Books that need no reading
Last Friday saw me take the train to Reading where I gave a paper at an enjoyable colloquium on Libraries: New Research Directions, organised by Rebecca Bullard under the aegis of her University’s Early Modern Research Centre. My contribution was on ‘How Libraries Die, or what the fate of medieval manuscripts in early modern England can teach us’ but I do not intend here to bore you with a reprise of my discussion of the decline and demise of the Library of the University of Oxford and its wider significance. What is surely more interesting was the colloquial element of the day itself, the development of the discussion around varying concepts of libraries.
In particular, the discussion was framed by Matthew Nicholls’ opening distinction between the library as a store-house and the ancient bibliothecae of which he spoke as points of communication. My own talk saw the library more in the role of the former and – developing thoughts inspired by an earlier conference on the Medieval Library – I emphasised how books lived beyond the walls of the rectangular, first-floor room which was the conventional library; indeed, how, in some circumstances, it was only by being beyond those walls that they could survive. The axiom I presented was that a library is where books come to rest, not where they are alive. The final discussion, ably chaired by Warren Boutcher, returned to these issues with one participant mentioning that, in the educational library he is cataloguing, he comes across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books which remain uncut: what does this tell us about the workings of that library? Are these books dead or sleeping? An impassioned response was that an unread book is a book waiting for its reader – and it is that insight which has set me thinking further.
The unread book in the role of Sleeping Beauty has its allure but I do wonder whether it is a concept reflective of a consciousness born of mechanised mass book-production – a consciousness, then, which became possible in the later generations of print technology. The proposition that I want to put to you is that the assumption that the library is a place where books wait for their readers involves a narrow conception of what the book is.
Let me first have your agreement that we all know of texts that are too ephemeral or too personal for reading – for instance, the diary with ‘Do NOT Read’ on its first page (which, of course, stands as an encouragement to furtive perusal if ever there was one). A diary, of course, is not intended to be housed in a library, though if fame falls on the unfortunate shoulders of the author, it may end up there.
If, though, we allow the possibility that a book can be intended not to be read, we then begin thinking about what might its purpose be: it must surely lie not in what happens after it is completed but in the process of its creation. To put this in historical terms, in manuscript culture, in the midst of the processes of fabricating a book – the preparation of the parchment, the stitching of the leaves and the binding them – there was necessarily an extended session of intellectual engagement when the strokes of ink deposited on the animal skin created a text endowed with sense by its creator. We might sometimes wish that that intellectual engagement was greater – there were too many sloppy scribes but their work can sometimes be the only witness we have to a text. Here is a central point: a work could be produced without a thought to its wider circulation. It may be intended only for the author’s edification; it may be created in one copy for presentation to a potential patron (in which case the canny author would not put too much hope in the thought that the patron would actually peruse the work: only a fool thinks princes read books) or its ideal readership might be God alone. The process of creation was sufficient in itself; if we are looking to associate the book with reading, we can find it integral to every act of production. The movement of the codex and its coming to rest in a library could be seen, in this context, as its afterlife. By its presence in a library, further reading became a possibility, not an expectation – an added bonus, if it were.
I should nuance this in two ways. It is certainly the case that authors in manuscript culture did not necessarily lack a concept of publication – and some authors (I think, from the fifteenth century, of John Capgrave and John Whethamstede) combined the practices of producing what we can call the singular and the plural book (I leave aside the middle possibility where text is intended for a tightly limited local audience). However, publication – that process of multiple production and intentional circulation by author or a promoter – rarely centred on the physical space that European tradition defines as a library. Individual scholars might visit books in one of those rooms, rattle their chains and make a transcript from a copy resident there, but that is a process we would define as closer to research than publication. In some cases for which I have evidence, it would seem that a transcript was made from the library volume and then multiple versions made from that copy (the Virtue and Vice compilation about which I have talked in print is useful evidence for this) – not philological good practice, for sure, but a case where the object in the library can seen as the originator of a tradition, but only at one remove.
The second way in which I should nuance what I have said is by acknowledging that the dynamics of print did not immediately and entirely wipe clean the mentality of bespoke production: many early print-runs were not large-scale nor were they driven by economic speculation but occurred in the relative security of sponsored publication.
It may, then, only be with the mass production of books which appears to distance writer from written page that the sense of book-making as reading has evaporated. And we should not be too hasty to read this as a gain: mass production can be over-production in which the economics mean it is cheap to supply a surplus of volumes and then cheaper not to store them but to declare them obsolete and pulp them. In this context, the library book becomes the lucky survivor, and the library the safe haven where the book can have a life. There again, as my talk on Friday suggested, we should not be too certain all libraries are truly safe.