In fact Beinecke was a major factor in my own decision to go to Yale way back when. (Other key factors: Yale was far away from my home in Los Angeles, and I got in.) Arwulf, who wants to major in history and is deeply interested in medieval studies (and who, like her mother before her, wants to get the hell out of suburban Southern California) beheld these riches, and a gleam appeared in her eye.
The gleam intensified when our guide told us that the Beinecke library is home to a significant percentage of the world’s incunabula. (Though it turns out Harvard has more, ahem.)
I had been vaguely aware that this word had to do with old and rare books. But it actually derives from the Latin word for swaddling clothes--literally, the straps that hold a baby in a cradle (in- plus cūnae, or cradle). So by extension, incunabula refers to the earliest beginnings or first traces of something. Eventually people started using it specifically to refer to the earliest beginnings of print culture; more precisely, to books printed before 1500 and the broad adoption of movable type in Europe.
We swaddled Arwulf when she was a tiny infant because it seemed to help her sleep. We called it the Baby Burrito and it was adorable. But soon enough, she grew too active to put up with this treatment and kicked her way out of her wrappings. The waffle-weave blanket we used is still tucked in a drawer, but incredibly, she is about to start her senior year of high school.
There are times I fear she will never be able to live on her own. How on earth could she? She rarely gets out of bed under her own steam; she has been known to skip several meals in a row because she can’t be arsed to get off the computer and look in the fridge; she loses her cell phone in the heaps of laundry piled on the floor of her room. And yet we see the traces of her adult self emerging from the adolescent cocoon: the intellectual fire, the bravery, the focus, the story-teller’s flair.
She gleams as she gazes at the incunabulae: this is her kingdom. She is getting ready to kick through her shell and leave her wrappings behind. Strips of linen heaped on the bedroom floor.