the intangibles of books

My recent posts have been focusing on books that have been handed down from one generation to the next, books that allow us to see evidence of the social transactions of books and the links they forge between family members. But we wouldn’t be able to see that evidence if the books themselves weren’t in such good shape to begin with.

The photo above is of one of my favorite books, and I mean that in a very material sense, not a textual sense: I love this particular book because it was my father’s when he was a boy. I remember it sitting on his bookshelves in our house, and him telling me how fond he was of Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never actually read Kidnapped. And I’m not going to be able to read this copy. It’s so fragile that the front cover came right off as I removed it from my bookshelf this afternoon. I’m not actually sure what year it was published–it was part of the Giant Junior Classics series, but there is no date on the book itself, and though my father was clearly young when he signed it, he didn’t date his inscription. I could read a different copy, of course. It wouldn’t be too hard to track one down, even another Giant Junior Classics issue. But it wouldn’t be the same, I don’t think. What I love about this book is knowing that he loved it when he was a child, and that he loved it enough to save it. Not being able to read this book doesn’t make me any less fond of it.

It does, however, make me keenly aware of how unlikely it is that my children will have this book on their shelves, or their children. Or to have it someday be auctioned off at Sotheby’s, as Frances Wolfreston’s books were. That’s okay, really. I don’t think it’s valuable to anyone other than me. There are plenty of mid-twentieth-century books that future readers and scholars and grandchildren could wish had stayed in good enough shape to hang on to. We’re lucky that earlier books were made of comparatively sturdy stuff.

In my earlier posts about the Frances Wolfreston books and other books, I have been focused entirely on the material and social presences of books–how books are made, how they circulate between users. I have not dwelt on some of the other important aspects of books, including the emotional attachments that readers and owners form to them and with them. But I don’t want to underplay the intangibles of books, either. My father’s copy of Kidnapped is important because of those intangibles. And it is those intangibles that I share with my son when we read Charlotte’s Web together. We actually each have our own: my childhood copy is on the right, only $1.25, and his is on the left, just released as a “major motion picture.”

I was traveling while we were reading the book, so I bought him his own copy and took mine with me, so we could read it together over the phone. And because the book is still published by HarperCollins, we could read copies that were nearly identical, page for page. When we were on separated by hundreds of miles, being able to read together–to turn the pages at the same time and to look at the same Garth Williams drawings–made us feel as if we were sitting next to each other, reading our bedtime story. That closeness was possible through the material conditions and history of copyrights, publishing companies, printing processes, and marketing. But it was made possible first by the power not only of E.B. White’s story, but of the very act of reading together. That’s one of the amazing things about books and readings to which my posts in this blog have not always paid tribute. It’s a hard thing to quantify, certainly, and hard even to put into words. But my relationship to books that I’ve been discussing here reminds me that the Chaucer that passed from Dorothy Egerton’s hands to Anne Vernon’s to Frances Wolfreston’s isn’t just a volume of paper in which readers inscribed their names. It’s a book they sat with, and returned to, and passed on to others.

I’ve been negligent in posting recently, and this post has not dwelt at all on early modern books. But I’ll be back up to speed again soon, with more posts on early books and book history. In the meantime, happy reading.

Montelyon’s sword

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That’s come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford’s The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger’s copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: “Frances Wolfreston her bowk.”


What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: “Francis Wolferston his Booke.” (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)


In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old. And later on in the book is the sort of marginalia that I imagine a 14 year-old boy reading a romance would want to draw: the hero’s spear and sword.


I love that Frances bought this book, and then passed it on to her son, and that both of them marked it as their own. The fact that she gave it to him when he was still young, rather than him inheriting it as an adult, as was true of the other books that his brother was willed, makes it seem so much more evocative of a parent-child relationship. Or maybe it’s that drawing of the sword that gets to me. The Chaucer is a big important book, and the marginalia only confirms what I think we already know from looking at it. Frances and Francis’s inscriptions make this book, which would otherwise be a slight romance, into something more tantalizing and meaningful.

not only Wolfrestons!

So my favorite Chaucer, as I’ve mentioned before, is inscribed by Frances Wolfreston and recorded as a gift to her from her mother-in-law Mary Wolfreston. And as we know from her will, discussed in my last post, Frances left her library to her third son with the instructions that it be made kept distinct from the family’s other collections and made available for borrowing by her other children. As a result, her books were passed on through generations of the Wolfreston family. Elsewhere in this book are the inscriptions of two later family members: “T. Wolfreston anno D[omi]no 1717″ and “J. Wolfreston ejus liber anno D[omi]ni 1718.” The book itself is bound in an 18th-century reversed-calf binding that is inscribed on the front cover with “S. Wolfreston.” For me, that’s already a treasury of information about how this book was valued and passed on through a family.

But it gets better! The Wolfreston annotations are simply the traces of what happened to the book after it passed into Frances’s hands after 1631. The Chaucer is full of other annotations, annotations that are more detailed and perhaps more indicative of the readers’ relationships to Chaucer’s texts. Check out the blank leaf reproduced below, covered with inscriptions:

Most prominent are three verses signed by Dorothy Egerton:

Saynct james in hys epistle sayeth vy are all offendours many Wayes but those that offende not in ther tongues Are trulye blessed. the tongue sayeth he is a small membr[e] but it Worketh wonders. Hitherto saynct james. DOROTHE EGERTON 

He is neyther riche happye nor Wyse
that is abondeman to his owne avaryce
Dorothee Egerton

Fauour is decetful and beautye is a vayne thynge but the Woman that feareth god she shall be blessed. proverb 30

There is also the inscription of ANNE VERNON just after Dorothy’s quotation of Saint James, some other words in a small, upside-down secretary hand at the bottom of the image, and lots of smudged-out words.

Who are these other people? Dorothy Egerton (who, you will have noticed, did not spell her name the standard way we do today) married Thomas Vernon; Anne Vernon is obviously a family member through that marriage. And the connection to Mary Wolfreston, Frances’s mother-in-law? Her family name before she got married was Egerton. Not only did the Chaucer pass through the Wolfreston family hands, it passed through the Egerton family into the Wolfreston family. And its users left their traces all along the way.

More next time about those traces, their connection to Chaucer’s poems, and what this book might have to tell us about readers and the networks they form through books.

Frances Wolfreston, book collector

Earlier this month I promised some more posts on Frances Wolfreston and her copy of Chaucer’s works that we have at the Folger. It’s one of my favorite books at the moment, so there will be lots more coming, but here’s some starting information about Wolfreston’s books. 

Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) seems to have started collecting books after her marriage in 1631 to Francis Wolfreston (1612-1666)–or at least she started inscribing them after her marriage, since none of them appear with her maiden name, Frances Middlemore.* Nor are there any books inscribed by anyone else in the Wolfreston family prior to her marriage; in other words, she didn’t seem to sign books that were already in her husband’s collection, but built her own library of books.

Paul Morgan characterizes Wolfreston’s books as “the leisure reading of a literate lady in her country house.” They include plays and poems, but also jest-books and religious works.** Among the books bearing her signature are Heywood’s Rape of Lucrece, Lodge’s Wits Miserie, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, Catholic and Anglican catechisms, many of John Taylor’s poems, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Richard II. Most prominent among her collection is the surviving copy of the first printing of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, subsequently owned by Edmund Malone and now held at the Bodleian. (You can see an image of the title-page of that book here, with her faint inscription just to the right of the printer’s device.)


Her books clearly were important to her, since she singled them out in her will with careful instruction about their care and use:

And I give my son Stanford all my phisicke bookes, and all my godly bookes, and all the rest conditionally if any of his brothers or sisters would have them any tyme to read, and when they have done they shall returne them to their places againe, and he shall carefully keepe them together. 

Her collection of books, inscribed and passed on to Stanford, and then through his descendants, remained at Statfold House until they were auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 1856. A number of the books include not only her inscription, but those of her children and other family members. Taken together, Wolfreston’s collection can teach us not only about her own personal taste, but about books and social networks. Plus, there is a real thrill in seeing the signature of the same person over and over again–it’s a reminder that there are real readers who held and treasured these books that we now study. I’ll talk more about the collection’s integrity and the familial traces left in them in a future post.
*Not enough Francis/Frances names for you? Frances Wolfreston’s mother was Frances Middlemore, and the eldest son of Frances and Francis Wolfreston was, yes, Francis Wolfreston. Incidentally, Frances’s second son was named Middlemore (her maiden name), and the third son was named Stanfold (her mother’s maiden name).


**Much more information about Wolfreston can be found in Paul Morgan’s “Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks': A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector” The Library, 6th series XI (1989): 13-219. Especially notable is Morgan’s legwork in tracking down over one hundred books from Wolfreston’s collection; that list is included as an appendix to his article.

copy-editors redux

A few months ago, I blogged about copy-editors at newspapers, using Lawrence Downes’s lament for the declining trade as a prompt for thinking about how mistakes get corrected in print runs–early modern and modern. In that post, I noted that early modern printers made changes during the course of a print run without noting the fact or alerting readers to the fact that the book that they are buying might contain uncorrected errors. There was perhaps something similar, I thought, to the ways in which changes get made to online newspapers without any reflection of that change. A story will be reedited, reposted, and read without any acknowledgement of those changes. Any quirks in the earlier story that are stripped out are then invisible to later readers.

Last week, the Washington Post Ombudsman, Deborah Powell*, wrote her column about the disappearance of copy-editors from newspapers due to budget cutbacks. Her concern, expressed in her voice and in quotes from other newspaper professionals, is that the credibility of newspapers will suffer as a result. But there was something that caught my eye in light of my story about Client 9 in my earlier post: at the end of her column, which I read online, appeared this immediately after her contact information: “A longer version of this column appears on

Now that’s a line that cries out for a copy-editor. Given that I read the column in its online (and apparently longer) incarnation, shouldn’t this statement have been changed to reflect its reading audience, providing information we don’t have: “A shorter version of this column first appeared in print in the August 31, 2008 edition of the Washington Post”? The way it appears makes me wonder if I am really reading the longer version intended to be online. If they forgot to change that line when making the piece go live electronically, how do I know that they didn’t forget to publish the rest of the online-only changes? Ah well.

It turns out that the New York Times has started providing such information to (as least some of) its online material. Today’s Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, “Let’s Talk About Sex“, is published with the following clarification: “A version of this article appeared in print on September 6, 2008, on page A17 of the New York edition.” It doesn’t tell me how the two versions differ, but if for some reason I was preparing an exhaustive edition of Blow’s columns, or perhaps an exhaustive editions of the media conversation about Bristol Palin, I could follow this note to see what might have been altered.

A final tie-in to early modern printing: Blow’s column is accompanied by a chart indicating the various rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and sex in different countries. (Blow has been a graphics designer and the graphics director at the New York Times, and was the paper’s Design Director of News before leaving for his current position as the Art Director for the National Geographic Magazine.) His chart makes a complicated set of data wonderfully easy to understand through his graphic design choices. (Check out the difference between Denmark and the United States!) It’s a topic about which I have so far said nothing. But the way that non-verbal typography expands the ability of print to convey information is something that is as important in early printing history as it is for newspapers today (online or otherwise). I’ll aim in future posts to look at some instances of early modern inforation design–the presentation of tables, graphs, diagrams, and other visual tools that not only provided information to users but helped to shape how information could be used.

*Yes, Deborah Powell’s official title is indeed “Ombudsman” and not a more feminine or gender-neutral derivation of that Swedish word. The New York Times prefers to title its equivalent person as the “Public Editor”, thus avoiding not only gender confusion but using a term that is more readily understood by the actual public for whom he (Clark Hoyt, to be specific) is “the readers’ representative.”

school books

Today’s post is in honor of all students returning to school everywhere–and in honor of all their teachers. For me, one of the strongest markers of a new school year is the buying of books (and, as a professor, the endless copying of excerpts of books to be put on reserve). For generations of early modern English school boys, the foundational text of their study was William Lily’s A short introduction of grammar generallie to be vsed. Compiled and set forth, for the bringyng vp of all those that intend to attaine the knovvlege of the Latin tongue. In1542 by Henry VIII made Lily’s Grammar the authorized book for studying Latin, and the work was reissued repeatedly for more than a century, and continued to influence subsequent Latin grammars well after that point. (Lily himself died in 1522, years before all this–what we–and those school boys–refer to as Lily’s Grammar is a text that, in fact, is only partially written by Lily himself.)


Reproduced above is the title page of from a 1557 edition. The most noticeable thing about it, I think, is that nearly all the white space has been written on by its users. I want to point out one particular set of scribblings, those words just above the printer’s device and enlarged below:
Who does this book belong to? John Scott, who carefully notes that point with the phrase “Jhone Scott with my hand at the pene.” John also seems to have started to write this inscription along the gutter, starting at the bottom of the page just to the left of the printer’s device. (There’s something else above that line, but at some point rebinding has made the gutter swallow the words.) At the back endpaper, both “Thomas Scott” and “Gulielmus Scott” have written their names, suggesting that this was a schoolbook that was handed down among the Scott family.


One other quick thing to point out: the printer’s device is, in fact, an illustration of a print shop. If you look closely you’ll see the compositor on the right laying out the type, the man in the middle pulling the press to print a sheet, and the man on the left inking the inkballs. More on printing presses in the future, and I promise a return to Frances Wolfreston once my teaching preparations settle down!