Enjoy this post by Virankha Peter, one of our Special Collections Freshman Fellows for the 2023-2024 academic year.
My high school Latin teacher gave me a book as a gift once, a small, pocket-sized grammar book from the late 1950s. The pages were thick, the type was small, and there were still faint pencil marks in it – the year 1962 when it was purchased, a drawing of a butterfly, Latin phrases, class notes – denoting its past relationship with a student. My teacher had pasted in a bookplate on the front page that stated in Latin, “from the Library of the Peter Family”, and under it in Greek a line from book 24 of the Odyssey. There, Odysseus stands firmly as a rock after Antinous, one of the suitors vying for his wife’s hand, flings a stool at him. I remember being confused when I translated the Greek, as these two references are seemingly disunited. What does my family library have to do with a throwaway scene in the Odyssey? I
went up to my teacher after class the next day and asked him about the Odyssey passage. He chuckled and told me it was his subtle nod to a different passage in the Bible, where my last name comes from, when Peter is said to be the rock (petra) on which the church is built.
I think about what it would be like for an average person browsing a used bookstore, perhaps in a hundred years, to come across this copy of this Latin grammar book. Of course, they would see the same 1950s text that I saw, but they would also see the same markings from that poor student in the 1960s struggling their way through Latin class. They would see the note from my beloved teacher and the bookplate in the front of the book. Whether or not they could read Greek and Latin, whether or not they knew who I was or who the student before me was, they would know this book had belonged to someone. They would know this book passed from hand to hand through memories, experiences, and time, to get to them. This is why I find myself particularly fond of writing in my books. When I come back to them years later I get a sense of what I was thinking and feeling in a past moment. Suddenly, I am conscious of the intersection of a book’s history and my own.
Working with Special Collections on translating untranslated Latin for my First-Year Fellows project, I knew I was going to be working with beautiful old books and manuscripts. I was prepared to step into the past, a world where books are precious handmade commodities rather than the mass-manufactured entities I thumb through in the present day. I pictured leather-bound tomes, artfully illustrated, pristine works of
art that existed in an unfamiliar era. To some extent this was true; the books I saw in Special Collections were breathtaking in their construction. But far from pristine works of art hardly touched by human hands, they have their own secret histories.
One of the books we looked at was a copy of Horace’s complete works published in Latin in 1482. The book is considered an incunable, a book printed before 1501 when books printed using moveable type were a very new phenomenon. Aside from pencil markings on the front pages of the book, there is a pastedown written partly in French and partly in Latin on the inside of the cover.
In translating this Latin inscription, I was drawn both into the world of early bibliography and into the characters in this meta-narrative surrounding this copy of this book. The pastedown itself tells of the dedication of another copy of this book by a renowned classicist Johann Matthias Gesner to a man named Friedrich Karl von Hardenberg. The writing refers to the book itself, a precious and expensive gift and one of the first editions of Horace to contain commentaries by a man named Cristoforo Landino, the little imperfections in the early printed book, and its peculiar construction. They are deceptively complicated lines of Latin, containing jargon relating to the actual printing of books in the 15th century. I learned that books of the time were printed on large sheets of paper which were marked by the printer for the benefit of the bookbinder so they could learn how to fold these sheets and form gatherings to create the book. The pastedown comments on the fact that the gatherings are in quarto format, but notes that the book contains odd markings, a continuous stream of numbers rather than the conventional system of letters to denote where the pages come together. Coming from our present-day standardized systems of printing, it was revelatory and humanizing to see the process of printing a book open up before my eyes in this way. So many people had to puzzle together this manuscript from lines of writing to pages of type, to the beautiful bound book I was holding in my hands.
Flipping through the book, its bibliographic history evident in the pages of text itself and commented on in the pastedown suddenly seemed so much vaster. I noted the little numbers in the bottom right corners, different from conventional page numbers of today as they are more for the binder’s benefit than the reader’s. I suddenly saw the little imperfections where the ink was slightly unevenly distributed by human hands, painstakingly putting together the lines of type and inking each individual page. There was a whole narrative looking past the text on the page, a secret history that echoes the ones in each of the books in my own home library.
Underneath the pastedown, there’s a bookplate that says T. Harrison Garrett, former owner of Evergreen House in Baltimore and this book. He left his collections to Johns Hopkins University, which is how this remarkable book was passed down and down into different human hands until they wound up in mine. Books tell stories. That’s why we seek them out, but not all of those stories were made when the original text was written. There are stories in a book’s construction, its dedication, and its place in history, stories that connect strings of human beings living in different cities and at different times. From Horace, to Landino, to the book’s printer, its binder, Gesner, Hardenberg, Garrett, and now me, each of us, when we pick up a book and carry it in our mind for a little while, writes a whole new story on its pages.