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The World Actually Fits In The World's Largest Book

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's the year 1660. The harpsichord is hot.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: New York is still New Amsterdam and Charles II is restored to the British throne. To mark that occasion, King Charles was presented with a huge gift - the Klencke Atlas. It was and remains the largest book in the world. In April, it will be publicly displayed with its pages open for the first time in 350 years.

Joining us is the curator of Antiquarian Mapping at the British Library in London, Tom Harper. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM HARPER (Curator of Antiquarian Mapping, British Library): Hello. Thank you for inviting me.

HANSEN: I feel like I'm doing stand-up comedy. So, how big is the Klencke Atlas?

Mr. HARPER: Well, it's big. It's big. The Klencke Atlas was said by John Evelyn, upon seeing it in 1660, to be near four-yards tall. That translates today as something like nine-feet tall. It's certainly a very heavy book, as well, as I found out when I tried to move it with some colleagues the other day. It took six of us in total. We only traveled a short distance, but we were rather tired at the end of it all.

HANSEN: I bet you were. And I bet you were feeling a little small standing next to it.

Mr. HARPER: It really is quite frightening when you stand next to this atlas. The atlas contains 39 maps. These maps were not originally intended for a book. They were intended to be placed on walls. And so it gives you some sort of idea of the grand gesture that Johannes Klencke had in giving it to Charles II in 1660.

HANSEN: So, was it meant as a work of art because its pages were meant to hang on a wall?

Mr. HARPER: Well, yes. These were marvelous maps, which were created with lots of decorative flourishes around them and engraved in copper plates to an exquisite style. And to put these things all together in a book was really to show that works of art were fit for a king.

HANSEN: Do you think it's possible to put a price, a value on the Klencke Atlas?

Mr. HARPER: I'd be very reluctant to do so, but I could certainly try and get out of your question if you like.

HANSEN: It's priceless, in other words.

Mr. HARPER: Well, it is, yes, yes. It's from the collection: The Kings and Queens of England. The exhibition is a great opportunity to get out the crown jewels.

HANSEN: The geographical crown jewels.

Mr. HARPER: The geographical crown jewels - I like that. I might use that again, Liane.

HANSEN: It's yours.

Mr. HARPER: Thank you.

HANSEN: Tom Harper is curator of Antiquarian Mapping at the British Library in London. In April, the giant Klencke Atlas goes on display there. Thank you very much.

Mr. HARPER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.