January 27, 2010

With old books and manuscripts one can hardly be too careful. These hides once belonged to animals whose natural oils made for versatile leaves - an ideal base for the scripts that decorate them. As historical objects, manuscripts are invaluable. At least, this is the general protocol for English students like myself.

In class a couple days ago, we ended with the question of conservation vs. use, with regard to the old, rapidly deteriorating texts that fill the University of Manitoba's archives. It struck me that the very question we're asking here --whether it's better to guard and protect these manuscripts from the consequences of time or to use them in an academic context as objects of study-- indicates our that our culture understands books in a way very different from those who once depended on these manuscripts for devotions, worship and entertainment.

While old books were certainly valuable in their day (some obviously more than others) the question of obsolescence is a recent one. Sometimes it seems like academic culture doesn't really know how to deal with old, dying things. Can we let go of an old manuscript? Better to put it box and hide it away in a dark archive so that it is still somehow "there" for us to imagine, if not to use.

For this same class, I'm reading two recent bestsellers that feature old books - The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Both tend to sensationalize the field of book history, using old texts as vehicles for modern ideas about religion, tolerance and human knowledge (Brooks especially has some deeply problematic platitudes about the Haggadah, re: what and who it's for). To engage these contemporary constructions of manuscript culture, I'll be presenting on Mary J. Carruthers' The Book of Memory, contrasting the popular notion of the book as a reified object with Carruthers' presentation of the book as a guide or intermediary for the medieval imagination.

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