Saturday, 23 September 2006

Illuminating the Renaissance

Before I went away for the summer I took a trip out to Bennett & Kerr where I wanted to pick up a copy of the Manuscript Tanner 346: A Facsimile, intro. Pamela Robinson. What I actually got was her own copy (or one of them at least), with her corrections in the margins. Very nice. While out there I met Richard Gameson, whom I had not met before. But when you are in B & K, out in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, in a medieval bookshop on a farm, you cannot really ignore another browser like you would in shop in the big city. It would be like trying to pretend you weren't passing someone on the Himalayas, or in the Arctic Circle. So it was a great pleasure to talk books with him, who knows a great deals about books.

But B & K had just acquired a large part of the library of Janet Backhouse, former Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Library, who died in Nov. 2004 at the too early age of 66. There were boxes and several shelves full of books from her library. It was quite sad to find yourself picking through her books, seeing her notes and cards in books. No matter how big your library gets, nor how learned you become, it will still end up in a secondhand bookshop, picked through by students and scholars trying to build up their own libraries with that book they've been searching for for years. And these in turn...

What I did pick up was a copy of catalogue of the Illuminating the Renaissance exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London Nov 29, 2003 - Feb. 22, 2004. This was an extraordinary exhibition and I remember it vividly. The catalogue had sold out. Backhouse has kept her invite to the opening ceremony of the exhibition, some newspaper reviews, and some of her Sotheby catalogue entries from the 70s for manuscripts featured in the catalogue. There is such a sense of care and attention to detail in these cut outs and inserts, and I found it quite moving.

And you get a sense of inheriting something, of needing to continue in the care and the attention to detail, not just for the sake of the subject, but for the sake of those who have gone before you and who have given so much. It's so easy to get carried away by the polemical and egocentric way many scholars open their work by explaining that every single scholar who has gone before has been so thick not to see this centrally important aspect but not to worry you're reading the real thing now (and can some wealthy American university please hire me and triple my salary, by the way). But just as you'll turn to dust, and your library will be dispersed, so too will your scholarship need to find a sympathetic reader who wishes to nurture rather than to destroy.

While in New York I passed a group of children all getting on a bus going to their summer camp, with the harrassed-looking teacher trying to make sure her charges were all accounted for. I read their t-shirts and thought it could be applied in lots situations and professions: Work Hard and Be Nice.

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