June 21, 2016

Dan Brown donates €300,000 to a Dutch esoterica library; everybody wins


A 1516 representation of the ten sephirot (“emanations”) of Kabbalah, from the Ritman collection. Via ritmanlibrary.com

A 1516 representation of the ten sephirot (“emanations”) of Kabbalah, from the Ritman collection. Via ritmanlibrary.com

It’s been a good month for lovers of arcane and bizarre books.

The Voynich Manuscript—a mysterious fourteenth-century tract written in a script that has steadfastly resisted a century’s worth of attempts at decipherment—has been back in the news, partly because of a new reproduction that’s been made available (if you’ve got a spare afternoon burning a hole in your pocket, you can browse a complete page-by-page scan here). Likewise the Codex Seraphinianus, a 1981 Italian work that, in the words of Public Radio International, “despite being incomprehensible… got a fair amount of buzz” (and that would go on to inspire the scene that would set a generation of nerds swiveling their fingers at imaginary holograph screens). Small Beer Press made headlines, too, as we’ve recently written, by announcing their intention of publishing a suitably elaborate new version of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, one of the three books that launched the thousand ships of Rosicrucianism.

And if the mere thought of all this rustling vellum makes you swoon, there’s more good news for you: Dan Brown, the archive-happy, mega-best-selling author of The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, announced last week that he is donating €300,000 (about $340,000 US) to the Ritman Library, a Dutch collection of nearly 25,000 books exploring such obscure topics as Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, gnosis, alchemy, Sufism, and esotericisms of all stripes. Also known as the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, the library was founded in the mid-eighties by a Dutch businessman named Joost Ritman, whose daughter, Esther Ritman, now serves as its director-general and librarian.

The library was quick to to announce that the donation would be used to fund its Hermetically Open project, whose goal is to scan roughly 5,000 of the books at the core of its collection. The scans are expected to be available for free online perusal by the spring of 2017.  Work will be overseen by Picturae, a Dutch firm that has partnered with the Smithsonian and the UK’s National Archives, among other institutions. It follows shortly on the Ritman’s relocation to the Huis Met de Hoofden (“House with the Heads”), a 1622 canal house that Esther Ritman notes is “in itself a place worth visiting,” and which has long been a destination for tourists in Amsterdam. The collection forms the core of a “centre for free and contrarian thinking” there.

Brown, who has done research for several of his books at the Ritman, said in a statement that he considers it a “great honor to play a role in this important preservation initiative that will make these texts available to the public.”

The gift comes as the Ritman is rebounding from a prolonged conflict with Friesland Bank that, as Henk Schutten has reported for Het Parool, stemmed ultimately from the 2008 banking crisis. The final goal in the library’s rehabilitation is the establishment of an “Embassy of the Free Mind.” Esther Ritman elaborates:

We are at present still primarily a place for scholars and writers. In the new premises we intend to engage a wider public in conversation. We will do this on the basis of the contents of our library, and will thus be connecting with an urgent topic nowadays: the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.

If you’re someone who thrills to the dream of unearthing recondite codices heaped with dust and slowly deciphering their mysterious meanings (full disclosure: I may be such a person), it’s hard not to love this story, as well as this short promotional video made by the Ritman:



Personally, I’m as heartened by Dan Brown’s generosity as I am by the knowledge that he’s installed secret passageways behind his bookshelves. For that matter, I love it when Esther Ritman describes the Biblioteca as “a place where wisdom traditions flow together into one River of Life.” As Hermes Trismegistus, the (fictitious) founder of Hermeticism, once wrote, “O ye people, earth-born folk, ye who have given yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of God, be sober now, cease from your surfeit, cease to be glamored by irrational sleep!”




Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.