I’ve been thinking about the social ties that connect us to our scholarship.

Last week I was at the annual Shakespeare Association of America meeting (or #shakeass13, as it was lovingly hashtagged), a conference that I’ve been going to every single year since (have mercy on me) 1994. It’s a great conference, in part because it is organized around seminars: the bulk of the work of the meeting happens in seminars in which participants circulate papers in advance; there are also paper panels, with only two or three happening concurrently. The result is a conference with a lot of room for active participation and common conversations. It’s invigorating, and that’s one of the reasons I keep returning.

Another reason is that I have a huge number of friends and colleagues that I only ever see at SAA. I’ve been going for a long time, I keep meeting more and more people, and while I’m lucky to work at a place that has a lot of Shakespeareans passing through, most of my friends I only see at conferences. This isn’t surprising news for anyone who goes to things like this: the social element of conferences is much of what makes them wonderful (or exhausting, if you’re an introvert). And the format for SAA is really great for socializing—not only is conversation built into the seminars, the conference even ends with a dance. (Thank you, Malone Society, even if I never actually go.)

But this time, I’ve been aware of how much social ties are built not only into my favorite conference, but into my life as a scholar.

I trained as scholar focused on modern productions of Shakespeare. I wrote a book on the subject, edited a collection, presented at conferences, published articles, all on aspects of Shakespeare and performance. I did that solidly from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s. And in the process, I met great people in the field, people I enjoyed collaborating with and being friends with. But then, around 2006, I started retraining myself as a book historian, thanks to the program I started on the subject at the Folger. And with that came blogging, and tweeting, and going to conferences, and even publishing. And in that process, I met a new crew of collaborators and friends.

What this means is that when I go to SAA, I find myself pulled in two directions: do I want to be at sessions focused on book history or at ones about performance? That experience of being pulled in different directions will be familiar to any scholar who is interested in more than one thing. But what I had not fully appreciated before this most recent experience at SAA was how much of the intellectual tugging went hand-in-hand with a social tugging. Sure, we all find ourselves socializing with the people with whom we share intellectual interests. That is the pattern I just described above. But what I recognized this time is that it works in the opposite direction, too: my choices in who I was socializing with generated who I wanted to share my intellectual energies with.

Here’s what I mean: the socializing I did at this conference tended, primarily, to be with my performance studies friends, and it jump-started my brain so that I’ve now got new questions and possible projects bubbling away. Talking with R and A and S, among others, made me want to continue those conversations by thinking about fragments and travel and how we experience, share, and archive theatrical performance. I was interested in those things before, but my drive to sort them out is connected to my drive to continue to hang out with these people I like. I don’t want to hang out with them so that I can better work out these questions that are bugging me; I want to work out these questions so that I can continue hanging out with them.

Obviously, my entire intellectual life is not driven by who shares my love for food and drink. I’ve got another project bubbling that doesn’t come out of any socializing impulses, and it’s a great one, and I chose my collaborator not because he’s someone I like to hang out with, but because he’s the right person for this project. And obviously what I get out of conferences isn’t only seeing my friends; I heard some really exciting papers in Toronto and that’s what really made it a great conference. (Let me tell you, I’ve been to other conferences that have been good social scenes but when it’s built around lousy papers, the whole experience brings you down.) But the connections between who I like to be friends with and who I like to talk shop with are not accidental. One of the delightful things about moving into a new field of scholarship has been that it introduced me to not only to exciting new ways of thinking about texts and books, but that it connected me to some really interesting and fabulous people. I love that.

But I’m now realizing how much I miss my old field, too. Yes, I know I can do both and that I could even combine book history with performance studies so that one foot is planted firmly in each realm, and I do try that. But let’s face it, that’s also exhausting and since my work explicitly pulls me towards book history and material text, that’s where I’ve gone. I’m not going to stop thinking about those things. I’m too embedded both intellectually and emotionally in the book history world (see some of you at SHARP in Philadelphia?) to walk away from it. But I’m going to let my love for performance stay in my life, too, and I’m excited about that.

So consider this my paean to the value of friendships and the ways they inspire us to be better scholars. And a big, hearty THANK YOU to all my #shakeass13 peeps: the ones who created the silly hashtag and wore our silly t-shirts, the ones who ate and drank with me, the ones I didn’t have a chance to do more with than wave across a crowded room and the ones who let me chill with them when the rest of the conference was too much. You’re what makes being a Shakespearean fun and smart.

#shakeass13? I'd shake it!

#shakeass13? I’d shake it!

the serendipity of the unexpected, or, a copy is not an edition

My last post focused on my frustration with the assumption that digitization is primarily about access to text:

But access is not all that digitization can do for us. Why should we limit ourselves to thinking about digital facsimiles as being akin to photographs? Why should we think about these artifacts in terms only of the texts they transmit? Let’s instead think about digitization as a new tool that can do things for us that we wouldn’t be able to see without it. Let’s use digitization not only to access text but to explore the physical artifact.

I spent the remainder of that post brainstorming some suggestions about what digitization might enable other than access to text, and there were some great comments about the ramifications of textualizing the digital that I’m still mulling over. In this post I want to offer some examples of why we might want to look at books rather than digital surrogates as a way of approaching the relationship between digital and physical from another angle.

So why might we want to look at physical books rather than digital surrogates, other than a fetish of smell and a sense of the magical presence of the original? Here are a few examples that start to get at what physical books offer that digital surrogates miss.

The making of the book

One of the things that we learn from examining books is how they are made. There are all sorts of things you can see in physical books that reveal their making: watermarks and chain lines in the paper (which can help date a book, as Carter Hailey has shown ); sewing structures in bindings (which can reveal if pages have been cut out or added in later); and pasted-in cancels or errata slips (which show changes made due to correct errors or in response to censorship).

It’s true that some of these features could be incorporated into digital surrogates; as my photo above shows, it’s absolutely possible for digital images to reveal paste-ins such as this one. But it’s also true that most users of digital surrogates of early modern books rely on EEBO, in which the equivalent page appears thusly:

The text might be the same, but there is no indication in the EEBO reproduction that the text appears on a slip of paper that has been pasted onto the page (although a keen eye might notice that the lines are not quite square with the rest of the page). If all you care about is text, that’s fine, but you’re missing a key part of the book’s history. And what happens if you were looking at a copy that didn’t have the errata slip (not all copies did)? You might never know it was an option–see the later section, “a copy is not an edition” for more on that.

My larger point here is that while digitization could convey some aspects of this category of information, they generally do not.

The history of the book’s use

The best thing about old books, I think, is their longevity and the traces of the history that they carry with them. Inscriptions, marginalia, doodles, vandalism, erasures, cutting out images and leaves–none of those are captured if your focus is solely on the text, and all of them have something to tell us about how a book was used.

(This is an image of one of the Folger’s three copies of Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera Mundi; this one happens to be heavily marked up, with additional diagrams penned in and plenty of annotations, but the other two are significantly less annotated. It looks yellow, by the way, because I took the photo myself, sans flash, per Folger requirements. There’s not a whole lot of light in the Old Reading Room, and I did a sort of half-hearted job of color-correcting my picture.)

Here’s a detail from a blank leaf from the middle of a 1550 Chaucer Works that’s covered in marginalia. I count at least four hands in this picture, three sixteenth-century and one twentieth-century. There’s other marginalia in this book, too:

So add two more hands (this time a seventeenth-century and a twentieth-century one that is mistaken about the date) to the collection of readers who have left their traces in this book. And then there’s this, from the same volume:

So that’s one more inscriber (although he doesn’t appear to have been an owner of this book). There’s also the cover of the book, with two more names incorporated into the binding, eighteenth-century descendants of Frances Wolfreston. I’ve written about this book and this collector before, so I won’t go on further here. But this kind of passage through history tells us not only about one particular family and one particular book, but gives a window into different responses to and uses of Chaucer’s poetry.

I suppose it’s possible that digitizing could capture this; if I can take pictures of these inscriptions, there’s no reason a digitization project couldn’t. Oh, except time and money. This is a big book of more than 300 pages, and only one of two copies we have of this imprint, and one of five copies of this edition, and one of I-don’t-know-how-many mid-sixteenth-century copies of Chaucer’s Works. Are we talking about a project that will digitize all pages, cover to cover, of all these books? Who’s going to fund that? Is it worth funding that as opposed to, say, funding digitizing all the books that were once owned by Ben Jonson?

The serendipity of finding the unexpected

This sounds a lot like the sort of paean to open stacks and browsing that you hear from some book fetishists. But I’m talking about something a bit more complicated, I think. When you look at a digital surrogate, someone has already made the decision for you about what you want to see and how you are going to use it. There’s no reason you can’t use the surrogate differently, but every choice they’ve made impacts your ability to circumvent it. For instance, some of the biggest digitization projects out there don’t include blank leaves or pages in their digitization. ECCO is the chief culprit that comes to mind: they prioritize text, and so their surrogates start with the frontispiece or title page, then move to the dedication/preface/letter to the reader/start of the text. But you know what’s missing? The blank verso of the title page. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It depends on what you’re looking for. But you’ll never know that you might be looking for an answer that depends on that blank presence if you don’t know that it’s not there.

Jeffrey Todd Knight has written about this serendipity in his most recent article, “Invisible Ink: A Note on Ghost Images in Early Modern Printed Books”. His focus is on ghost images left behind when some of the Pavier Quartos were bound together in early collections with non-Shakespearean works, so that an image of the title page of Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness appears faintly on the verso of the last leaf of Henry V. Knight draws out some of the implications of what this means for the Pavier Quartos and our understanding of Shakespeare book history–go read the piece yourself–but he also makes a broader argument for the need to consider the invisible, reminding us that “it has been easy to forget that text reproduction technologies, at every level, carry biases”:

The onscreen interfaces that give us Shakespeare and Heywood’s plays today are not transparent windows onto the text themselves; they define and regulate a field of visibility, as do all forms of curation going back to the early copies, which also carried biases.

What I would emphasize is that we don’t know what we’re missing until it’s possible to see it. We can’t see the blank pages or the invisible ink if we’re experiencing a book through decisions that have already eliminated the possibility of seeing them.

A copy is not an edition

This is true for all books, but especially early modern books: no two copies are the same, whether through the process of how they were printed or their subsequent use by readers. The practice of stop-press changes being made at any stage of production, and at multiple stages of production, and the habit of mixing sheets so that “uncorrected” sheets can appear in the same copy as “corrected” sheets, means that any book that had changes made during the printing process will exist in different states. Nor are those states typically indicated on a book’s title page or (depending on how important a book is seen as being and how well cataloged it has been) in its bibliographic record. You can only find these variants by looking at multiple copies of a single edition–hence the brilliance of things like the Hinman collator, the Lindstrand Comparator, the McLeod Portable Collator, and Hailey’s Comet, all devices that allow their user to compare multiple copies of books without actually reading them. (Reading, as any copy editor will tell you, will only distract you from what you’re actually seeing on teh page; collators–or, as I like to think of them, the original textual/machine hacks–let you look instead of read.)

Why do we care about these textual variants? We might care because they tell us something about how the book was made, because it might say something about economic or societal pressures (if they were changes introduced in response to something other than correcting an error), or because the presence of and differences between states might help us understand the range of textual meaning available.

One example of the stop-press changes can be seen in the second quarto of Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s lines to Osric exist in three states, two of which can be compared in the Shakespeare Quartos Archive:

We are in no danger of missing the many textual variants of any of Shakespeare’s plays. But imagine if we were talking about, say, a Webster play, or a poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth. Those have not been as extensively, even fanatically, collated as Shakespeare’s works have. Nor have the funds been lavished on reproducing many digital surrogates of a single edition, as they have with Hamlet.

Remember above when I pointed out that some copies of The General History of Virginia have an errata slip, but others do not? If you encounter a digital surrogate of a copy that has the slip, you will treat that copy as if it represents the entire run of that edition, as if all copies of that edition of General History have errata slips. What is the characteristic of a single copy becomes a characteristic of the edition. But a copy is not an edition; what is unique to a copy is not common to the edition.

This list of possibilities has gone on long enough. Nearly everything I write about on this blog dwells on what we discover from looking at one copy of one book. If you’re curious to see more examples of what you might find from looking at physical books rather than digital surrogates, try some of the following posts in addition to the ones I link to above about blanks and Frances Wolfreston: “an armorial binding mystery“, focusing on overlapping book stamps; “essayes of a prentise“, about the significance of the binding on a volume of James I’s writings; “David and Goliath, redux“, about finding the same pattern of embroidered bindings; and “bibles for historical occasions“, in which I think about, um, bibles used on historical occasions.

I would love to hear more thoughts from you on this subject, particularly of lucid examples of what we can learn from looking at physical books beyond the sort of intangibility of emotions that books can evoke.

bibles for historical occasions

When Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, he will be using the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861. Much has been made of the symbolism of the moment, and of the many connections between the two men from Illinois, the one who freed the slaves and the one who will be our first African-American President.

The physical presence of Lincoln’s Bible is key to making that connection explicit. It’s not a physically imposing bible, as you can see from pictures. It’s easily held, bound in burgundy velvet with gilt edges.

What I find the most interesting about it is that although it holds a great deal of significance to us, it did not for Lincoln. Lincoln’s own family Bible was still en route to Washington with the rest of his belongings, so Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll purchased this Bible for the swearing-in ceremony. The Bible itself (an 1853 Oxford edition) was opened to a random page when the oath was administered. (There’s a compilation of inaugural Bibles used and scriptures chosen put together by the Library of Congress.) But the importance of this object is brought home in Carroll’s inscription at the end, certifying that this is the copy of the Bible that was used to swear in President Lincoln.

(A full set of images of Lincoln’s Bible is on flickr.)

Lincoln’s Bible is in contrast to the one that Joe Biden will be using when he is sworn in as Vice-President. He’ll be using the same Bible that he’s used every time he was sworn in as a senator, and that his son has used as Delaware’s Attorney General, a Bible that has been in the family since 1893. As you can see from this photo (taken for the New York Times by Stephen Crowley), in which his wife Jill pretends to be staggering under its weight, this is no easily carried book.

According to news reports, Biden almost didn’t have the Bible with him for the Senate swearing-in, but made it in time, complete with jokes about its size. (There’s a nice story about this in Delaware Online.) Jokes aside, though, it is clearly something that is important to Biden and an integral part of how he sees taking office.

I’ve been struck with these stories about the Bibles being used for this Presidential Inauguration, and for others, because they aren’t about what the Bible means. That isn’t irrelevant, by any means. I happen to be fond of the story about John Quincy Adams, who took his oath of office upon a “Volume of Laws” because it was the Constitution he was swearing to protect. But what is driving so many of these stories is an emphasis on the physical book itself. Biden’s Bible has been passed on through his family for generations. When Obama lays his hand on the Bible to become our 44th President, he is touching the same book that our 16th President did. The physical book makes connections through the generations.

I’ll close with a couple of images of historical Bibles in the Folger’s collections. Neither will ever be chosen to swear in a new President, and that’s just as well–I don’t think their resonances will play as smoothly.

The first is a copy of the 1568 Great Bible presented to Queen Elizabeth and probably used in her private chapel. It is bound in a crimson velvet with silver clasps and bosses engraved with Tudor roses and her coat of arms. It’s a lovely book. (Full catalogue record here.)

The second is less beautiful but perhaps more haunting. It’s a Salisbury Book of Hours that was given to Henry VIII by Anne of Cleves, also known as wife number four. At the back of the book she has written, “I besiche your grace h[umble?] when ye loke on this remember me. yo[u]r gracis assured anne the dowgher of cleues.” (See the catalogue record.)

What did Henry think when he looked upon this? I can’t imagine. But I do like knowing that she got to keep her head long after his had been laid to rest. Perhaps her Book of Hours helped her navigate her way past him.

the Holocaust and libraries

A friend shared a recent article with me from Der Spiegel that touches directly on the subject of books and owners and their emotional and historical connections. The piece, “Retracing the Nazi Book Theft,” examines the legacy of the Holocaust for German libraries: thousands of books that were stolen from Jewish owners and that remain in the collections of German libraries.

This photo (from the article) is of Detlaf Bockenkamm, a curator at Berlin’s Central and State Library who been tracing the former owners of books stolen by the Nazis. Here he is standing with some of those books, part of the Accession J section, consisting of more than 1000 books acquired by the Nazis “from the private libraries of evacuated Jews” and then integrated into the Library’s collection.

Just as paintings were systematically taken and claimed by the Nazis, so too were books and other cultural and valuable items. The stolen books have gotten significantly less attention in the media, however, perhaps because they are less spectacularly valuable than some of the paintings, perhaps because we are less used to thinking of books as important objects. But the repatriation of such paintings and books is less about their material worth and more about their emotional and memorial resonances:

Nevertheless, Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation “to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Neumann points out that, more than just “material value,” what is at issue here is “the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families.” 

You can read the article for more information on how the search is going. It’s painstaking, as you might imagine. Even aside from the reluctance of many libraries to focus on the task, there is the difficulty in going through the sheer volume of accession records, of looking through individual books for traces of their former owners, and then searching for those owners or their relatives today.

Given my recent posts on the social transactions of books, the timing of the Spiegel article reminds me that books bear witness to history in ways that are much larger than just a daughter’s inheritance from her father, or a mother’s gift to her son. And it opens up questions, too, of libraries and their obligations to books and owners. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about libraries–what libraries do, about the tension for rare book collections between preserving the past and making it accessible. I’ll post more about that in the future.

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.