“Rare” Books in the Bookstacks?

This post is a follow-up to a photograph I tweeted a couple days ago, and will give me space to respond to a few comments. While browsing the stacks at Northwestern this weekend to get a sense of the editorial history of plays by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, I came across this item:

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This book is more than 250 years old. It contains the first and second of ten volumes in The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher, edited by Lewis Theobald, Thomas Seward, and Thomas Sympson. Both were released in 1750 in London for Jacob and Richard Tonson as well as for S. Draper. The Tonson family was renowned for its London bookselling business during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is especially famous for its relationships with Milton and Dryden. The first volume contains A King and No King, which some critics have pegged as a royalist play (along with the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher folio more generally), so one might wonder about this editorial project’s appearance sixteen years before the American Revolution. That’s meant to be suggestive; with a few very noteworthy exceptions (Margreta De Grazia’s Shakespeare Verbatim perhaps foremost among these), the study of eighteenth-century editions of Renaissance dramatic texts has received relatively little study. As Jeffrey Masten stated recently in a seminar, it’s usually all about the first editions, and this attitude overlooks chances to study the various contexts in which texts are re-printed and re-read.

John Vincler wondered about the binding on this Beaumont and Fletcher. “It’s that they are often in 50 yo library bindings that is most unfortunate. I always wonder about prev. binding,” he tweeted. So do I. This volume fortunately does not have a library binding (by Heckman or any other similar company), and it’s worthwhile to note that the first two volumes of the series are bound together. The spine is fairly ornate and features some gold-tooled lettering.

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The binding seems roughly contemporary with the leaves, and a clue on a flyleaf indicates who the binder is:

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I’m occupied by another project right now, so I’m probably not going to follow through on this lead, although some hasty googling showed me that James MacKenzie was a London bookbinder working roughly in our period here.

Some take-aways. I’ve seen handpress-era books in the stacks before, so discovering this book this volume wasn’t a total surprise to me. I do think this is an unusual find, however, and it’s proof that you don’t always need to go to a Special Collections reading room to conduct research on specimens of early printing (it’s often essential, though, and I’m a dedicated advocate). I’m keeping the book at my open carrel for now. It’s not an emergency that a book this old is exposed to students’  sometimes-unruly reading habits (I’m reminded of an anecdote of William Empson, who had to purchase a new copy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for the London Library after smearing it with toast and jam while reading*). John Overholt, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library, tweeted that if he found a book like this in the stacks he would probably send it to remote storage, “but it’s probably fine in the stacks too.” Ben Pauley likewise recognized the space-“rarity” ratio in many Special Collections to be problematic. In his words, “Can’t save ’em all.” No, we can’t – but we should be keenly aware of the significant number of old books (in period bindings) in the stacks that are becoming older – and possibly “rarer” (?) – with each passing year. Of course, this means there’s a lot of work to do from literary scholars, historians, bibliographers, and librarians.

ASK

* In William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: U of Penn. Press, 2008), 155.

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