Reading in the Original

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Not the original language, this time; although my dear Hungarian friend often mentions “reading Shakespeare in the original Hungarian.” This time I mean reading the original book—the first edition. I’m fortunate to work at one of the world’s foremost rare book and manuscript libraries, where polished leather bindings fill a glass tower six stories high; and where, in a few minutes, I can have the treasures of Western literature in my hands.

 Frontispiece and title page of Robert Herrick's  Hesperides,  London, 1648.

Frontispiece and title page of Robert Herrick's Hesperides, London, 1648.

Such has been the case with Hesperides, the volume of poetry published by Robert Herrick in 1648, which I’ve been using to write my two previous posts (1, 2). There it sits, right on my desk: the first edition, with the faintly ridiculous frontispiece depicting the poet as a classical bust. It waits for me to open its still-strong covers and discover poems I never knew existed. I love my Kindle, but there’s something altogether different about this; something that isn’t as easy as claiming that as we grow more digital, we begin to fetishize material culture. There are some people, myself included, for whom the book as object will always be meaningful, and add something to the text that makes the experience of reading it greater than the sum of its parts.

I know I’m not alone here. There are typography geeks, bookbinding freaks, lovers of leather and paper. They all get a chance to revel. For me, reading the original, especially if the book wasn’t published in the last decade or so, is like receiving a whole extra parcel of information that adds nuance and substance—atmosphere, if you will—to my understanding of the work. Information about the work’s time and place that is stripped out in later reprints that modernize spelling or use digital fonts.

The type struck the paper hard in the printing of Hesperides. Almost every page bears the ghost of the next page embossed in it, reversed; so that each poem is accompanied by the shadow of the poem behind it. The orthography is different, of course; we no longer use the long-s, nor do we capitalize nouns for effect, or add extra letters as fancy takes us. But the result of “modernized” spelling and digital printing start to look a bit sterile and homogeneous when compared to the vitality of the printed original. A human being set this type—backwards, letter by letter; certain individual letters have worn spots that didn’t transfer the ink. A human being made the paper, which here and there shows a bit more light through, where the density of the pulp wasn’t even across the mold. The book is not just the work of the poet, extruded by a computer. It’s the work of many hands, all of which left traces on the page.

It’s a privilege to be able to work with the original; I know it. But my library is open to anyone with a genuine interest in its material; anyone can come to the reading room and see this book. I bet there’s a similar library not too far from you—why not stop by sometime and look at the words the way they were first presented to the world? It doesn’t have to be a 17th-century volume; even a book from the 1960s says something different about itself than its text in isolation online. Let’s do it the credit of listening.

MJ MillingtonHerrick