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Blog: Neglect and Survival: On the Biographies of Old Books

I bought an old book the other day. 

Used to be, that wouldn’t have been the lede for any writing designed to grab your attention, but as pastimes go, it’s getting a bit less common, so maybe it will do. 

It’s not just that old books have been crowded into a corner of the market for attention by media unimagined only yesterday, but that there are natural cycles that have also been disrupted.  When I was young, we haunted second-hand bookshops and the like because we needed books––good books––ones that had been printed before we were born and long since gone out of print.  Now we’re rich:  everything seems to stay in print forever.  I used to snap up $2 hardcover copies of Henry James novels on the assumption that someday I’d read them.  Now I wonder what I would do with a tired old hardcover when I can count on crisp new paperbacks being deliverable to my door by Amazon in 24 hours any time I want one or e-versions to my iPad in seconds.  In the 1980s, when I wanted a decent copy of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson of my own to reread, I spent a month searching for one I could purchase––in Philadelphia no less.  My Henry James anxiety only dissipated during the glory years of bookstore superstores. 


Figure 1: “Old Main,” Montgomery WV (Image via Wikimedia).

My cycle has moved on and there just aren’t as many good old books left that I’m not already equipped with or through with.  The last neighborhood second-hand store I visited, quite a good and large one, had essentially nothing on its shelves published before the year in which I got my Ph.D.  And my confidence that when the time comes, there will be some bright young scholar hoping and hoping that I will think of her when I want to unload several thousand volumes -- well that confidence evaporated about the time Borders went out of business. 

But I really did buy an old book the other week.  The selection and impulse represented a significant defect of character.  I know, I had thought, that what I really need is a copy of A.S.F. Gow’s barely posthumous biographical sketch-cum-bibliography of A.E. Housman.  That urge harked back to the spring term of 1970, on a campus all Gothic and magnolia, quae scatet tigribus as I once described it in an honorary degree citation I had to write.  Young Bernie Fenik was offering a course unexampled in modern experience, boldly going where no philologist had gone before, at least in that neighborhood:  Silver Latin, he called it.  Gasp, shock, astonishment!  The thing to take, quoth Don and Joe, whom I admired and trusted, and after all I had just taken Vergil with George Duckworth

We had concentrated on books 7-12 of the Aeneid because, of course, it was to be assumed that we had all read 1-6 in prep school.  That may have been almost the last possible moment at which any professor could assume that, but I had survived the experience, discovering how good Latin makes my head feel, so I was ready for whatever comes next.  (Duckworth, about the age I am now, was still working hard, not only on his own idiosyncratic study of golden sections and metrical patterns, so the course had us, sophomores mostly, read Quinn and Otis and Pöschl and some youngster named Putnam.)


Figure 2: Classics scholar Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow at work at Trinity College, Cambridge (Image via Wikimedia).

Silver Latin was indeed the thing to take.  Bernie’s idea of advanced pedagogy was to tell us to open charge accounts with Blackwell’s and order some books. I did get a Lewis and Short for about $12, but we were directed to order Ovid’s Ars Amatoria in the OCT, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid also OCT, Housman’s Lucan (published by Blackwell and still in print), and the Bibliotheca Paraviana edition, for criminy’s sake, of Seneca’s tragedies.  These were not daffy choices and there was no place in the United States where you could equip yourself with those books otherwise. 

And so we read them.  Or read at them.  We began the term with Seneca the Elder’s controversiae, which could only be approached through smudgy photocopies of the Teubner, but we thought them quite a hoot.  Ovid wasn’t bad and certainly mildly amusing (there was no one in the room of a gender that could enlighten us about his most arrang failings), but what happened next – well, I remember the chill fear of those weeks.  I can’t remember if we did the Seneca or the Lucan first.  What emerges from the mists of memory was the astonishing shock of making just enough sense of the sea battle in Lucan – the guy with both arms hacked off, his body full of swords and spears, leaping onto the enemy ship and causing it to sink by virtue of the weight of himself and all that extra hardware – to be astonished at the possibilities of Latin literature and at myself.  (Where was Amy Richlin when we needed her?  She didn’t transfer in till the next year, alas.  Classed up the joint, as you might expect, as she’s been doing in various joints ever since.)  And one day Bernie said we ought to read Housman’s Lucan preface. 

We now well recognize that Housman’s prose is best reserved for mature years, the low pleasure that he provides being apropos for elders, if at all.  I won’t go into all the gory details of the consequences, but there is a blurred memory from graduate school of sitting down to read all five volumes of Manilius successfully.  Young men prove their manhood in the most bizarre ways and no mistake. But that’s where it started, the penchant for Housman’s editions.  I remember as an undergraduate, his notes at the foot of the page making no sense whatever; then in graduate school when I read all of Lucan the first time, the notes began to show glimmers of usefulness; then a few years later, I read him again and it seemed as if the notes were all and only and exactly the ones I needed.  Now I pick up the volume from time to time just to read a page or two with a chuckle.  I even bought Elaine Fantham’s copy from a second-hand dealer in order to scan it to PDF. 

I needed a copy of Gow, ok?  If you don’t, count your blessings.  Mine came to me via Abebooks from those sacred ministers in the tribe of bibliomanes, Better World Books in Mishawaka, in excellent, near mint condition.  It’s used up a couple of evenings so far and sent me down another Internet rabbit hole when I found on the first pages Gow’s assertion that Housman once said he was really attracted to the classics only at age 17 when he read a gift volume called Sabrinae Corolla, being a collection of translations into Latin and Greek by various students, old students, and masters of Shrewsbury School, elaborated through four editions in the nineteenth century.  Gow was more than shrewd enough to observe that Housman might have been just slightly disingenuous in making this claim, inasmuch as the volume in question was a more or less famous volume of verse from the county of Shropshire, but certainly not the most famous such.  That book is in Google Books and lately reprinted by Cambridge University Press and has its own charm, with bits of Shakespeare and Milton and Psalms and many more rendered into amazingly punctilious and clever Latin and Greek.

Closing this copy of Gow after the first evening, though, I began to wonder how this book had come to Mishawaka and thence to me for all of $4.35.  I leafed.  It proved to be “ex-library”, as we say.  Whence?  Well, the stamps showed that it was formerly held by New River State College in Montgomery, West Virginia.  I owned my ignorance and looked further.  New River State had started existence as a high school in 1867, back when West Virginia was the progressive southern state that had broken off from the Confederacy and had a booming post-war world of coal before it.  Wikipedia notes: 

“In the early 1910s, Montgomery was the shipping center for 26 different coal operations and was the largest town in Fayette County at the time.”  A thinly-novelized story set in 1917-18 called Good-Bye Miss Fourth of July, published in the early 80s and filmed with Lou Gossett Jr. and Chris Sarandon, is based on the experience of the author’s Greek immigrant family in Montgomery.  A young woman named Androniki befriends an older black man and finds the Ku Klux Klan looming over her family; she herself dies in the influenza outbreak of 1918.”

The high school had become a trade school. Then in 1921, it upgraded to junior college status. Finally, in 1931, it became New River State College, a beacon of learning in a grimy but prosperous world––Depression era or not.  In 1936, the year of Housman’s death, Gow published his volume and it made its way to Montgomery and to those library shelves.

But in 1941, the school morphed again, to West Virginia Institute of Technology, and that stamp also appears in the book.  It now does business, after a fashion, as West Virginia University Institute of Technology, but Montgomery has not prospered.  There are 1500 people left there along the tracks on the Kanawha River, while the institution faced its challenges. A 2011 report, painful to read, found the school in dire straits.

That meant an end of sorts, as the now-parent West Virginia University decided to move the whole kit and kaboodle 40 miles south to Beckley (pop. 16,000), where it would occupy the buildings of the former Mountain State University, a private nonsectarian institution with 8,000 students that had failed in 2013. 

My doughty little book had moved to West Virginia at just the midpoint of the happy ten years when New River State was a college but not a technical institute.  It sat there for eighty years or so, a little flickering candle lit to a model of academic ambition that small coal towns in West Virginia could aspire to, until it was finally deaccessioned – likely on the move to Beckley.  The college survives with 1100 students, showing both Greek and Latin on the school seal.  The Latin just gives the college’s date, but the Greek is a slightly garbled quotation of 2 Peter 1.5, πίστει τὴν ἀρετήν, ἐν δὲ τῇ ἀρετῇ τὴν γνῶσιν, thus plucking ‘faith’ and 'virtue' and 'knowledge' out of the sequence that runs this way in the King James Version: 

5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

Of course, I cannot tell whether anyone in West Virginia ever actually read my copy of Gow, but West Virginia in those days was the sort of place that knew Gow belonged there.  The book survives, improbably enough finding a home with an eager reader.  Passion begets mimesis, but mimesis fades often enough into neglect.  Books, at least until now, often improbably survive.  Classicists, at least until now, bring those survivors, surprisingly often, back to robust life.  With all our faults and foibles, we do beautiful work.


Figure 3: An early 4th c. CE sarcophagus of a Greek physician reading his scroll (Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an Open-Access Repository).

(Header Image: “Ezra the Scribe,” Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), noting "When the sacred books had been consumed in the fires of war, Ezra repaired the damage. Image via Wikimedia.)

James J. O'Donnell's picture

James J. O'Donnell is the University Librarian at ASU Library. He has published widely on the history and culture of the late antique Mediterranean world and is a recognized innovator in the application of networked information technology in higher education. In 1990, he co-founded Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the second on-line scholarly journal in the humanities ever created. In 1994, he taught an Internet-based seminar on the work of Augustine of Hippo that reached 500 students which deserves to be called the first MOOC. He has served as a Director, as Vice President for Publications, and as President of the American Philological Association; he has also served as a Councillor of the Medieval Academy of America and has been elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy. He serves as Chair of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies. His edition of Augustine's *Confessions* is a standard, while his most recent books, Augustine: A New Biography, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Pagans [March 2015] bring cutting-edge scholarship to a wide audience. His work of most relevance to issues of libraries today and tomorrow may be found in his 1998 book, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.

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