bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The unbook and the library

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 13 May, 2019

This last weekend saw a small conference take place on the campus of UEA, entitled ‘Early Modern Matters. Materiality and the Archive’, most ably organised by two graduate students there, Blessin Adams and Anna Wyatt. They had invited me to give the closing lecture, and I chose to address the conference’s theme by speaking to the title ‘From Archive to Ark: materiality in the library’. In my lecture, I introduced the idea of the ‘unbook’ and this seemed to gain some interest. It is a new manner of expressing a fundamental truth and I am not yet certain it is a necessary additional concept, so I share it with you now, hoping for your engagement — however critical — as I think about it further.

The starting-point is the library. We use that term in a double sense: it can be a book collection or it can be a physical place where books are kept. A ‘book collection’ cannot exist without some material form, but let us leave that aside, for the focus in what follows is the early modern library room. It is obvious that to state it is the place where books are kept is an insufficient description. That is, in part, because books obviously did not live in a library alone — devotional books or ones filled with recipes would most often have had a different location in domestic or institutional buildings. What matters more for this discussion is that ‘where books are kept’ cannot conjure up the specificity of a library. Open the door and look into a space where books are piled from floor to ceiling with no space between the piles — that is a space where books are being kept but it is a storeroom, not a library. What makes a functional library is the combination of books with the physical arrangements which orders them and allows them to be read. This can involve the built fabric of the room — its location in a building and, particularly, the arrangement of its windows — but some libraries were inserted into pre-existing buildings. What is undoubtedly essential is the furniture: the shelves or lecterns or book-cases; with them come the fittings of chains to hold the books, and, if they are book-cases, often the wooden frames in which to place the listing of books at the end of each bay. In other words, the paper, parchment and leather of books come to be a library when placed with the wood and the metal of necessary furniture. The library is made by things which are not books, and so, if we think of a library having as its purpose the keeping of books, these are the unbooks that make it possible.

That is only the beginning to unbooks in a library. Any library is likely to have other non-book items in its space: nowadays, these may include works of art, a plaque recording its opening, display cases and notice boards. In early modern libraries, there were certainly some items which were thought particularly appropriate to be placed there — paintings on the walls, busts above the book-cases, and, in commanding positions in the aisle, globes (both celestial and terrestrial). These fixtures and fittings are the unbooks intended to suggest to the visitor the intellectual inspiration and ambition of the library. They would often share space with smaller unbooks: coins and medals are the most common example, but they could take other forms. One I discussed yesterday was the presence in the library of Christ Church, Oxford since 1686, of a silver case with two mandrakes inside it. Here our sense of the library collides with that of the Wunderkammer, suggesting we might want to query any perception of fixed boundaries between the two.

All these are unbooks but there are some other items that partake of this identity, and they take book form themselves. An early modern library was known for its ambition in languages, straining itself to include not just the Western learned languages of Latin and Greek and the modern vernaculars (often French, Italian, German and ­— more locally — English), but also the ancient languages of the Abrahamic tradition, Hebrew and Arabic. Even this, though, was not the edge of the library: it would, at times, go beyond to languages for which there were very few readers in the West: Chinese, Japanese, Indian languages… A single specimen might be included without an expectation of its being immediately deciphered. In that situation, it takes on a role like the mandrakes, suggesting wonder at God’s creation: its role is as an unbook.

As this is so, then also the role of unbook can extend to volumes produced in the western tradition. In my talk yesterday, I used as an example a gorgeous manuscript in Christ Church by a scribe of whom I have written before here: Esther Inglis. The small codex in question is a copy of the Psalms in French, created by her in 1599 for presentation to Elizabeth I, and presented to its home in Oxford in 1654, by Anne, countess of Ancram (née Stanley). The gendered nature of this volume, placed within a male-dominated institution, is striking, and was certainly considered significant at the point of donation. There surely speaks of a moment when, to royalist eyes, the national political order (characterised by Filmer as patriarchal) had been emasculated and so keeping alive the tradition was a matriarchal duty. It was, I suggest, for those resonances and for the innate beauty of the page before the eye that the donation was welcomed, rather than for any expectation that the Students of Christ Church would actually uses this as their copy of the Psalms. Its power, in other words, lies in its being an unbook.

There are several implications of this. Obviously, this discussion implies a dichotomy between book and unbook which has an implicit definition of a book as an object intended for reading. We might prefer simply to insist that is an impoverished definition of a book, and insist that it is an object which has many purposes, often more important than reading its text. The concept of the unbook is, indeed, intended to acknowledge that any book spends most of its life not being read, and that a library functions through this truth: it has a need for the majority of books to lie unused on its shelves to be able to present its identity. In discussion after my lecture, the interesting suggestion was raised that unbookishness of a book could be temporary: while a Latin book can be easily read if taken off the shelf, a Ceylonese manuscript will be deciphered, if we wait long enough. That is true, though we can put it the other way around: that the ‘resting state’ of a book is to be unbookish, and that only at certain points does it become bookish — and they may not be the moments when it has the most power. We should also add that, whether a book is legible or not also depends on the language skills of the user: there is something subjective about its bookishness.

This allows us to rephrase the opening statement: a library is a place for books made by its unbooks, whether they be its furniture, its decoration, its curiosities, or indeed its stock of volumes. Some of those volumes can be taken down from the shelf and descend to bookishness. Petrarch asked ‘what is the worth of a library without reading?’ I suggest the concept of the unbook helps us unpack those beyond-reading values.

I will, though, admit my own misgivings: I suspect the terminology ‘unbook’ is too negative and thus permits an undervaluing of those non-reading activities that books undertake. What would be a better term, do you think?