An ebay rarity

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I’ve just written a blog-post for the Cambridge University Library rare books site, on an extraordinary seventeenth-century book that was the library’s first purchase from ebay. You can read it here:

A chance discovery: Guest post by Jason Scott-Warren

ripping reads

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Fascinating article by Huang Yuan in the latest London Review of Books about the tightening of censorship regimes in China. ‘The Economist often receives phone calls from Chinese subscribers to the print edition complaining about missing issues (especially when the cover shows a panicky Xi Jinping astride a stumbling dragon). And it’s not uncommon for pages with critical reports about China to be torn from the magazine before subscribers get it (we have no shortage of manpower for this labour-intensive task). The New York Review of Books–always critical of China, and sharing many contributors with the New York Times–has so far dodged the censor, most likely because the number of subscribers is too low for the censors to condescend to’.

Fake News from No Place

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It’s over a week now since our CMT/Southampton conference ‘Newes from No Place’, on the life and works of John Taylor, the Water-Poet (1578-1653). Held at Gonville and Caius College on 14-15 September, it featured thirteen speakers who offered many different perspectives on Taylor’s gargantuan oeuvre. We came together in the belief that Taylor, a self-professed amphibian who was at once a boatman on the river Thames (the equivalent of the London cab driver of today) and a hugely prolific writer, was an extraordinary figure in extraordinary times. Our aim was to set this incessant traveller in motion again, to see what he had to say to literary critics and cultural historians in the twenty-first century.

Proceedings were initiated by Bernard Capp, author of a magisterial survey of Taylor’s career, who reconsidered Taylor’s output during the Civil War years of the 1640s. Driven out of London for his Royalist sympathies, by 1643 Taylor found himself in Oxford, defending the King’s cause in pamphlets so numerous that the printing presses were unable to keep up with them. Analysing those pamphlets afresh, Capp concluded that they were not the kind of thing that might convince an adversary, but were intended to boost Royalist morale, at the same time as they settled scores with individual adversaries. One particularly resonant concern of Taylor’s was ‘fake news’; some of his pamphlets peddled their own spoof stories, while others attempted to set the record straight through first-hand reportage. After Capp had offered this wide-angle view, Abigail Shinn homed in on one pamphlet, The Conversion, Confession, Contrition, Coming to Himselfe, & Advice, of a Mis-led, Ill-bred, Rebellious Roundhead (1643). Drawing on Andrew McRae’s argument about the financial productivity of Taylor’s journeying, Shinn read this satire on a convert to puritanism as an attack on unproductive travel—spinning in circles around a ‘round head’. Parodying the puritan practice of ‘sermon-gadding’ to hear particular preachers, a staple element in spiritual life-writing of the period, Taylor’s Roundhead displays an inordinate movement linked with madness and vagrancy. Shinn showed us how that movement registers in Taylor’s style, which starts gadding wildly in imitation of its subject.

Ros King’s paper celebrated Taylor’s mobility, as a counterweight to any received picture of the early modern period as a time of stasis and social conservatism. In travelling, Taylor was finding out what it meant to be English (or British) in his day, but at the same time he was remaking social relations and experimenting with the more horizontal ties that could be created by urban life and the marketplace of print. His ability to celebrate the everyday and to overturn hierarchies (as when he got a pair of schoolboys, rather than aristocrats or men of letters, to supply the commendation for a book) points to a new vision of the social order. Challenging us to think counterfactually, King asked whether a more Taylorian Britain might not have had to endure the revolution of the 1640s. She was followed by Ariel Hessayon, who began by announcing that he was not going to give the paper he had intended to give, because he no longer believed that the work he had planned to discuss was written by Taylor. He went on to demonstrate that numerous works of the 1640s and 1650s have been ascribed to Taylor on the flimsiest foundations (by whom is not yet clear). Taylor’s authorship has been inferred from the most tenuous evidence: a reused woodblock, some promising-looking initials (‘J.T.’ or ‘T.J.’) on the title-page, or the presence of Taylorian tricks of style that could have been borrowed by any able satirist. Invoking the spectre of the Ranter debates of the 1980s, in which historians speculated that a well-known Civil War splinter group was no more than the ‘fake news’ whipped up by the conservatives of the day, Hessayon asked whether we would prefer a maximal Taylor, who encompasses everything that has been pinned on him, however dubiously, or a minimal Taylor, who might have written none of ‘his’ works? Finding the golden mean between these extremes is going to take some time.

The first day was rounded off by three papers, the first by Anthony Ossa-Richardson on Taylor’s learning. Drawing on Taylor’s early poetic credo in The Nipping and Snipping of Abuses (1614), Ossa-Richardson noted his opposition to mimicry; Taylor thought that the poet should be a creator-figure who produces something from nothing, and not a mere copyist or translator. He went on to analyse Taylor’s nonsense, showing how one batch of nonsense (in the 1651 Nonsence Upon Sence) creates its nonsensicality by cutting and pasting lines from an earlier, less nonsensical collection (the Mad verse, sad verse, glad verse and bad verse cut out, and slenderly sticht together of 1644). Taylor’s habits of plagiarism and self-plagiarism thus raise important questions about his aesthetic. Adam Smyth took up the baton with a consideration of Taylor and error, noting his playful way with errata lists and linking it with his wider ‘print-shop presence’, his determination to be there (‘an unsilenceable voice’) in every aspect of his books. The idea of error is also linked with wandering, and with Taylor’s identity as a traveller whose whole oeuvre is constitutively erroneous; Smyth drew attention to the strange miscellaneity of the 1630 folio All the Workes, its resistance to order or organization, and the sense that its binding together of so many miscellaneous pamphlets is also a form of scattering and dispersal. Finally in this session, Jason Scott-Warren proposed an ‘Exuvial Taylor’, drawing on the works of the anthropologist Alfred Gell to consider the writer in terms of the metaphorical ‘skins’ that he shed or re-inhabited during his lifetime. This led to a view of Taylor as a writer devoted to blazing or blazoning—the trumpeting of his own reputation and that of a range of bizarre things (geese, clean linen, twelve-pence, hemp-seed). But, Scott-Warren suggested, Taylor’s blazings are always ironic, and are thus symptomatic of a print marketplace that can put a celebrity author’s name into everyone’s mouth, but cannot ensure that they pay for his wares.

Day 2 struck out across Europe with Kirsty Rolfe’s paper on Taylor’s imagined geographies, setting his 1620 journey to Prague in the context of the news culture of the Thirty Years’ War. At this sticky political moment, when the appetite for news was at its height, James I issued a proclamation against the excess of licentious speech in matters of state—a classic case of an act of censorship that could not bring itself to say exactly what it wanted to censor. Unpicking Taylor’s satire on 1620s news culture, Rolfe suggested his sharp awareness of the intricacies of the circulation of information, and his disingenousness in claiming to stand outside it. Jemima Matthews brought us back to London and to Taylor’s Thames, including his involvement in the production of mayoral pageants, in which the river was converted into a fantastical space of performance. Such entertainments had a long tradition of broaching serious matters in the guise of theatre, and Taylor’s contribution to the genre, the 1634 Triumphs of Fame and Honour, was no exception, reminding the Mayor of his responsibilities to the river. Matthews set the pageant in relation to a variety of monopolistic schemes to exploit the river, showing how Taylor’s pamphlet contributed to the representation of the Thames as a space of financial opportunity.

Andrew McRae and Alice Hunt presented papers that took us to opposite ends of Taylor’s career. McRae took on the early works (meaning the 30-odd pamphlets that he published between 1612 and 1621), showing us how Taylor became the Water-Poet, a writer who rather than effacing his origins and his occupation chose to flaunt them. Taylor began as a surprisingly well-connected writer, but in his print wars with Fenner and Coryate came increasingly to define himself by his exclusion from elite literary circles. He was also relentlessly experimental, trying out numerous genres until he began to find his metier around 1620—at which time he also learnt to equate poetry with labour, in verse that represented a reinvention of georgic. Alice Hunt explored the Taylor of the 1650s, who was (after his ejection from London) no longer a Water-Poet, but a land-traveller undertaking a kind of existential journeying in search of the identity of the new, kingless Britain. Hunt noted the weariness of the late pamphlets, Taylor ‘limping through the English countryside on a knackered nag’. But he had not lost his eye for the evocative detail, and his writing was subtle in its probing of political allegiances. Exploring Taylor’s evocation of the headless kingdom allows us to see that his royalism was not, and perhaps never had been, particularly reverend.

Will May’s paper addressed itself to Taylor’s place in the history of whimsy, via a long-term history of nonsense. Drawing on Michael Dobson’s suggestion that the history of English nonsense might be the history of works that use the word ‘Basingstoke’ for comic effect, May led us into a history of whimsy as a kind of fever of the brain—a fever that might be brought on by trying to trace the origins of the word ‘whimsy’ itself. Finally May set Taylor in a tradition of performative, public writer-eccentrics, including Thomas Hood and Marianne Moore. Altogether less whimsical was Johann Gregory’s paper, reporting back on his recent project to live-tweet John Taylor’s travels around Wales in 1652 (#WaterPoet2017). This digital journeying was an innovative form of research that allowed Gregory to see where Taylor had elided aspects of his travels, raising questions about the faithfulness of seemingly spontaneous eyewitness accounts. But it was principally a form of public engagement that echoed Taylor’s own projects, and suggested their ongoing vibrancy in the present day. Taylor has, we suspect, many travels left in him.

going, going

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Two stories side-by-side in yesterday’s Guardian, on the waning of print institutions.

On the left, ‘End of the line for Yellow Pages in print’ notes that, from January 2019, the distinctive bright-yellow, large-format paperback that has circulated UK business telephone numbers for more than fifty years is to cease publication. The practice of printing directories on yellow paper apparently dates back to 1883, when a printer in Cheyenne, Wyoming ran out of white paper and turned to a stock of yellow instead. (But why did he have so much yellow paper to hand?) The English version has been going since 1966, but its content will now be transferred to the online platform,, which went live in 1996. The article evokes a certain nostalgia for the old days by reproducing a still from the 1980s advertising campaign, in which an aging author by the name of J. R. Hartley used the Yellow Pages to locate a copy of his own book on fly-fishing.

To the right, ‘Cyclopaedia succumbs to digital era’. The Pears’ Cyclopaedia, “A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other topics of Ordinary Conversation”, is being discontinued. The decision by the publishers, Penguin, is partly down to the retirement of its editor, Dr Chris Cook, but it tells of a slump in the market for reference books; Pears’ sold 25,000 copies in 2001-2 but only 3,000 last year. Perhaps this is a sign of liberation from somewhat oppressive strictures—we no longer think that there are things that ‘everyone Ought to know’—but more likely it tells of the speed with which we have delegated information to the Internet. The human brain declines to waste its energy remembering facts that are easily found online.

The juxtaposition of the two articles made me feel a little melancholy, in part because they seemed to presage the demise of the very object that was relaying them to me. The Guardian is getting thinner and more expensive with every passing year; it is about to move from its rather elegant ‘Berliner’ format to a tabloid format, and this may prove to be just another staging-post on the route to its physical disappearance. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. But my inner J.R. Hartley is a little sad to say goodbye to the bad old days when there were limits on what you could know, which created the hunger to get round them.

Sing in ex-ale-tation

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With a few weeks to go until our conference on John Taylor, the Water Poet, we were delighted to receive an email from JoAnn Taricani, Associate Professor of the History of Music at the University of Washington. Taricani is working on online and print critical editions of John Playford’s musical anthology An Antidote against Melancholy (1661), and she has just recorded several stanzas from a song that (although it was probably written by Thomas Randolph) made an appearance in two of Taylor’s pamphlets.

The song (a ‘catch’ or round) was entitled ‘The Ex-Ale-tation of ALE’ and it was, as the title suggests, an encomium to drink. Taylor was evidently so impressed by the pun-laden ditty that he took it as the inspiration for his even more pun-laden work, Ale ale-vated into the ale-titude (1651); the song was, he said, ‘written in merrier Times, by a most Learned Authour’. Singing about ale (doubtless whilst drinking copious quantities of it) was clearly intended to warm the heart of the forlorn Royalist reader in the aftermath of Charles I’s execution.

Taricani’s website gives us not just a sound recording but also video, allowing us to see how sociable performance among friends might have cheered the soul, both during the Commonwealth and (in the Antidote) after the Restoration.


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From Venice, where my Mac is threatening to melt, here is a little assemblage of artists’ books and bibliographic exhibits from this year’s Biennale. Wit, delicacy, and crass humour, trailing plenty of loose ends–the Biennale in microcosm.

Books under construction in the Japanese pavilion.

A book by Irma Blank (1934-)

One of a number of books that had suffered appropriate fates, in the Norway/Sweden/Finland pavilion.

Detail of a book by Maria Lai (1919-2013)

A second book by Maria Lai: poets work in the dark.


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Some pictures, belatedly, from the 1st CMT/CUL Catalogathon, a gathering of volunteer early modern biblionerds that took place on 24 May in the University Library. Our aim was to add copy-specific information to the existing, skeletal entries in the online catalogue, for as many sixteenth-/seventeenth-century books as we could, as quickly as we could. In the end, we managed to check out 212 books, all but 40 of which contained some interesting evidence of use. We hope to run similar events in future–please get in touch if you would like to be involved.

Emily Dourish, David Pearson, Becky Tomlin, Edward Wilson-Lee and Micha Lazarus, hard at work.

Hero Chalmers, Tom Hamilton, Dunstan Roberts and Lucille Munoz, in the white heat of the event.

The Children’s Book as Material Object

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Today, on a beautiful sunny day, a large group of diehards shut itself up in a couple of rooms in Cambridge’s Faculty of Education to discuss ‘The Children’s Book as Material Object’. Events were initiated by a richly detailed keynote from Philip Nel, who took on Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, which he read as a development of Paul Klee’s ideas about taking a line for a walk. Exploring every conceivable context including the history of crayons, the development of TV shows that encouraged children to write on the screen (using their ‘winky dink kits’), and the demands of offset chromolithography, he revealed how intricate was the construction of Harold. He also disinterred a subtle racial politics from Harold’s 10% brown skin, which some readers read as white and some as black. This ambiguity perhaps tied up with Johnson’s activities in the civil rights movement, for which he was under FBI investigation at the time that he was writing his book.

After this, the conference moved into parallel sessions. The one I attended took on the theme of play and interaction. Jacqueline Reid-Walsh delved into the history of playable media, showing some wonderful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lift-the-flap books that allowed children to turn Adam into Eve, and Eve into a mermaid. Sandra Williams took us into the world of the –Ology series (Pirateology, Dragonology etc), bejewelled books that include all kinds of games that (in practice) lure their young readers into digressive play. The investigation of the responses of real schoolkids was also a feature of the final paper in the panel, in which Anne Neely and Noelle Yoo reported back on responses to their dinky 3D-printed posable figures of Elephant and Piggie, from the popular series by Mo Willems. If the book starts off as a self-contained reading experience, it seems that it has an afterlife in play, during which new stories are set loose.

After lunch, a second parallel session kicked off with Debbie Pullinger and Lisa Kirkham thinking (with help from Heidegger) about the differences between the tactile text of the physical book and the uncontained realm of the ebook. Naomi Hamer took on the proliferation of museums based on children’s books and children’s authors, noting that their curatorial aesthetic (images framed on walls, no touching please!) was radically incompatible with books that beg to be touched. And Tyler Shores explored the (mostly unsatisfactory) effort to translate comics to the ereader screen; the process of adapting a complex graphic medium to a new platform is presenting severe teething difficulties. All three accounts raised important questions about remediation, and how well books survive when they are translated to new environments.

The last, plenary session of the day had four papers. Sophie Defrance, from the University Library, discussed the blurred lines between children’s books and children’s toys and games in the library’s collections. Carl F. Miller called attention to the extraordinary power of literary prizes in the children’s book world, and noted that awards of comparable gravitas for ebooks have yet to emerge. Jen Aggleton reported on the responses of young readers to a set of illustrated novels, charting the process by which these 9/10-year-olds were awakened to the aesthetic pleasures of a well-crafted book. And Zoe Jaques took us deeper into the borderland between books and toys, where a variety of book-like ‘scriptive things’ create severe problems both of categorisation and of shelving.

Proceedings were wrapped up with a round-table, which offered an opportunity for broader reflection on the category of the scriptive thing and on the seeming self-containment of the book. For me, the day came neatly full circle, sending me back to the opening meditation on Harold and the Purple Crayon, which had revealed above all the extraordinary artfulness of the book’s construction. Modern children’s books, following Harold, are often triumphs of choreography, in which text and image work interact in very sophisticated ways. They are masterful in their handling of gaps and silences, teasing the child reader to make the necessary inferences (often with prompting from a nearby adult). And they constantly reinvent the book, offering new shapes and sizes and graphic conventions so as to pitch readers into weird and unpredictable worlds. It struck me that one of the reasons that we feel so nostalgic about children’s books is because they are so literary. They offer an intense foretaste of grown-up poems, plays and novels, in which the rules of the game are often similarly unclear, and the outcomes deliciously unpredictable.

Fragments of ancient life

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A new exhibition opens at Cambridge University Library today. ‘Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo’ puts on show just a few of the 200,000 manuscripts found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo in the late nineteenth-century. These were books and documents of all kinds that were no longer needed, but which could not be destroyed because they bore the holy name of God.

Conserving these fragments, many of which were ‘literally ground to dust’ in the crush of a single chamber (the Genizah) of the Synagogue, has been a major effort for the library in recent decades. Making sense of such an enormous and multifarious collection has proved just as difficult. Launching the exhibition, Ben Outhwaite said that the curators could have tried to dazzle spectators with ‘the first x’ and ‘the most important y’, but instead they went for a subtler approach, showing how this treasure haul of documents sheds light on the richly multicultural life of an ancient city.

The variety of materials is extraordinary: good-luck charms, prenuptial agreements, alphabet primers, first-hand accounts of earthquakes, and numerous letters–from a refugee, a woman with leprosy, the head of the Jerusalem Academy. There is Moses Maimonides’ treatise on aphrodisiacs (‘if ox-tongue is placed in wine until its strength is extracted, it greatly increases the joy and strengthens sexual intercourse’). There’s a trousseau list including ‘a pen-box made in China’ and a lavish collection of robes and wimples. And there’s one letter in which a woman threatens to go on a hunger strike (in the daytime, at least) if her husband doesn’t come back home full-time, rather than only turning up on the Sabbath. He writes on the back: ‘If you don’t break your fast, I won’t come back Sabbaths or any other day!’ In its charming and its less-than-charming details, it’s an absorbing display.

book-sniffers anonymous

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Book-smells are in the news again. Some doughty chemists and heritage scientists at UCL have teamed up to produce a ‘historic book odour wheel’ that links the perceived scent of old books with their chemical olfactory triggers. So, for example, if you think your book smells of chocolate, that’s probably because it’s giving off vanillin, benzaldehyde and furfural, chemicals that are emitted as the cellulose and lignin in paper degrades. The researchers claim that they are shedding light on how libraries communicate through smell, putting the science together with cultural history to explore the elusive linguistics of scent.

This is just one of innumerable projects in which humanists and scientists are currently getting together to explore the history that lies hidden in old books (Cambridge’s own MINIARE is an excellent example of the genre). It can’t be long before we will be able to subject every book to a full body scan, reconstructing its entire history from its chemical composition. But to focus on scent is also to bring in the imponderables of the human relationship to matter, and all of the cultural variables that cannot simply be read off the physical details.

That much is clear from the comments thread at the bottom of the Guardian report on the research, in which scores of people come forward to confess their love or hate for particular old book-smells. The annuals that children cracked open at Christmas smelled lovely, it seems, while school textbooks usually smelled foul. Kindles are repeatedly faulted for their failure to smell. And the smellscapes of particular bookshops and libraries are fondly recalled. Inevitably there are plenty of parodic contributions, with regular allusions to Proust. But perhaps we are a little bit closer to understanding what the nose knows.