Why study old books?

October 13, 2006 | 10 comments
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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.

10 Responses to Why study old books?

  1. Russell Arben Fox on October 13, 2006 at 11:21 am

    My bibliomania does not extend, I think probably unfortunately, to old books. I prefer new editions to old (unless there have been major changes between the editions, in which case I want a newly printed copy of both); I prefer fresh pages to ones marked up or covered in marginalia. Looking around my office right now, a four or five hundred books, I have to conclude I don’t own one that was printed before 1960, and most were probably printed much later than that. I have some very old texts, but almost no old books.

  2. Ardis on October 13, 2006 at 11:56 am

    Your student’s book is not really a book anymore, is it? if the current and future owners are unlikely to read it, I mean. It’s a thing, an object. But how lucky he is that his artifact is one that almost everybody thinks is okay to mark the way they have. I look at the few objects I have from ancestors, imperfectly documented, to the point where I’m not entirely sure which branch of the family owned them — by the time I thought to ask my dad, he could no longer remember. Nobody has scratched names and dates into the blue glass bread plate, or indicated why they liked the sugar bowl well enough to keep the shattered pieces. How lucky your student is, to have the book and to have you suggest that it has a value beyond cash. I hope he listens.

  3. Rosalynde Welch on October 13, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Do you think most college students are ignorant of their grandmothers’ maiden names? That’s sort of incomprehensible to me, and I am not AT ALL into genealogy.

    Since I’m an early modernist, you’d think I’d have a healthy acquaintance with old books. Alas, one of the many injuries inflicted on my graduate career by my children was my immobility; I just couldn’t go anywhere further than the library. So I became very proficient with the microfiche reader, and thanked heaven for EEBO (Early English Books Online).

    We don’t own any old books, but we do have a few adolescent ones, including lovely midcentury art editions of Paul Bunyan and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, and an early 20th -c Cross and Crown put out by a midwestern publisher with a fancy leather cover that deeply impresses my kids.

  4. William Morris on October 13, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    While on an LDS mission to Romania, I was quite surprised to find a Luther edition of the Bible in a used book store. I was even more surprised to discover that it was published in Toledo, Ohio in 1880-something. I decided to repatriate it.

    I would love to know how it ended up in Romania, but as a I recall the family pages hadn’t been filled out and there were no other obvious clues.

    The edition came bundled with some interesting maps and commentaries, but I haven’t spent much time with it for a long time. I only dabbled in German so I can read the fraktur type, but it’s incredibly slow going.

  5. Kevin Barney on October 13, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    I can believe it, Rosalynde. When I was a boy of about 10, my Sunday School teacher called me at home and asked me for the first name of my grandmother (I only had one living at the time). I thuoght for a moment and realized *I didn’t know it*! She had always just been “Grandma” to me, and that is what I always called her. (I assume I didn’t know her maiden name at that time, either.)

    My SS teacher, an older woman who had joined the Church later in life, was absolutely mortified that I didn’t know my own grandmother’s first name. I felt the shame of it for awhile, until I thought about it more and realized that I wasn’t sure in what context I was supposed to glean that information. What is obvious for adults isn’t always so obvious for a child.

  6. Jonathan Green on October 13, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    William Morris, that’s quite an interesting book. I’ve come across a good number of 19th-c. Lutheran editions printed in the US to serve the large German-speaking populations of the Midwest, so the place of publication isn’t too surprising, and Romania is still home to a dwindling German population that was quite large until the mid-20th century. But how does the book get from one place to the other? Probably not as an import, since there were more convenient places to import German Bibles from. Were the US synods sending clergy in some capacity to Transylvania in the 1880′s or 1890′s? One of the interesting things about book history is how changes in book ownership can mirror the currents of history.

  7. William Morris on October 13, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Great question, Jonathan. I don’t know if there were American missions to Romania. Most of the flow was in the other direction, and Ohio (Chicago and Toledo) was the major destination for Romanian emigration — whether Catholic or Romanian Orthodox, ethnic German or ethnic Romanian.

    My best guess is that it was a gift from a rich (relatively speaking) American relation.

  8. Sarah on October 13, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    I didn’t know my grandparents’ full names until I was 15 or 16, and then I was being paid a penny a sheet by my mother to read and categorize all of her (thousands of) pages of genealogical information. In between she gave me enough information to fill out my five generation chart, except for the surnames of my great-great-grandmothers on my father’s side, which no one is entirely sure of (I love researching deeply religious families from countries where their respective church and state records were burned, in a revolutionary riot and by the Nazis, respectively — especially tracking the mothers of women who never spoke English and never gained US citizenship. Ugh.)

    Anyway, I’d be shocked if the average college student knows his or her grandmothers’ surnames (for the record, mine are Molloy and Bower; my father’s maternal grandmother was a Feeny, and there the trail has yet to be rediscovered. Greatly complicating matters, 50% of my great-grandmothers were also named Sarah — both the Jews and the Catholics — with no known middle names. Double ugh.)

  9. Sarah on October 13, 2006 at 11:24 pm

    Oh, and yeah, love old books. But not the ones in Russian that fill the shelf at Half Price Books. They’re all about weightlifters and chess (there’s one that’s definitely pre-WWII currently in stock. I just can’t stand books about chess.)

  10. Robert C. on October 15, 2006 at 8:40 am

    (Sarah #9: I’ll pass on the weightlifters, but where are these fascinating chess books you mention? AND in Russian?!)

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