About a Book


Ceci n’est pas une book.

She was encased in stolen books, buried in them as if in dirt. The thought of the countless hundreds of thousands of names that surrounded her, vainly scrawled in top right-hand corners – the weight of all that ignored ink, the endless proclamations that this is mine this is mine, every one of them snubbed simply and imperiously….The ease with which those little commands were broken.

She felt as if all around her, morose ghosts were milling, unable to accept that the volumes were no longer theirs.

China Miéville, The Scar

So, on the heels of Christopher’s eloquent framing of the questions of historical distance, a material-texts take on the joys of negotiating that distance by using dead people’s books:

Sometime in the summer of 2009 I pulled a bible printed in 1828 from the shelves of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.  Opening the book, I realized immediately that it had something I was looking for – marginal notes, mostly in pencil, from some reader or another.  Best of all, the bible had a name penciled in the top left corner of the title page – T. M. Allen.

I didn’t know anything about T.M. Allen, but I carried the bible to a computer in the Reg and quickly found out more than I could have hoped.  Thomas M. Allen had been a preacher in the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination founded in the early nineteenth century that put a particular emphasis on “the bible alone” as the only valid guide to Christian life.  Allen was reasonably well-known in his day, in his particular circle, and even has some correspondence preserved at the University of Kentucky (where I was later able to confirm, through a comparison of signatures, that this Allen of record was the one who owned my bible).  He was born in 1797; trained as a lawyer, farmed and preached.  He once had an arm mangled by a falling tree in a storm.  Allen thought that slavery was “a great evil” but also that Northern society was “mungrel,” was over the moon when Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848.  Allen died in Missouri in 1871 and here was his bible next to me at a computer in Chicago.

T.M. Allen, date unknown. Painting By W.S. Rogers, photo by Alvin R. Jennings – thanks to Scott Harp.

The experience of handling a moderately-notable (but immoderately dead) person’s book was obviously not unique – that’s pretty much the business we’re all in.  I mention it here because after I found it I got to take it home, and having it around in informal spaces has made me think differently about the sources I encounter in the formal space of the archive.  Even in a massive research library like Chicago’s, Special Collections can only hold so much, and the breadth of a collection like Chicago’s means that the definitions of “old” and “valuable” are relative.  The bible came to the Reg from Louisville as part of the Reuben T. Durrett Collection in May of 1913.  In the large acquisition the little bible remained anonymous and sat there in the stacks, becoming older but not really more valuable: it was a stereotyped duodecimo bible, produced by the hundreds of thousands by American publishers in the early nineteenth century.  So I was able to check it out and take it home.

I carried it, carefully, everywhere.  I took it on a return trip to Louisville, en route to the University of Kentucky to see some of Allen’s letters.  When I moved away from Chicago, I returned all of my library books except this one – as long as I am still a student, I can keep it with me, renewing it online.  For a year it stayed in my office in the McNeilCenter at Penn, carefully wrapped in a towel – my primitive attempt at preservation.  In addition to serving as an important source for my dissertation in the usual sense, it became my bible of reference: when I needed to look up a verse, I used this bible, experiencing Allen’s countless markings and marginal scrawls as he left them.

Like Allen, that is, I have used this bible like a book.  Now that I am finishing my Ph.D. I have to return it, and I’m going to carry it to Special Collections (so that, well, it can be protected by something better than a towel and so the next person can find it by design rather than by chance).  The protections of the archive are necessary, but the things that end up there are no longer books like this bible is still, as I write, a book.  The specialness of the lock and key and the event of going to the archive change the nature of the things there: the time-constraint imposed by the archive’s hours, for example, means that they cannot be casually perused or used for general reference separate from their specialness (unless, of course, one is a librarian…).  Here, I think, is one of the places where our sources become distant – if anyone ever looks at this bible after me, it will be as Thomas Allen’s Bible, or An Artifact of Nineteenth-Century Bible Reading; for no one else, ever, will it be just a book.

My giddiness over this bible is not unique, I think, but just a version of what we all feel from time to time.  I hope, at least, that even those historians who are not material-culture folks per se take a minute every once in a while to marvel at the stuff that they get to handle.  Our subjects themselves are long gone; we maintain a healthy skepticism about what’s reported of their actions; and for even the best thinkers among them the ideas they left legible in their writings and in their lives are changeable and fleeting, so affected by how we observe them.  But there’s something that’s a different sort of real in getting to handle their stuff that lets us imagine them as people, whatever else they were.  The past is a foreign country, but our country has imported a lot of its stuff.  When I read Allen’s letter to a friend saying that he had been sitting by the fire and reading his bible, I took up the same book and imagined that I sat as he sat and read as he read (minus the fire – I’m not crazy).  Countless factors separate his country and mine – I do not believe as Allen believed, and my reading moments include electric light and nearly two extra centuries worth of cultural referents that are called up when I read.  But the book itself exists in both, so maybe our countries have overlapped, just a little bit, and I think that’s valuable: small shared experiences remind us that our subjects were people, too.

2 responses

  1. I have similar thoughts when reading through the Bibles that were used by my ancestors. My earliest family Bible comes from the early 1800’s. I also learn a lot about my ancestors from the passages that they underline or the items and clippings that they left between the pages.


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