Wed. Dec 7th, 2022

As a personal aide to General Douglas MacArthur during the Second World War, the Filipino journalist Carlos Romulo had unparalleled access to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and MacArthur’s retreat in 1941. One year later, Doubleday published Romulo’s eye-witness account, a spectacular story interrupted periodically by blocks of black ink. An explanation was provided in the first pages. “The War Department has requested that certain statements in this book be deleted,” the publisher wrote. “This request arrived too late for the book to be reset.”

It was a good thing that the censorship was last-minute. Without those thick black lines, readers would never have known that important parts of the story had been omitted.

A first edition of I Saw the Fall of the Philippines is one of dozens of items currently on view at the Grolier Club in a fascinating exhibition about books as objects. Together these materials – all borrowed from the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia – provide a comprehensive primer on how the objects can be read by careful observation of physical attributes, and how the reading experience can be enriched by taking into account more than the printed matter.

Each of the exhibited objects is routinely used by the Rare Book School to teach scholars, librarians, and rare book dealers. Through hands-on experience, students learn how to assess the age of an illuminated manuscript or to determine whether a leather binding is authentic. Although much of the collection is not especially uncommon, and some items are quite plain, everything is bibliographically significant, and offers context to understand the text.

Bindings are especially rich with meaning. In the Middle Ages, pages of parchment were bound with wooden boards. After the pages were stitched together and sewn into the covers with thick twine, the boards were covered in leather. Another feature of these books was the metal ‘furniture’, strong brass hinges and clasps as well as brackets wrapped around the corners. Although these fittings were often embellished, complementing elaborate tooling of the leather, all aspects of the book were functional, and still express how books functioned half a millennium ago when few volumes were available and use was heavy. Books were built to last; the knowledge they contained was expected to endure.

Bindings sometimes unintentionally hold additional testimony about the past. One of the rarest objects in the Rare Book School’s collection is a fragment of the 1459 Mainz Psalter, published just four years after the Gutenberg Bible. The psalter was printed on vellum with rubrics in red and blue ink – giving it the traditional look and feel of a manuscript – a stunning technical feat involving jigsaw alignment of two separate blocks. But a couple hundred years after the psalter was made, the extraordinary craftsmanship was less highly valued than the raw materials. Whatever remained of the book was unceremoniously taken apart so the animal skin could be used in the binding of a new volume. Only in the 1920s, when the newer book was rebound, was the scrap of psalter found, and only in the ‘90s was it properly identified. Carefully restored, the fragment today serves as a reminder that books – unlike the latest iPad or Kindle – are archaeological sites layered with information.

The Grolier exhibition and catalogue contain numerous examples of bibliographic archaeology. Booksellers’ tickets indicate where books were bought. Bookplates preserve details about who owned what. Marginalia reveal what owners thought. Inscriptions trace relationships, sometimes between authors, occasionally even recording the lineage of their ideas.

Comparisons between editions provide additional insights. To see David Copperfield in its original serialized form is to understand how it was originally read and to appreciate the plot as Charles Dickens wrote it. To see the British and American packaging of Jane Eyre in mass-market paperback is to understand how the book could be appreciated as literature or a potboiler.

The Grolier Club is to be commended for recognizing that everyone can learn from the Rare Book School’s collection, that its relevance is much broader than the antiquarian book market. Books bear witness to their time. The material evidence of their history is a paratextual container which can be as eloquent as the words within. Recognizing the stitching of the binder or the strikeouts of the censor is the beginning of paratextual literacy.

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