Very Old Books

Warning: this post is going to be English-majoring at its finest. It’s not going to be arguing anything, providing advice, or explaining my life. It’s a post about old books. In particular, one book that I discovered this week.

For my “Literature and the Book” class (with focus on Shakespeare’s work), we were assigned an essay dealing with examining and describing a book printed pre-1700. We’ve been looking at examples of these in class through digital images, learning about the printing processes of the time and looking at how 17th century readers read. For example, those weird pointing fingers you see on “Ye Olde Times” shop displays? Those were actually a common symbol in the practice of marginalia—readers would mark important quotes in the book with drawings and then copy those quotes down in a notebook, or “Commonplace Book.”


This finger clearly has a genetic defect.

Anyway, for this essay, we were required to pick a 17th century book from our library’s Special Collections, sit down with it for a while, and describe/analyze the main features of it. I scoped out my options on the library catalogue first and ended up discovering a 1695 copy of a King Arthur book. I figured, why not bring in another class subject and get more out of the assignment?

Since I had to fit my visit in between classes, I only had an hour in Special Collections. I fumbled around for a bit, having never visited that part of the library, but eventually got my bearings. I sat down with my pencil and notebook (the only items allowed in the reading room) and a librarian brought me my book.

I easily could have spent more than an hour with that text. I really could’ve.

It took me half an hour to get through the title page and preface of the book alone. The assignment didn’t dictate reading the book, but I couldn’t help myself. The title page was lovely:


Funnily enough, I went back through the online database later and found a 1967 version with a corrected(?) title of King Arthur: An Heroick Poem. I desperately want to do more research and figure out why the title was changed, but that’s for another time.

The most interesting part of the title page, I think, is the fact that “Poem” is the largest. Like how Shakespeare’s name was always the biggest in any work associated with his plays, the most important word is usually the largest. Going through the text of the preface, it becomes increasingly obvious that the publishers were doing their damndest to legitimize this work as a work of poetry. Looking at the list of other publications from Mr. Churchil, what stands out the most is the lack of “creative” work—this publisher printed essays, histories, and fiscal analyses, which is what makes this poem stand out so much.

The preface pushes for credibility, though. The writer asserts that “Poets then taught Men to reverence their Gods, and those who ferv’d them,” thereby pushing the fact that poetry is just as important to highbrow scholars as it is to casual readers. I wonder, too, if this poem in particular was considered quasi-historical. The King Arthur myth has lost potency over time, but in some early works Arthur is conceived as an actual person. Maybe this is why the publishers included an Epic Poem into their “intellectual” repertoire.

Aside from the textual greatness, what struck me about this book is just how pretty it is. You know, you see these old books in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but it’s hard to imagine that books actually look that gritty and old in real life. They do.


Pro-tip: you probably shouldn’t smoke your pipe in libraries nowadays.

This Prince Arthur book is yellowing, worn, and crinkled. The text is complete with long S’s and random capitalization. Turning the pages produces a satisfying crackling sound. The binding along the spine is ridged, and the one word printed there (in gold, no less) is ARTHUR.

One of the coolest bits was seeing actual evidence of the printing. On many pages, especially noticeable with the title page, there is an imprint of the text on the opposing page. As in, the printers turned/stacked the pages before the ink had completely dried, therefore staining the opposite page. It’s a fault in the printing, perhaps, but beautiful and unique all the same!

I thoroughly intend to go back to Special Collections and do more research, or even just spend more time with these old books. Things were done a lot differently back then, but it’s also possible to see the seeds of our own practices within old manuscripts. I just love old books. I love how they smell and how they feel, and I love trying to grasp just how old they really are. People actually read those books when they were new. It’s hard to imagine the books we have now surviving 300 years into the future, but who knows? Maybe a copy of Twilight will end up in a future “Special Collections” library.

Though I sincerely hope that’s not what we’re remembered for.

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