Most German classes taught by most German professors have little to do with the professor’s academic specialty and a lot to do with teaching college students to speak and write better German. It’s what students heading off to study abroad or to summer internships need most. While language classes require some form of content, something for the students to talk about, students going abroad typically don’t need to talk about medieval literature (my academic subfield) or the history of the book (my academic specialty). Still, I try to let all my students know, in five or fifteen minutes, what it is I work on when I’m not teaching. I think it’s good for students to know what their teachers research, but what I’m really hoping is that my students will tell me about the old books in their families. In exceptional situations, they’ll even bring their old books to me so I can take a look at them. Trying to understand why a book was printed, and deciphering the clues about its past owners, and recovering the traces left on its pages by past readers, is for me an endlessly fascinating exercise. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and some of the necessary skill sets can be fairly obscure, but when a student brings me a book it’s nice to be able to report more or less what I told a student last fall, who had found an old book in his grandparents’ home but didn’t know much else about it:
This book is a collection of sermons by a Lutheran minister published in Stuttgart in 1796. The binding appears to be original (blind stamped leather over wooden boards with two partially defective clasps) in fairly well preserved condition. There are several notes of ownership from, probably, not long after 1796 to 1904, suggesting that the book was originally purchased by a grandmother for her granddaughter, perhaps as a gift for her confirmation, and then passed down in the family for at least a century.
“What is your grandmother’s maiden name?” I asked the student. “Is it Ebert?”
I’m not sure. Maybe. Yes, I think it is, he said.
I told him that the notes of ownership had a few gaps, but that the names, dates, and places that the former owners had recorded provided enough clues for him to trace his family history across the Atlantic to a few Swabian towns and on back for fourteen generations, if he was so inclined. Other copies of the same book with original bindings in good condition had sold for up to $200, but I encouraged him to hold on to this copy.
That is one reason I study old books.