“Aproche aproche”: Christopher de Hamel on the Duc de Berry’s Collecting

Above the portrait of the Duc de Berry in the January miniature of his Très Riches Heures the golden words “aproche aproche” hang – he is welcoming guests to his New Year’s feast where he is being lavished with riches. “Aproche” means “approach” and is as much an invitation as it is a welcome. The richness of the image does much to draw the viewer in; plates of food and bowls of wine, small dogs and colourful stockings are rendered in bright blues, reds, greens and golds. Continue reading

‘Adam’s Task’: Alberto Manguel on the Dictionary

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.

Continue reading

Tom Mole on ‘Converting Shelley’

The third in this year’s series of English Literature seminars was delivered by the Centre for the History of the Book’s director, Dr. Tom Mole, on the topic of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s religious reception in Victorian Britain. That authors and poets can be received differently in their own time than in subsequent decades or centuries is a familiar idea for students of literature. But what was immediately surprising and fascinating about Dr. Mole’s lecture was just how extreme he claimed Shelley’s transformation to have been between the Romantic and late Victorian periods. According to Mole, Shelley, in his own time an infamous atheist, was transformed in the Victorian age into a Christian teacher and prophet. Using Shelley and his poetry for their own evangelical purposes, four religious commentators in particular – Clara Lucas Balfour, George Gilfillan, Richard Armstrong and Stopford Brooke – had spread their Christianised idea of Shelley through speeches and public lectures, thus reaching a wide audience of Victorians who were likely unfamiliar with Shelley’s writing.

Continue reading

‘Current challenges facing libraries and books’: a public lecture by John Scally

‘Everything is changing, but nothing is new: some current challenges facing libraries and books’: a public lecture by Dr. John Scally on 1st October, 2015


To paraphrase the intriguing title of this lecture: libraries have seen it all before.
Dr. John Scally, director of the NLS, used a potted history to effectively illustrate that, since the great library of Alexandria to the present day, libraries have always faced technological challenges. By presenting a survival plan for the 21st century, that can be adopted by any library, it is Dr. Scally’s aim to ensure the NLS stays true to its fundamental principle as a protector of its 20 million books and other media, yet remains relevant to library users today and in the future. The main ways of achieving this are:

Continue reading

Professor John B. Thompson on the Transformation of Contemporary Trade Publishing

Professor John Thompson is honest about the fact that he is not a historian. Instead, he is a sociologist — he studies “the history of the present, and where we’re going.” His detailed yet succinct lecture, The Transformation of Contemporary Trade Publishing, framed what would perhaps seem like a static historical topic in a way that illuminated the dynamic, social nature of the state of publishing today. Indeed, not only did he shed light on the complex “cave system of the publishing industry,” as Dr Tom Mole mentioned in his introduction, he made compelling arguments about why that cave system is structured the way it is, how parts of it seem to be disintegrating, and why the future of the book is up for grabs.

Continue reading