In praise of books
Lists of important things are difficult beasts. Because lists have a beginning and an end, and items between, they tend to take on the nature of league tables.
An exhibition at the British Library in 1963 called Print and the Mind of Man (PMM as it became known) attempted to present in first or early editions the four hundred or so books that have, from the time of the invention of printing until the current era, shaped the progress of western thought.
A seminal exhibition, it became problematic for collectors as dealers in rare and antiquarian books used the occasion to assign canonical status to certain books and raise prices beyond what was attainable for many.
An exhibition in diminutive form in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne is a reprise of the original exhibition, framed in more 21st century terms as Knowledge Through Print.
Drawing on items of rare books in the University’s Special Collections, curator Wallace Kirsop, a Professor in French Studies from Monash University and an historian of the book, has included in the exhibition a number of items represented in the London display, as well as several items with a more Melbourne bent.
As Professor Kirsop admits, given space considerations, the Melbourne exhibition is a much humbler affair than the original, with only around 50 items on display, but he says it is “surprising” how many books from the original list the Universisty of Melbourne owns in first or early editions.
“There is no denying that there is an informed public hunger to see not the digital copies, but the originals of major documents and artifacts of civilisations we share as Australians with all the peoples from whom we are descended,” Professor Kirsop writes in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue.
“Thérèse Radic’s dictum ‘What was theirs is ours because we were once them’ most definitely applies in this situation.”
In selecting items for the exhibition, Professor Kirsop engaged in what must have been an unenviably fraught decision-making process: what to include from the original list, what to omit, whom to add, whom to overlook?
“Inevitably there are some of the monuments one expects – Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Newton, Johnson, Darwin,” he says, but “there is, for instance, no Germaine Greer. Names already present in PMM like Cook, the Braggs and Florey have been passed over in order to give prominence to some more recent figures.”
Among the books Professor Kirsop chose to represent the Melbourne angle are Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation: a new ethics for our treatment of animals, a book that has become the ‘Bible’ of the animal rights movement; Elizabeth Blackburn’s groundbreaking The metabolism of glutamine in the liver; and Macfarlane Burnet’s Enzyme, antigen and virus: a study of macromolecular pattern in action.
Particularly interesting in the exhibition is the inclusion of items with bookplates, marginalia and other annotations.
Professor Kirsop sees the provenance of many of these very rare books as an important element of their stories.
Special Collections Librarian Pam Pryde, who worked with Professor Kirsop to prepare the exhibition, says many of the volumes on display show signs of use.
“Margins have been annotated, pages are folded and inscriptions record the transition of books from one generation of scholars and readers to another.
“Marginalia, bookplates and provenance reveal rich cultural stories about the development of knowledge in Melbourne.”
Professor Kirsop says many of the books are physical objects that had been “hard used in private houses before they ended up in the Baillieu Library in the course of the twentieth century”.
Additionally, segregation of books into what is now known as Special Collections didn’t happen until the 1960s, prior to which they were stored on the open shelves and “available for undergraduate borrowing.”
“Manuscript annotations and damaged bindings were an inevitable result in a number of cases,” he says.
“Should this excite us? Only if we believe that everything should remain in pristine condition, one suitable for exhibition supervised strictly by professional conservators.
“But PMM and by extension any derivative from it are about influences and impacts that imply reading and active use. It is therefore entirely appropriate to show books that provide concrete evidence of this dialogue or debate with real rather than imagined users.”
Professor Kirsop will give a floor talk on the exhibition ‘Knowledge Through Print: a Melbourne perspective’ in the Leigh Scott Gallery in the Baillieu Library on Saturday and Sunday of the Cultural Treasures Festival at 11.30am.