We tend to perceive history as a somewhat continuous flow from one period to another — regardless of how many times history itself tries to prove us wrong by introducing events and processes driven by no principle other than randomness, and hence messing up the timelines that we have made so much effort to arrange and pin down. Last Friday Dr Katie Halsey of the University of Stirling stepped out of the narrative of smooth, all-encompassing cultural transitions to present an intriguing case of what might seem to some as a historical ‘inconsistency’. Exploring the development of Innerpeffray Library in rural Perthshire and its readers, Dr Halsey told a peculiar story about reading in the Romantic period that did not happen the way we might like to imagine.
The second instalment of the Centre for the History of the Book’s lunchtime seminar series for this term, titled The Bibliomaniac’s Progress, began with the speaker, Dr William Zachs, showing us an old clip from The Twilight Zone. The clip was a scene from the episode ‘Time Enough as Last’, during which the protagonist frantically stumbles through a post-apocalyptic cityscape, gathering books and organizing them into monthly piles that he intends to read with all his newfound time. ‘Books, books! All the books I’ll ever need, all the books I’ll ever want!’ he cries. Perhaps nothing could have been more apt in preparing the audience for the talk that followed: an origin story to rival that of any comic book hero, but one that could even be said to be superior to those other tales, because this was a tale of books. Continue reading
The Centre for the History of the Book recently began its afternoon seminar series for the term. The first of these presentations was done by the Centre for Research Collections Honorary Research Fellow Louise Gardiner, MSc, who presented this past Friday on a “royal letter book” manuscript from the reign of Richard II (1377-1399). Louise’s seminar was illuminating both to the history of the manuscript and royal administrative duties of the fourteenth century. However, she made clear that this is work in progress, as the manuscript itself is a bit of a mystery. Continue reading
For many people, their first encounter with the history of the book is reading Alberto Manguel’s narratives that effectively combine historical detail, beautiful descriptions and personal anecdotes that give a unique spiritual element to the author’s encounters with books. These qualities that we have come to associate with Manguel in the written word were strongly felt in the engaging and thought-provoking lecture the author gave on ‘Adam’s Task: A Dictionary Story’.
The prevailing image of the dictionary as a functional book listing words with their definitions was immediately challenged by Manguel’s perception of it as a magical object with mysterious powers containing the modern language in its entirety: past forgotten languages and future words not yet known to name new experiences. At one time the dictionary held a place of importance, regarded as an essential possession along with a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but is increasingly unlikely to be found on today’s bookshelves. Whilst electronic versions offer a viable alternative, one feels they are even more functional than their paper counterpart as they do not offer the serendipity of discovering new words as you flick through the pages. During the course of the lecture, Manguel elevated the dictionary from a mere book of words with definitions laying forgotten on bookshelves, to a book that defines humanity itself, an essential volume containing our past, present and future. Instead of casually standing by and allowing this important book to become obsolete, Manguel forces us to consider the significance of loosing such a book, that it would be like losing our memory and losing our ‘guardian angel’ of the library.
Over and over again we hear that the printed book is disappearing; some of the more inflammatory appeals even refer to ‘the death of the book’. Who killed the book? Computers, tablets, e-readers, and other technological tools have become the primary suspects. Indirectly, Amazon and other online retailers have been charged with accessory to murder. It was reported that the cyber world was a hostile environment for the printed book.
It is probably extreme to announce the death of the book. According to some reports, e-book sales have surpassed printed book sales in at least some areas of the market — but the printed book continues to be an important object in the way we communicate, transfer, and safeguard knowledge. The new fields of study that have been developed such as book history, material culture, and so on, have now expanded the book as both object and concept, and they have allowed us to revitalize the book under fresh perspectives.