In a review of Books on the Move (2007) that I wrote recently for Script & Print, I criticised David Pearson's essay "What Can We Learn by Tracking Multiple Copies of Individual Editions?" for failing to select an "ordinary book" to track, as he had proposed.
While the three English translations of Ceasar from 1590, 1655 and 1695 that Pearson selected are "more ordinary" than William Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio or Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Cælestium (1543 and 1566), they still do not seem really ordinary in any useful sense of the word to me.
We can rarely identify the owners of genuinely “ordinary” books and, on the few occasions when we do have the names of previous owners, we are very often unable to find out anything at all about these individuals. So Pearson’s essay also ends up focused on the few well-known or famous owners of the not-so-ordinary books he selected.
If one were to choose a book that was genuinely "ordinary," an eighteenth-century edition of The Spectator (1711–12) for instance, it would be even more difficult to identify previous owners, or, having done so, be in a position to say anything useful about them (singularly, or as a group).
This is, of course, exactly why book historians find it so hard to say anything about ordinary readers of ordinary books and why scholars such as Pearson are trying so hard to find a way of redressing this.
Anyway, shortly after writing about this problem in my review, an odd-volume of The Female Spectator turned up on eBay. I bought it because this particular odd-volume seems destined to provide me with the perfect example of what a more ordinary book can tell us about “the range of people” who owned certain books, what the “ownership trajectories” of the multiple copies of these books might be, what “geographical range” of distribution and what variety of bindings might be evident, and whether there are characteristic “patterns of annotation” in the books. (The questions Pearson hoped to answer.)
As you can see, if you look closely, this particular odd-volume was purchased, when new, by one Thomas Spedding. As one of the few people on the planet who own a copy of The Spedding Family (1909) by Capt. John Carlisle D. Spedding, I was immediately able to identify this "Thos Spedding" who, in typical eighteenth-century style, signed his name across the title-page. It is the Rev. Thomas Spedding, MA (1722–87): a distant relation (but not an ancestor).
This identification was enough to persuade me to spend over $300, probably triple what the book is worth. Because, as both a Spedding (with a modest interest in family history, but with a father who has just completed a substantial family-history) and an Eliza Haywood scholar who has published an essay on the popularity of Haywood's Female Spectator,* I seem particularly well-placed to both unravel the genealogical history of the book and comment on its bibliographical significance.
Since this odd-volume arrived I have made considerable more progress with the identification of the various owners of this copy, but my comments on these owners, the book, other copies, etc etc, will have to wait for another post. Or possibly an essay. We'll see.
*The essay is “Measuring the Success of Haywood's Female Spectator (1744–46),” in Fair Philosopher: Eliza Haywood and The Female Spectator (2006), 193–211 (most of which is available on Google Books Preview here).
[UPDATE 22 Feb 2011: for Part 2 of this series of posts see here]
[UPDATE: 2 July 2016: After all my pictures disappeared (again) I decided to give up on external hosts for large versions (1000px) of my image files and, for now on, will stick with the smaller images (500px), which Blogger is prepared to host.]