By: Hugh Reid, Adjunct Research Professor, Department of English Language and Literature
It is a course without a prescribed reading list, without distinct seminar topics to discuss, with many problems and mysteries to solve, without any guarantee that the problems and mysteries will be solved or resolved. And it spends most of its time in a restricted, specialized world of 200-300 years ago. The course is English 4115, which is officially entitled Culture and the Text, but which I generally refer to as my Rare Books Course.
Simply put we examine the ‘materiality’ of 18th century books, books which are in the Special Collections of the Carleton Library. By ‘materiality’ we mean a number of things, but in its simplest of terms we mean how the actual physical book affects the way we read it. A common modern example would be that some of the Harry Potter books have different titles and different covers in the UK than they have in their North American editions.
With the permission and the aid of Lloyd Keane, the Special Collections curator, the class meets in the fifth floor library seminar room. Initially I give them a general overview of the 18th century book trade, how paper was made, how books were printed and bound, the role of the bookseller, etc. Then the fun begins. Each student picks one of the many 18th century books in the library’s collection and examines it from this angle of ‘materiality.’
The first thrill for the students is merely in the handling of these old books, some with book plates, some with old names and dates handwritten in them. The problems and mysteries each book poses are unique, so equipped only with my introduction, students begin examining the text that they have chosen. This is exhilarating at first. There may be a frontispiece which needs deciphering and decoding, as does the title page. They examine the font, the type and quality of the paper, and illustrations, if any. There are many such matters to deal with initially. But the books don’t give up their secrets willingly or easily. The students persist and while each person has a distinctive text to ponder, the class works together as a group of scholars to solve mutual problems.
This approach to learning can be a bit disconcerting at times to students who are used to being given a specific assignment to work on or a specific paper to read which will then be discussed in class. Sometimes after many hours of finding frustratingly little, there may be a wistful smile, indicating a wish for a return to the structure of a regular class. But such moments are fleeting and do not dishearten or dampen the scholarly spirit, for the students know that what they are doing with these texts in the Carleton Library has never been done before by anyone.
This knowledge offers up a thrill. No matter how difficult or arduously achieved, discovering something previously unknown (Jane Austen’s name in a subscription list, the book plate of the playwright Sheridan in a book with handwritten marginalia, the signature of the mistress of a prime minister’s son), is unlike anything they have ever done before. All of these novel discoveries, and there are many more, are only a small part of the rewarding and satisfying nature of this course, which teaches independent thinking and problem solving in a unique and inimitable manner.