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Miniature book collector has big dreams

Update: August, 10/2014 - 03:24

Collector's editions:Nguyen Thanh Dam has a passion for collecting miniature books. — VNA/VNS Photos

by Tran Hoa

Painter Nguyen Thanh Dam may not be the only person with this hobby in Viet Nam, but he is the only one with such a bulky bookcase of miniature books.

"The books are very small but the knowledge contained therein is very big. I've never measured the value of my books with money, but they must be as costly as my house," he said, while receiving some guests at his small, old house at a quiet alley in Ly Thuong Kiet Street, downtown Ha Noi.

His passion for collecting miniature books began in 1970, when he was in the Soviet Union to study layouts of books and newspapers.

"Ever since I was in high school, I had a dream of owning a bookcase for mini-books," he recalled.

Since Dam lived in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, he travelled to many libraries to find these mini-books. But as a student, he hardly had money to buy such valuable books. He recalled that he had to even skip a few meals to buy them.

"It was true that the smaller the books, the more expensive they were. The size of the first one I bought was only 3.5 by 5cm and cost about 15 roubles," he said.

"The Russians were good friends, and as they knew about my passion for such books, they presented me a lot of them. These were the most priceless gifts that I had received," he said.

On the day Dam returned home, among his belongings were these tiny and strange books that Viet Nam had never seen at that time.

Historic book

Now Dam owns many old books of the countries in the former Soviet bloc, and even many from Egypt, Laos and Thailand.

But his most prized possession is Lich su nuoc ta (History of our country) that still has the fingerprints of revolutionary leader Nguyen Ai Quoc, who later became President Ho Chi Minh.

This book has very thin paper, and is sized 9 by 15 cm.

It has just 14 pages, but President Ho summarised the whole process of thousands of years of history, and of building and defending the country from ancient times to the anti-French era.

"For each dynasty, he only used a few verses, but these portrayed the whole heroic process. The unique thing is that when publishing this book, President Ho was both, the author and editor, layout artist and illustrator, typographer and printing in-charge. He also cleaned up all the errors," said Dam.

Looking at that book which is "full of essence", Dam explained that it was printed by lithographs directly by President Ho in February 1942.

Not only has Dam collected many exclusive and strange mini-books, but he is also a talented book cover designer.

In 1980, to prepare for Vietnamese pilot Pham Tuan's flight into space as part of the Soviet Union's Interkosmos programme, the Vietnamese Government had assigned the painter to design some mini-books including Tuyen ngon doc lap (Declaration of Independence).

"It was a difficult task because at that time printing conditions were poor. I was required to design books that would be thin, durable and beautiful. I went to Buoi paper making village [in Cau Giay District] to buy do paper [poonah] to print the book, so ink would not be visible on the other side of the paper. It took me four months to complete three books to send to the Soviet Union," he said.

Size can be deceiving:The book might be small in size, but it contains a vast amount of knowledge. — VNS Photos Le Phuong

After the Vietnamese Embassy in the Soviet Union received these books, they quickly sent them to pilot Pham Tuan. However, because of safety reasons only the book Declaration of Independence was allowed for Pham Tuan to take on his journey into space.

The pilot carefully noted on the book cover: "Taking off at 1.33am of July 24, 1980."

On July 31, 1980, when Tuan returned to Earth, many foreign correspondents interviewed him about the book.

People were surprised to learn that the book's scripts were still intact while other material had almost completely faded.

This was an opportunity to promote Vietnamese books and poonah paper material to the world. This was also the first and the only mini-book of Viet Nam to "fly" into the universe.

"In 1982, I attended a seminar on books in Germany and learnt that UNESCO had issued standards for mini-books: They must be less than 8cm in width. I have collected a lot of mini-books with weird designs such as ones shaped like lanterns, eggs and lighters. Based on the mini-books, we can learn of the technology and advancement of the printing industry in each country."

According to Dam, his bookcase now has up to 500 little tiny books. Some of these are as small as matchboxes but have several hundred pages.

These books have been meticulously designed and packed with more knowledge about mankind, politics, economy, culture, astronomy, and aspects of art.

Dam said proudly that he had some precious books such as one on Vladimir Lenin. There were only 100 copies published on the occasion of his 100th birth anniversary, to present to the leaders of countries or special guests.

Dam has one of these books, thanks to a student. He even had a gold-plated book done delicately and beautifully.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc also called him up recently and offered to present him with two mini-books that Quoc was presented during a foreign trip, Dam said.

"Once, a foreigner who visited my library offered to buy my books at any price. I refused to sell them because they are knowledge. If knowledge goes there's nothing left. Moreover, the mini-books are rare, and it is even more difficult to collect such antique books," he said. — VNS

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