March 21st

There is much that books record for us, but we encounter a limit to their powers of preservation arises when we ask about the shifting relationships readers cultivated to the books they owned. Commonplace books, in which readers transcribed passages of varying degrees of importance to them, can help us to answer such questions–but they, too, have their limits. Here, for instance, is a commonplace book from the Beinecke Library’s Osborn manuscript collection, whose original owner proved to be an avid reader of poems:

The book hails us from the seventeenth century, some time after the death of King James–there is a poem chronicling the monarch’s demise–and it contains roughly a hundred pages of such transcriptions, the bulk of them poetry and all of them composed in the same measured hand.

What did it mean to record a poem in such a fashion? If we think back to earlier in the exhibit, to the manuscript of Thomas Dowse, with its repeated written versions of the author’s name, and with its single line from The Rape of Lucrece, we encounter something of a different relationship to the action of recording language–more fragmentary (only that one line from Lucrece), more heterogeneous (on one page we find Thomas Dowse’s name, another a passage from Shakespeare), and perhaps even emphasizing process more than final product (those repeated versions of Dowse’s name chronicling an effort at practicing and improving handwriting) than what we find in the Osborn commonplace book, which tends to record poems meticulously and in full:

For this anonymous reader, there might have been an expression of ownership involved in such transcriptions, the commonplace book affording a mechanism for taking the poem out of its printed setting and re-preserving it in one’s own hand. To flip back through the pages of such a book would be to re-live something like the best hit’s of one’s reading, the poetry and sentences one deemed most worth recording.

Making it all the more surprising, perhaps, not that Shakespeare’s sonnet makes its way into this reader’s collection but that only one of them manages to do so:

For this reader–and, we might think, for so many more–Shakespeare was just one author among many.

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