Material Objects



Lessons from Rare Book School.

Edward Collier, Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, 1699.

Four stories underneath the stately Georgian campus of the University of Virginia, I was with a group of rare-book experts scrutinizing a five-hundred-year-old Italian woodcut of two chubby infants. They framed a capital letter L. One, with a look of insouciant concentration, was thrusting his butt over the downslope of the L to defecate on it.

“The woodcut accompanies Andreas Vesalius’s discourse on the muscles of excretion,” Roger Gaskell, a rare-book dealer based in Cambridgeshire, told the group. It turns out that Vesalius, the Renaissance physician remembered today as the father of modern anatomy, had an intensely strained relationship with his publishers. “This initial letter differs from the others in the book—despite the fact that the printing house had a perfectly good L already cut,” Gaskell said. “So I rather suspect this shitting putti was a message to his publisher.”

Over a coffee break, the members of Gaskell’s seminar mingled with three others led by such luminaries as Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare-book division at the Library of Congress. They were gathered in a warren of windowless basement rooms for an annual rite of passage in the world of antiquarian texts: Rare Book School.

The classes marked the penultimate week of a summer-long series of intensive courses that delve into every aspect of books as material objects. The school’s leader, Michael F. Suarez, S.J., a charismatic Jesuit and professor of book history, has been cultivating a new field that he calls “critical bibliography.” Precisely what those words meant was a subject for debate among the participants (“The study of the physical characteristics of books and the process of bookmaking” is the definition the Society of American Archivists gives) but they all agreed that Suarez was a force to be reckoned with. It’s like a cult was a commonly heard phrase at the School. As one participant put it, “Finally, I found a cult I want to be a part of!”

Over drinks at the student bars lining the approach to Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, seminar participants traded book-nerd credentials. “My friend cut out all the endnotes from Infinite Jest and made them into footnotes by gluing them onto the bottoms of the pages,” confided Courtney Roby, an assistant professor of classics at Cornell who studies Greco-Roman technology. Aaron Pratt, an excitable Yale English Ph.D. student and rare-book dealer, was enthusing about the merits of another form of collectible media. Pratt owns more than a thousand VHS tapes—“mainly low-budget horror films between 1979 and 1983”—and was still feeling the afterglow of a recent triumph. “I finally convinced the Sterling Memorial Library to start buying up first editions of early VHS tapes.”

The Portuguese have an untranslatable word for the ineffable nostalgia of something that has passed away and perhaps never was: saudade. At Rare Book School, saudade for the world of print was in the air. But the presiding emotion was joy, shaded with a kind of reverence. The next afternoon, Gaskell’s class marveled over a unique copy of the Encyclopédie in which Diderot had handwritten his own line edits. A UVA curator speculated that the gold-edged volume, recovered from the Nazis by American GIs during World War II, may have been Diderot’s presentation copy to Catherine the Great, but no one was sure. It was an historical epic in miniature, a mystery bound up between gilt leather covers.

Also in tow at Rare Book School was Lee Powell, a video reporter from the Washington Post with a thoughtful mien. He said he’d been hired by the Post the year before, part of a shift away from traditional print and toward video reporting engineered by his new boss, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Powell watched the proceedings with a look of quiet attentiveness, a camera perched on his shoulder. It was his final hour of shooting, and he was trying to construct a narrative of the film-to-be in his head. “I like to structure it with a beginning, middle, and end,” he said. “But I haven’t figured this one out yet. It often comes to me when I’m in the car, driving back from an assignment.” When I pressed him about his final shot, he hesitated and gave a wry smile. “I’m thinking about ending it with a closing book.”

“What a glut of books!” Robert Burton complained in 1621: “We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” What will be lost, though—what new oppressions will come—when we stop turning pages and start swiping sapphire? Rare Book School, at least, isn’t going anywhere—they’re currently offering fellowships to train a new vanguard of critical bibliographers, starting next summer.


Andreas Vesalius’s L.

Benjamin Breen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a new journal of narrative and experimental history. His writings have appeared in Aeon, The Atlantic, The Public Domain Review, and The Journal of Early Modern History. He is currently writing a book on the origins of the global drug trade and is on Twitter.