerator to fire proton beams at the book in an attempt to find out more about the ink, paper and printing process. Even though Davis diligently explains the motivations behind the scientists’ actions, the value of this experiment was somewhat lost on me, and I wasn’t surprised that the scientists didn’t get to finish their investigation. Davis suggests that this was less of an indignity for the book (which the scientists considered a woman and referred to as “she” as they talked to it during the experimentation, as a way of keeping themselves calm and not treating the book too harshly) than the machinations that led to its sale – by Catholic priests to whom Doheny had entrusted the transaction – to a Japanese publishing conglomerate.

From there, the Bible makes its way to a steel vault in Keio University. Although the physical edition of the book has become more inaccessible than ever, the university has put a facsimile online, ensuring that scholars from all over the world can study it.

As Davis admits, the story of #45 can be told in many ways. Looked at from the perspective of its various owners, which also included a Lea & Perrins magnate, monks and an earl, it’s a story of loss, and increasingly huge sums paid simply for the chance to protect a work for a generation. But from the book’s point of view, it’s a journey to a safe haven, a story likely to continue as long as printed matter exists.