Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing in margins of books

Last Saturday the Guildhall Library, an institution in the City of London that is not perhaps as well known as it ought to be, held an open day. Apart from exhibiting some of its treasures, which include a Shakespeare First Folio in its original binding as well as Lloyds Lists that go back to the beginning of that publication and some spectacular cookery books from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the staff organized several talks. I attended two, the one on Regency cooks, cooking and kitchens, of course, and the one on books as history, given by David Pearson, highly important librarian and the author of a study with the same title.

His theme was exactly that: books as a subject of historical study rather than their own subjects. It is almost a truism to say that the future of books, publishing and the form literacy will take is unpredictable, with the growth of electronic publishing and the proliferations of electronic reading tools. What will happen when there will be a whole generation who will learn to read on tablets and ipads? Will there even be such a generation?

My own view and, I think, Mr Pearson shares it, is that there will always be a demand for books as a physical entity for all kinds of reasons, some purely tactile, some more intellectual. Will this mean that we might go back to a less industrial production and once again see many distinctions between individual publications of the same book? It's not impossible but, equally, unpredictable.

Who, for example, knew in the seventies when publishers were consolidating into huge conglomerates that several decades later there would be a flowering of small publishers, all highly individual? The unpredictability is, in itself, exciting.

The journey each book takes, the list of its owners, their attitudes and what they take from those books are all part of history and of our understanding of society. No frequenter of second-hand bookshops can possibly deny the excitement of finding a long sought volume that happens to have been given as a present or a prize to someone a hundred years ago and was then owned by someone else, perhaps, in another country. On my last trip to Budapest undertaken partly to have a look at the books my recently deceased aunt left I found many that had belonged to my family and were left behind when we upped and left. There was a copy of The Tempest that had been published in London in 1904; a delightful little tome, one of the Temple editions. The inscription was to my mother from her then best friend who somehow managed to find this book in Moscow in 1947. In my mother's possession it travelled to Budapest but was left behind to be looked after by my aunt along with many other books; it is now in London, still in the family's possession. That is a great deal of history behind one small book.

Inscriptions are all very well but what of people writing in books? What of people who underline or mark important passages, scribble question marks, exclamation marks or even comments? I must admit I have not done anything of the kind since I stopped using textbooks for revision (and that was a long time ago) though I do occasionally make a short notation with a page number at the back when I am reading a book for a review. Even then I prefer to do it on a piece of paper that I use as a bookmark. But is it actually wrong?

Mr Pearson, interestingly enough, despite being a librarian, does not thinks so. He told a story of him giving a talk to the various librarians of the Houses of Parliament when he asked them how they would react if they saw David Cameron making a note in a book. The obvious answer is that they would faint with surprise to see the Boy-King picking up a book and actually reading it but, clearly, they were all too polite to say so. Apparently, about half said they would rush over and stop him while the other half clearly thought of future historians being fascinated what the Prime Minister of the day thought of some particular pronouncement (assuming any future historian remembers this Prime Minister).

There is something to that. One of the joys of studying the history of Bolshevism (and there are very few joys, indeed) is reading the comments, mostly extremely rude ones, Lenin made on the margins of the various books written by his colleagues and predecessors.

Recently I have been reading Earls of Creation by James Lees-Milne, a study of five eighteenth century earls who also happen to have been architects and garden designers. The third Earl of Burlington, designer and owner of Chiswick House, was a great admirer of Andrea Palladio and owned several copies of his Quattro Libri, in one of which he wrote meticulous marginal notes about the builidngs he had seen during his two Italian trips and what he thought of them. Historians of architecture, of the eighteenth century, of English houses and other related matters must remain eternally grateful that the noble earl did not consider the books he owned to be untouchable with pen or pencil.

Finally, there are those readers at London Library, past and present, the despair of librarians and the object of much huffing and puffing in the comments' book, who insist on correcting typos and misprints as well as pointing out wrong dates, erroneous facts and, above all, non sequiturs in detective stories. What pleasure they give to the rest of us, especially those of us who cannot quite muster enough courage to do the same.

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