Kids are interesting — and sometimes funny — readers of books; but so are “grown-ups”… We all do things with our own books that make perfect sense to us, but somebody else looking at the same books later on might be hard-pressed, indeed, to figure out what we (i.e. the reader) had in mind.What do those notes mean? And how about those unrelated comments, scribblings, doodles, underlinings, or illegible marks? (Or the marks on the covers, or stains that look like evidence that the book was once used as a coaster? A sign of active use? Or of disdain for books?)
These are the kind of questions that rare book librarians and book historians routinely try to answer — well, at least some of the time! We look at books owned and used by someone else, often written in or marked up, and try to make sense of what a reader had in mind when using the book (usually in connection with the act of their reading, but sometimes clearly relating to other, decidedly non-textual, uses).
We then try to use this information — obtained in part by deciphering handwriting or marginalia, part by making educated deductions, and part by using the context provided by outside sources — to make sense of what the book readers / users might have had in mind and to reason out what this tells us about the history of reading or book use. Basically, trying to reconstruct past ideas, actions, and yes, intentions — or at least to recreate one plausible version of history that seems to make sense to us now — from the physical artifact and the evidence it contains.
A couple of books we’ve been working with in the last few days for Cotsen’s Newbery Catalog Project reminded me of these questions about physical evidence in books, yet again. (Readers of this blog may recall a certain fixation here with the whole subject of “marks in books…”)
The first book is a copy of one of Newbery’s books for adults: The New Pantheon: or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, etc… (Salisbury: Newbery & Carnan [and others], 1777; fifth ed.). The book contains accounts of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods and mythology, with an appendix about the role of “augury,” “divination,” sacrifices, and ancient temples. The book is well-worn, so presumably (but not necessarily) it was well read, but there are no marks by readers anywhere in the text.
There are hand-written notes on both front and rear pastedowns, however; they have nothing to do with the text but provide potentially interesting evidence of use by book owners (or at least someone handling the books). On the front pastedown, someone was written in ink, “97 years old.” It’s not apparent what this means, but I think it’s probably a reference to the 1777 publication date, which would date this notation as 1874, seemingly in accord with the look of the ink and the writing style. Why somebody would write that — and in ink — is similarly not apparent, but it could have been done by a book owner admiring his/her book, or possibly even by a book dealer. (Personally, I think the placement of the writing and use of ink argues strongly against this latter use.)
On the facing endpaper, we do see a more usual type of bookseller notation, in pencil: “Complete, 1777, £20.” This tells us that the book was offered for sale in England — which accords with the Cotsen Library’s provenance information on this book — as well as reminding us how much the prices of books has risen since then!
On the rear pastedown, we find more curious inked notation — and upside-down, to boot — suggesting a real disconnect between the handwriting and the book as a reading object. Perhaps the blank paper of the pastedown was just the handiest piece of writing matter someone had to hand?
Starting at the “top” of the inverted page, it reads:
Clearly, somebody is recording expenses. But to what end? Perhaps just to jot them down quickly as a memory aid? (We’ve all jotted notes on paper napkins!) The individual items are all related to sewing and the making of clothing, a general type of expense that also suggests to me that this writer was a woman. This was information that an eighteenth-century woman managing her household accounts would track. (“Lutestring,” in case you don’t know — I didn’t! — is a glossy fabric used for women’s dresses at the time.)
Cotsen has other books with similar notations about prices or expenses, some of them also published by Newbery, including a 1795 publication of The Housekeeper’s Account-book, published specifically as a way of “keeping an exact account of every article made use of in a family throughout the year.” If I’m right, the writing about sewing supplies in The New Pantheon tells us that this book was read, or at least handled, by a woman, and this further suggests that this title may have been generally read by women, as well as by men — not totally surprising, but an interesting piece of documentation of reading habits at the time.
The handwriting and type of ink could well be eighteenth-century, making them more or less contemporary with the book’s publication. (It’s a little hard to say for someone who’s not a handwriting specialist.) Comparison with existing price lists could enable more precise dating, as well as a comparison of prices at different times in the era.
Having read this far, you may wonder where’s the discussion (and/or photos) of the other book mentioned at the beginning. Well, having written this much about one book, I thought it best to wait until next week to write about that title, a children’s book: The History of Prince Lee Boo (London: Elizabeth Newbery, 1789). Cotsen’s copy of that book has quite a bit of writing in it, along with some pencil sketches of animals, a horse and a duck among them. Coming soon…
This is really interesting, and I learned a lot from reading it.