Giving Rare Books to Undergraduates

Not a great idea? I tried it this week in my seminar on historical research, in the course of trying to move beyond the idea of primary sources as disembodied texts to see individual books, letters, and manuscripts as objects whose physical properties and fates could be as or more interesting, if harder to trace, than their contents. I hadn’t definitely planned on actually having the students learn this with my books — I’d been weighing the pedagogical value of doing so against the risk of snapped spines and private heartbreak, without coming to a firm conclusion — but as discussion evolved it came to seem the simplest way to make the point. And it would be fun. Scary fun.

A few caveats: I do not have an extensive rare book library at my disposal, and my personal “collection” is mostly limited to worn, not-so-rare, or water-damaged bits and pieces I’ve picked up at book fairs or used bookshops (I’m old enough to remember when they still existed) in the course of a decade-plus of research trips, procrastination, and irresponsible but nevertheless constrained spending. The risk to human heritage in all of this was, in other words, slight. What the books were was old, marked-up, stamped, used in ways that invited investigation rather than simply reading. I picked four, carted them in, and divided the class into twos and threes. Then I gave them a little over half an hour to tell me something about where each of the books came from and where they had been.

What sorts of things did they find? Scattered underlinings and sums scrawled on the  of Voltaire’s Histoire du Charles XII (1831) brought back a moment or two of its life at the Adams Female Academy in Derry, New Hampshire. Trawling booksellers’ websites and comparing title pages and engravings suggested that an undated edition of The Spectator had been printed (maybe) in 1750. A tiny label on the endpaper of an 1806 printing of Robertson’s Historical Disquisition, Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients Had of India told one group that had been sold at some point early on by James Asperne of 32 Cornhill, London — an image of his shop, the Bible, Crown and Constitution, is above — while a later reader (but who knows when?) had been interested in Robertson’s comments on false religion, having copied some of them onto the inside cover. Tracking down the name and motto on a bookplate revealed that the oldest of the books, a 1738 copy of Samuel Clarke’s Boyle Lectures (ninth edition, London), had been given, fifty-odd years after its printing, to the first free public library in Montreal, courtesy of the estate of a prominent local lawyer.

Rudimentary discoveries surrounded by blank expanses on a map of unknown extent, odds and (sometimes dead) ends, but that was the point. Rather than analyzing texts — as we are constantly telling them to do — the students squinted at pen-scratches on the margins, tried to match images and mottoes on bookplates, searched for long-gone schools and libraries. It got them thinking about books as objects with unique trajectories, crossing or joining in the lives of readers and institutions; seeing the books as parts of histories unrelated to their contents or the intentions of their authors, networks anchored in mobility, mortality, and exchange rather than discourse and argument; realizing how little a text tells about the book that bears it, or how much besides its contents the book might ask you to explore. This was by no means a technically accomplished introduction to the history of reading or of the book. But as an attempt to suggest what directions these might ask students to take — and as a way of putting students into contact with the beaten, brittle, semi-legible, semi-traceable remains of a distant past — it worked.

And it was fun.

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