Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On the Integrity of Books

When printed books first appeared, they were seen by some as cheap commodities. Note-taking for them consisted of cutting out the passages that were of interest and collecting them in some place, though it was more common to excerpt material on separate slips of paper. Conrad Gessner, the "German Pliny," (1516-1565) describes a hybrid method in some detail. He describes a method for indexing, how to copy "the material for each entry, so that the slips can be moved around to alphabetize them until the index is complete and the slips are permanently glued onto sheets for printing. Gessner also explains that the contents of the slips need not always be copied out by hand but could be citations cut out of other books. "For this purpose two copies [of the book] are needed [one for text on the recto, the other for text on the verso]."This method represents a shortcut with "various advantages to studies." He used alphabetization to order this stuff.

Gessner also cut up letters he received and placed them in the appropriate places among his papers according to their subject. There is a passage in which Gessner explains to Johann Bauhin that he could not respond (again) to a letter he had received because he had cut it up and put the pieces into his "piles of paper."[1]

The book was nothing sacrosanct.

Alberto Manguel reports an even more brutal method in his book A Reader on Reading. Joseph Joubert in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not cut out of books what he needed, but rather discarded everything he did not need or did not like. He quotes Chateaubriand: "When he read, he would tear out of his books the pages he did not like, thereby achieving a library entirely to his taste, composed of hollowed-out books bound in covers that were too large for them" (125).[2]

This betrays confidence. How could he be so sure that he did not miss anything of importance and that his taste would not change? It would have been better, if he had bought two copies of each book, like Gessner.


1. Brian W. Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 180.

2. Joubert is interesting. See Joseph Joubert, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection Tr. Paul Auster (New York: New York Reviews Book, 2005). Perhaps this quote explains his confidence, if only in part: "Properly speaking, man inhabits only his head and his heart. All other places are vainly before his eyes, at his sides, and under his feet: he himself is not there at all" (p. 126). But see also p. 75: "No. I am not angry with myself, but I am angry with books."

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