Monday, 27 July 2009

A More (or Less) Ordinary Book

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.]


Doc-in-Boots said...

I look forward to seeing the outcome. With my own research interest in mind, where would children's books fall in this equation?

Jacqui said...

Very tantalizing Patrick! As another Spedding, I'll be staying tuned :)

Patrick Spedding said...

We know huge numbers of almanacs, tables of interest and other practical books were printed, and that sermons, for instance, were a much more important part of the book trade than Literature.

So, if you forget Literature for a minute, one of the practical genres that were printed in enormous numbers was school texts, grammars, etc. The problem is, as you know, the survival rate of such books is so low that you'd never get very far working on these.

But if you look at Literature (rather than almanacs, sermons and school books) when you are examining book ownership then you should be looking at the books that were most frequently printed.

Somewhere online, I can't find it just now, is an old list of the most popular 18C books, based on the number of ESTC records. From memory, two of the top items are Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. You could argue that a study of ownership of RC and GT would tell you more about typical book ownership in the 18C than other works of Literature. I mention this, of course, because many editions of RC and GT were produced for children.

So,there are two ways you could approach this if you wanted to focus on Children's Literature - school texts and popular stories - but I think the former would be difficult because of the lack of material.

And if you were thinking of the "real" children's literature, chapbook stories etc, well, that way madness lies!