Diaspora and My Unpackable Library

Guest blog by James Yeku

We are delighted to reproduce this version of an online article in which Dr Yeku offers a poignant reminder of the loss of books as one of the many effects of the mobility of African scholars, not least when they travel permanently for education in the West.

WHAT does it mean to travel and leave your books behind with only the faintest hope of any reunion? I did not leave only Lagos behind in 2013 when I travelled to Canada for a doctoral education; like many people, I left my books too, a forced decision that still haunts today. But isn’t one of the often-overlooked conditions of migrancy the loss of books and personal libraries? Or to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, don’t the diasporic trajectories of the African scholar sometimes involve the loss of piles of volumes that may never see daylight again after years of darkness because of the collector’s willful displacement?

It does not have to be the case but, most of the time, certain economic anxieties impose choices on African scholars who seek knowledge outside the continent. His book collection in his new location is almost never complete; his library constantly vulnerable to absence. We don’t want to carry too much luggage when we travel, or we promise ourselves to retrieve them later, even if we never do. As genuine collectors and book lovers, when we pack our bags we want to take along the best of a collection that contains our memories and that catalogues our scribbles and communion with texts, but the uncertainties ahead often mean we must prioritize other symbols of survival, of arrival.

Some must wonder if African urban spaces even have leisurely subjects that worry about the many pleasures of books and bookstores, or that walk in the city as a practice of everyday life; whether there exist flâneurs that delight in sauntering around public spaces in which they encounter different objects. In their many instances of subversive loitering, the flaneur, in moments of walking contemplation of cities like Lagos, produces narratives that are often based on the ancient habit of collecting used books from the dusty grounds of street bookstores and highbrow book spaces. But what happens when, as academics, they have to travel abroad? How should we read the meanings encoded into the collecting of books, a process that is sometimes the pastime of cosmopolitan African subjects? And how must we unpack, or perhaps recover, “a library languishing” in the homeland, in the words of a Nigerian scholar in the US academy? Are there any meanings to the hastily discarded books in our personal collections just before we leave home to study elsewhere?

The art of collecting books and building a library are longings of the soul for many a woman of letters who leaves home to study abroad—often permanently. And many of leave behind books so meticulously packed after many years of sentimental collecting. So, with a stab to the heart, we are forced to forgo the cherished texts collected over the years, together with the memories, histories, and attachments they evoke. And the economic calculus that determines what we must pack remains long after we have settled in our new location and faced again with a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder, in Benjamin’s memorable phrasing. “Thus is the existence of the collector.”

In his 1931 short essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” Benjamin explores readers’ relationships to their books, using the occasion of unpacking his many books from their boxes to offer insights on a reader’s possessions and on the art of collecting itself. Being then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets,” Benjamin assigns usefulness and agency to his books as they provoke critical reflections through the process of unpacking them. The “chaotic memories” that is the passion of the collector overwhelm the room, with memories of cities and bookstores, of bookshelves at conference venues, of the disorder of used books on the streets of Ibadan or Accra. The ownership of these books, the most intimate entanglements that one can have with objects, invites us to disappear into them. Not that the books possess us, but that we own them sufficiently for the renewal of the self, or our existence each time the moment of packing and unpacking reveals itself.

Of course, like Benjamin I speak here of my own close scrutiny of books and the social facts that organize our relations with, and memory of, them. Although when Benjamin notes that the acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money, I would think there is a class dimension to book buying and the ability to transport hundreds and thousands of books to the West when one has to leave. Our libraries are unpackable because of the forces of capital, something to which the bourgeois class is impervious. My meditation chiefly applies to the, mostly, young scholar who leaves home for the first time to study in the West. Unable to pack all of his books or any of them for that matter, he sets out on a journey of knowledge, with gaps and silences in his personal archive screaming from behind; with his best books left behind, so are the memories of his collecting and collection. Benjamin is right when he says “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner”, in this case, as it loses its owner to another location.

Unpacking is not just a symbolic ritual of remembrance and performative identification with books, therefore, but is also a site of loss, of rememory and affective belonging. But as we disappear into new collections and memories in the West or elsewhere, the markings of the past yet unfurl themselves to us. In new editions that contain emendations. In new copies that remind us of past annotations. This too is chaos. One wonders if the few among us who are truly able to leave home behind do indeed leave their books too. We may say then that unpacking never ends. And we never can truly unpack a library that was once never indeed packable.

What happens when African scholars travel for education in the West? One of the many costs of this mobility is the loss of books, and we need to talk about this more. So, having collected and accumulated more books by now, my colleague whose library is still languishing in Ibadan will probably gift his once-prized possessions to an institutional library. For now he must continue to contemplate how his books must be unpacked.

James Yeku is Assistant Professor of African Digital Humanities in the Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in LawrenceOne of his recent journal articles explores questions of textuality, bibliography, and materiality in literary digital humanities. James is the author of the collection of poems, Where the Baedeker Leads, out in fall 2021 at Maweni House Publishers in Toronto.

The Strange Afterlives of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe - Wikipedia

FOR over three centuries, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has engaged some of the most influential literary and philosophical minds. At the same time, few other fictional texts have provoked so many idiosyncratic readings. J.M. Coetzee, who attempted himself to rewrite the classic, thought about the many ways that Defoe’s book had been encountered over the generations. Coetzee has the castaway describe his readers as a cannibal horde, waiting for an opportunity to consume him, gnawing at ‘the very substance of truth.’

Rousseau’s Crusoe

One of the most influential early attempts to tame Robinson Crusoe is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile; ou de l’Education, his 1762 work on model education. Rousseau recommended the novel as the exemplary text for his hothouse pupil for whom it would constitute ‘his whole library’. Stripped of its ‘irrelevant matter’, according to Rousseau it would furnish his pupil with a fund of literary material, ‘both for work and play.’ As an emblem of the solitary life, the novel would teach the child independence of mind and self-reliance. Thus would Émile be encouraged to dress and act, to imagine himself, as Robinson Crusoe, but only after the abridged narrative was ‘disencumbered of all its rigmarole’. More crucially, it would be stripped of its religious content.

Rousseau intended to adapt the novel in line with this prescription but never did. It was left to one of his German admirers, Joachim Campe, to fulfil the ambition in his Robinson der Jüngere (1779-80). In accordance with Rousseau’s prescription Campe was to render the novel down to what he saw as its narrative essentials, at the same time supplementing the story with many pedagogical lessons for his child readers, not least to correct one of the central problems for educators, namely Robinson’s disobedience to his parents. While there is no indication that Defoe intended it as such, through the influence of Rousseau and his best-selling German disciple the novel had, by the early nineteenth century, achieved European-wide status as a children’s classic.

Pocket watch - Wikipedia

Marx’s Pocket Watch

Compelling as it remained for educators, the novel was soon finding favour with social  commentators, many reducing it to a tale about Protestant self-reliance and the rewards of labour.  ‘Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists,’ remarked Marx in Das Kapital, ‘let us take a look at him on his island’. What results is one of the most willful readings of the novel, Marx’s forceful rendering of Crusoe as homo economicus causing him to employ strategies of both supplementation and redaction. Like Rousseau, Marx relegated the significance of the religious content, divesting it of the providentialism that drives the narrative: ‘Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.’ So central had Crusoe’s piety been to Defoe’s intentions that it is difficult to imagine what kind of work Marx might have been imagining. Transforming Crusoe into a model capitalist, Marx’s Crusoe is portrayed as an early devotee time-and-motion studies:

This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him.

Defoe may have had Crusoe rescue many items from the wreck but a watch and ledger book that Marx finds were not among them. Could Marx have misread it? Was he relying on a liberal adaptation, or simply a bad translation? Did he just make up Crusoe’s inventory to suit his argument? Either way, Marx’s whole understanding of Crusoe as an emblem of modern industrial man was founded on textual details that were not included by Defoe.  Thereafter Marx goes on to rewrite the story of the solitary castaway fighting for personal survival in favour of a community of social beings

carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.

Thus it was that Marx presented 1860s audiences with yet another radical reinvention of Crusoe, and one bearing little resemblance to the original.

Robinson Crusoe's Money; Or, the Remarkable Financial Fortunes and  Misfortunes of a Remote Island Community

Coleridge’s Semi-colon

While Rousseau, Marx, and others may have taken extreme liberties with the story, censoring and supplementing the text in ways that suited their purposes, one of the most unfortunate nineteenth-century readings was to be found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s praise for the novel in 1830, in which he offered fulsome evidence for Defoe’s stylistic brilliance. In the passage that describes Crusoe’s indecision about the rescue of money from the sinking ship, Coleridge transcribes his remark as follows: ‘However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvas’, a passage that Coleridge judged ‘worthy of Shakespeare; and yet the simple semi-colon after it, the instant passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself.’ The fact was that this exquisite punctuational detail did not appear in the text until almost a century after the original, introduced by an ananymous compositor as he prepared Charles Whittingham’s 1812 edition for the press, on which Coleridge was relying. As Irving Rothman concludes, Coleridge may have ‘appreciated Defoe’s . . . powers as a narrative artist’, but unfortunately ‘he just did not have the best text available to him when he read Robinson Crusoe.’ Coleridge’s glaring error is only the tip of a hermeneutic iceberg that has been haunted for generations by the bibliographical instability of its object of study.

Difficult as the novel is, perhaps the most strange and surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe are therefore to be found in the many postumous lives of the text. That there should have been so many idiosyncratic and at times wilful readings over the generations should not surprise us. It is a complex narrative, composed of a multitude of generic forms. Virginia Woolf, an admirer, suggested as much when she reflected how its readers, in seeking a key to its multivalence, often found themselves reducing it to what they believed were its bare essentials. For all its brilliance, the novel was for Woolf still fraught with unresolved hermeneutic mysteries: ‘However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books,’ this otherwise confident reader confesses that ultimately ‘a lonely battle waits us at the end.’

Robinson Crusoe, Student and Teacher - ENGL:2338:0001 Spr15 18th Century  British Literature Spring 2015 - UIowa Wiki


Two Nineteenth-Century Expeditionary Libraries

Guest blog: Innes M. Keighren

THE DECISIONS we take about the books we pack when we travel are often informed by three factors: 1) practicality (“Will this book help me to travel safely, agreeably, and productively?”) 2) pleasure (“Will this book provide entertainment or diversion when required?”) and 3) portability (“Can I accommodate the space and weight of this book?”). These same considerations were entirely familiar to travellers in centuries past.

In approaching the ways books were read by British travellers in the nineteenth century, I propose to draw on two examples: first, the en route reading practices of the scriptural geographers Edward Robinson and Eli Smith as they sought biblical truth in the Holy Land and, second, the shipboard library of the Arctic exploration vessel HMS Isabella.

Books in the sand

“Plan of Jerusalem, sketched from Sieber and Catherwood, corrected by the Measurements of Robinson and Smith”, by Heinrich Kiepert. From Biblical researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraæ (London: John Murray, 1841).

For the scriptural geographers Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, travel and text were intimately related. The purpose of their journey, to locate biblical sites in the present-day Holy Land, necessitated travelling not only with books to hand, but often literally with books in hand. In their account, Robinson and Smith were assiduous in detailing the contents of their travelling library. Doing so was both practical (they were effectively ‘field testing’ books for the purposes of recommending them to other travellers) and rhetorical (as evidence of their scholarly credentials):

First of all we had our BIBLES, both in English and in the original tongues; and then RELAND’S Palæstina, which next to the Bible is the most important book for travellers in the Holy Land. We had also RAUMER’S Palästina, BURCKHARDT’S Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, the English compilation from LABORDE’S Voyage en Arabie Petrée, and the Modern Traveller in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria. Were I [Robinson] to make the journey again, considering the difficulty of transporting books, I should hardly add much to the above list, excepting perhaps a compendious History of the Crusades, and the volume of RITTER’S Erdkunde, containing Palestine in the second edition (I, 48).

Complaints about portability notwithstanding, theirs was a relatively small library: six texts and a number of bibles. Nevertheless, this catalogue of in-the-field reading matter was an important warrant of their status as credible scholars. Their need for a travelling library was further evidenced by their working method. They had adopted a specific principle to guide their investigations: “to avoid as far as possible all contact with the convents and the authority of the monks”. Better, they thought, to “examine everywhere for ourselves with the Scriptures [and other texts] in our hands”. Books, then, were not just empirical sources, but were part of a rigorous method allowing them to make ready checks on the veracity of these portable authorities. Confirming (or correcting) the work of others was the means by which Robinson and Smith could quantify their intellectual and geographical contribution on the spot.

Books on the water

“A bear plunging into the sea”, by John Ross. From A voyage of discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander (London: John Murray, 1819).

While a travelling library may have been useful for Robinson and Smith, its heft presented practical problems. Questions of transportability mattered less for those who travelled by sea, and shipboard libraries were commonplace by the nineteenth century. The reading material available to the officers and crew of naval ships and to civilian passengers on commercial vessels reflected practical requirements of navigation, the needs of correct scientific investigation, and concerns about the morals and the morale of the crew.

In his account of the unsuccessful 1818 Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, John Ross offered a detailed description of the provisioning of his vessel, HMS Isabella. Under Ross’s direction a number of books were supplied for “the use of the officers, and quarter-deck petty officers.” The ship’s library included travel narratives, scientific texts, and astronomical and navigational guides, together with “Thirty Bibles and sixty Testaments.” All told, the library held twenty-five titles across fifty-four volumes. Of the ship’s compliment of fifty-four men, fewer than twenty had access to the library by dint of their rank. The ship’s crew had to make do with the religious tracts or their own private collections.

The library’s narratives fell, broadly, into two categories: those such as Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal (1801) and Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay (1795), related specifically to the territory the expedition was to navigate, and those, such as Thomas Falkner’s A Description of Patagonia (1774) and William Dampier’s Voyages and Descriptions (1699), to be read for pleasure and for the examples they might provide for seamanship, observation, and description. Volumes on mineralogy, geology, and botany constituted the ship’s scientific collection. Isabella’s library was, together with sixty or so scientific instruments recommended to it by the Royal Society, part of the expedition’s scholarly apparatus.

That Ross took the trouble to detail his ship’s library and scientific collections was partly for the sake of credibility. In the leadup to the publication of his narrative, Ross’s own observational skills had been called into question in a dispute over the existence of a mountain range that had seemed to make the Isabella’s passage through Lancaster Sound impossible. With his own aptitude and leadership in doubt, Ross’s decision to offer a full-scale account of the literary and scientific equipment of the expedition was part of a deliberate (although ultimately inadequate) strategy to show careful planning, sound scholarship, and the production of relevant knowledge at sea. For Ross, books had a potential practical value in affording protection against criticism.

Where next?

Because reading (and, more specifically, citation) was so centrally implicated in the demonstration of credibility on the part of nineteenth-century travellers, we know in very many cases what travellers read, why they read, and (sometimes, but less often) with what effect. Whilst a significant body of scholarship exists on the way travels were mediated as they became text (in the processes of authorship, editing, and publication), more work needs to be done on the mediation of travels by texts and how reading, whether en route or in situ, informed the nature and practice of travel itself.


Innes M. Keighren is a historical geographer with research interests in geography’s disciplinary and discursive histories, in book history, and in the history of science. He is based in the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Bringing geography to book: Ellen Semple and the reception of geographical knowledge (London, 2010) and co-author of Travels into print: exploration, writing, and publishing with John Murray, 1773–1859 (Chicago, 2015). His most recent book is an edited collection about the geographical significance of the popular TV programme, Landscapes of Detectorists (Axminster, 2020).

The Utopian Library

In what is recognised as the foundational document in the genre of utopian writing, Thomas More imagines a traveling library. In Utopia (1516) he has the sea captain Raphael Hythloday take on his journey a model collection of books along with the gift of a printing press for the strange folk among whom he will find himself. More’s fantasy, based on the creation of a world framed by a canon of learning, is an early example among many to describe the ideal library:

I happened to carry a great many books with me, instead of merchandise, when I sailed on my fourth voyage; for I was so far from thinking of soon coming back, that I rather thought never to have returned at all, and I gave them all my books, among which were many of Plato’s and some of Aristotle’s works: I had also Theophrastus on Plants, which, to my great regret, was imperfect; for having laid it carelessly by, while we were at sea, a monkey had seized upon it, and in many places torn out the leaves.  They have no books of grammar but Lascares, for I did not carry Theodorus with me; nor have they any dictionaries but Hesichius and Dioscerides.  They esteem Plutarch highly, and were much taken with Lucian’s wit and with his pleasant way of writing.  As for the poets, they have Aristophanes, Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles of Aldus’s edition; and for historians, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Herodian.  One of my companions, Thricius Apinatus, happened to carry with him some of Hippocrates’s works and Galen’s Microtechne . . . .

‘When a history of the book in Utopia comes to be written,’ J.B. Trapp observed, ‘the precise form in which Hythlodaeus . . . satisfied the Hellenic yearnings of its inhabitants will require attention.’ Like More, the far-traveled sailor seems to have had a predilection for portable and exquisitely printed Aldine editions, most of which were available at the time he reputedly left Lisbon in May 1503. Among the most conspicuously topical were the Sophocles of 1502 and the Theophrastus which, according to Trapp ‘could only have been the fourth volume’ of Aristotle of 1497. However, there are other titles that would have been impossible to take. Neither the Plato, the Heprodian nor the Hesychius was available in Greek when Hythloday says he set out from Europe with Vespucci.

Was the presence of titles valued by the author, but not available to Hythoday on the date of his stated departure from Portugal, merely bibliographical ineptitude on More’s part? While such mysteries might keep incunabulists awake at night, it is unlikely to have troubled the author, who in 1516 might have wanted to present the library of Hythloday (literally ‘speaker of nonsense’) as a catalogue of some of the best up-to-the-minute titles then available to European civilization, the equivalent of a Desert Island Discs for the early sixteenth century humanist scholar, with the exception perhaps of the ‘imperfect’ Theophrastus, badly edited in More’s own day.

In thinking about the idea of books as tools for the transformation of culture, Hythloday’s travelling library seems to anticipate a belief in what Elizabeth Eisenstein called ‘the printing press as an agent of change’. In presenting his select library to the Utopians, along with a printing press for its replication, Hythloday might thus be seen to perform the role of cultural missionary. Captain Kirk’s prime directive – to observe but not to interfere – seems not to have applied in More’s intellectual world.

Francis Bacon offered a considerably more dynamic model of learning in The New Atlantis (1627), an imaginary island which exists primarily for the creation of new discoveries. In what is effectively an early form of science fiction, Bacon imagines the world as a knowledge economy where innate curiosity leads to the proliferation of technological innovation.

May be an image of 1 person

For at least one SF writer in the twentieth century, the utopian fantasy of a limitless access to knowledge was to find its embodiment in the dream of a total library. Around 1936, H.G. Wells began to contemplate the possibility of a near future in which all of humanity would have access to a ‘World Encyclopedia . . . alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere.’ This was about the time that the Eastman Kodak Company was experimenting with microfilm and the Library of Congress and other major research institutions were commissioning the first large-scale microform projects. In effect, Wells believed that the technology was already in place for creating a global information revolution.

The cultural heroes of what Wells speculatively termed The World Brain would be the bibliographers and librarians of the future. ‘The time is close at hand’, he enthused, ‘when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her own convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.’ Although Marshall McLuhan is popularly regarded as the prophet of the internet, it might be argued that Wells was conceptualizing a similar digital landscape in the years before the Second World War:

You see how such an Encyclopaedic organisation could spread like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a common medium of expression into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity.

Only two years after Wells was outlining his dream of a boundless infoverse, Jorge Luis Borges described in The Library of Babel an infinite collection containing not only all of the books ever written but even those yet to be conceived. Although Borges avoids mentioning Wells by name, it is more than likely that he was thinking about the older writer in 1941.

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist-somewhere in some hexagon.

It is rumoured, writes Borges, that the library even had the potential to provide ‘a detailed history of the future.’ In reality, The Library of Babel, as its name suggests, creates as much confusion as certainty. The effect of such a bizarre and infinite project, predicts Borges, is to create a form of information overload that destabilizes epistemology itself. Seven decades later, we might finally be catching up with this image of a brave new world of information. That we might sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of noise out there, suggests that, for all of its possibilities, the utopian library is fated to be as impossible as Utopia itself.


The Age of Iatrogenesis

A Disabled Reader’s Tale

The frostbitten hand of Edward Leicester Atkinson, surgeon on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13.

From time to time, we hope to include items by some of the leading scholars in the field. It gives us particular pleasure to launch the first of our guest blogs with this contribution by David H. Stam. David is best known as a distinguished scholar in the fields of bibliography and polar history. His career as a librarian took him to the Newberry Library, Johns Hopkins University, eventually as Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries of The New York Public Library, and for several years the Librarian at Syracuse University. He is famously responsible for  An International Dictionary of Library Histories (2001) and is more recently the author, with the assistance of Deirdre C. Stam, of the excellent Adventures in Polar Reading (Grolier Club, 2019). He has also written a memoir, What Happened to Me (2014). In this article, he offers a personal take on reading in unusual circumstances. – BB

My old friend Bill Bell, who is responsible for this blog, is about to publish Crusoe’s Books, his long-awaited book on reading in extreme situations. I’ve been waiting to see this book for most of the 21st century, ever since the SHARP Annual Conference of 2001 in Williamsburg, VA, where we first met following his paper on the books of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott on his first expedition to Antarctica in 1901 aboard Discovery. We’ve been friends and reading partners ever since.

A lot has happened in the intervening twenty years. With my wife Deirdre’s collaboration our own work on reading in polar settings has been published by the Grolier Club: Adventures in Polar Reading: The Book Cultures of High Latitudes (New York: Grolier Club, 2019). By the coincidence of a large number of Polar centennials early in the century, interest in the so-called “Heroic Age” of Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and many others has mushroomed, both among the general public and specialists in all aspects of Polar history.

My own experience of reading was turned upside-down in late 2008 by a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, known in Britain as motor neuron disease). A disease without a cure, symptoms are very variable among its patients, often including a significant loss of finger dexterity (sometimes ironically called digital dexterity). It was not long before my ability to button a shirt had all but disappeared, a phenomenon mentioned in King Lear where on his deathbed he pleads, “Pray Sir, undo this button.” It’s now our favourite line of the Bard who understands so much of life and its vicissitudes.

As far as I know the Americans with Disabilities Act does not deal with discrimination against disabled readers like me, nor do I intend to hire a lawyer to find out. For the record I want to provide a list of factors that affect me in reading the printed word in physical form. These conditions vary a great deal from patient to patient and there is no standard norm among various neurological diseases. This is a personal list, though I suspect several would be widely shared. Some of these problems could be avoided by an attentive publisher or printer, as fortunately happened with our recent book.

1. Weight: in this era of the mega-tome memoir, historical masterwork,  and exhaustive biography, weight is an obvious problem. I sometimes need some help in positioning a book for reading, usually with an aide resting the book on a pillow on my lap. None of my four devices for holding a book open work with a heavy book, and regular adjustment of legs, pillow, and book (for example, to turn pages) are a distraction, and often a danger to the page edges. One alternative is to place the volume on a flat surface at chest height and read standing up. That takes energy already at a premium and most heavy books in that position would need to be held open with two hands.

Contributing to the weight problem sometimes is the use of calendared paper, especially for glossy illustrated books. Apart from the weight, reflections on the page require constant adjustment of the page if not the whole volume.

2. Openability: I simplistically divide books into three categories: one, two, and three-fisted books. The first can lie flat, or open on a reading device, with ease of page turning. The pages remain open while taking notes by hand (if possible) or computer. In my case I have no legible handwriting, though I can still compose on a computer. The second requires two hands to hold the work open, though turning pages or taking notes is much more difficult. The third category is impossible for the disabled: typical these days is a tightly bound perfect binding with excessive glue and very narrow inner margins. On-demand publishers often err in this direction. Most desirable is Smythe sewing with adequate inner margins.

3. Footnotes vs endnotes: Endnotes in two and three-fisted books virtually are guaranteed to go unread. Imagine trying to move with the hands of a true klutz to the back of the book while holding it open with largely inoperative fingers. For me footnotes are preferable and needn’t be in a smaller font.

4. Margins: Some disabled readers retain handwriting ability. I don’t recommend they deface their books (or library books), but for those needing the convenience of annotations, wide inner margins are a boon.

5. Type size: For an octogenarian like me type size makes a great difference, though a small tightly spaced face will not deter me from reading. It is fortunately still possible, though I wonder if my impression is correct that university presses are increasingly moving toward more words per page. Perversely, the Times Literary Supplement has already made the move, a betrayal of Stanley Morison and Times New Roman.

6. Newspapers: For me a tabloid is much easier to manipulate than any of the hard copy alternatives. Online versions of the news are another matter, but old habits die hard. Newspapers. Literary journals like NYRB, LRB, and TLS are a good size, except when their inner margins (verso and recto) yield paper pressed over the type. Would that the publishers put all their advertisements there, however much their advertisers object.

7. Time: It might not be obvious from the complications listed above that almost everything with ALS takes more time, often more than twice as much: bathing, drying, dressing, eating, walking, exercising, writing, typing, sleeping itself, even reading. The assault on our reading ability is insidious: it distracts our attention, it destroys the rhythm of the prose (not to mention poetry), and involuntary sleep requires re-reading many passages in seeking the place to resume.

All that and old age does not terminate the addiction and we go on reading as long as we can. Mechanical aids keep advancing the ability to read, write, and communicate, even as the end of those abilities gradually arrives. My own hero is Tony Judt who wrote four or five significant books in the two or three years of his disease with the kind of help I can’t imagine. A reader and an amanuensis at a minimum. Among other things, it begins to get expensive. With considerable help I’ve been lucky enough to complete two full books in the thirteen years since diagnosis, and another since the probable onset twenty years ago.

Despite the trials outlined here, I have been extremely lucky in my encounter with ALS, having lived far longer than most fellow victims, and having the excellent care of the US Veterans Medical establishment. But I do wish that the world of publishing would accommodate some of the desiderata outlined here.

Anti-social Reading

World Book Night 2020 coincided with the beginning of Covid lockdown in the UK. At a moment when many public events were being put on ice, The Reading Agency, an organization dedicated to promoting wellbeing through reading, announced that the celebration would go ahead anyway. But April 23 would be a World Book Night with a difference. Because ‘reading connects a nation in self-isolation,’ the Agency offered a suite of alternatives: virtual parties, digital activities, and author broadcasts. An approved list of books was provided and members of the public were encouraged to turn collectively to print because reading was not only proven to ‘improve mental health, self-esteem, empathy, concentration, sleeping patterns and more.’ As one organizer put it, books have ‘the power to . . . connect us up in these difficult times.’

Reading has long had an important part to play in building social relationships, mediated with others through the intimate psychological experience of the sharing and discussion of print. Benedict Anderson famously characterised reading audiences as ‘imagined communities’. Even when they were separated by thousands of miles with no hope of meeting, Anderson maintained that colonial readers of the past could connect with one another through print.

But this is only half the story. Back in the 1960s, the Canadian sociologist, Irving Goffman (1922-1982) talked about the importance of what he called ‘civil inattention’ to describe the processes of social disengagement that can take place in public spaces. One aspect of the way in which individuals regulated their relations with others, Goffman observed, was through the use of media. As an ‘involvement shield’ its ultimate purpose was not to connect with others but to inhibit intimacy. Anyone who has been on the London Underground at rush hour as strangers around them are immersed in their books and newspapers will know what Goffman was talking about.

There is nothing new in this form of behaviour of course. Nineteenth-century emigrants, finding themselves for weeks and months in the company of strangers, used books as protection against other shipboard passengers. Richard Altick remarked that common readers in Victorian working-class communities were often ‘subjected to the ridicule, or at best the well-meant disapproval, of those who failed to share one’s inclination.’ How much more would similar social pressure be brought to bear in the close confines between decks? Stephen Colclough and David Vincent’s observation that ‘entering the secret world of print amidst the bustle of the crowded household required immense concentration and a capacity to withstand resentment at the withdrawal from its sociability’ might be applied, perhaps even moreso, to strangers in steerage. There is evidence of passengers on more than one emigrant ship suffering ridicule for time spent reading and writing.

Reading in Antarctica

On the British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-04) an extensive library was used by the men on board Discovery. It was a communal resource, often resorted to for mutual entertainment, argument, and conversational exchange. Just as often, though, it served many solitary pursuits. In the close quarters of the ship, men would often retire to their cabins, making reading the pretext for finding time alone. Elizabeth Leane finds an analogy for Antarctic reading in the way that splinters of ice break away from an iceberg to form their own independent bodies: ‘text acted like ice in Heroic-Era expeditions, at times insulating expedition members from those around them, calving off little imaginative islands on which they could maroon themselves; and at other times solidifying the gaps between them.’

Today we have considerably more sophisticated means of tuning out the presence of others than our forbears. For all their online reading groups and social networks, today’s travelers have their Ipods, Kindles, and mobile phones, all suggesting that Goffman’s involvement shield has never been more relevant.

The Myth of the Wipers Times

There are a lot of myths surrounding the history of reading. From time to time, we aim to correct historical misconceptions that have entered the realm of received wisdom. This one relates to the most celebrated trench newspaper to be printed on the Western Front during the First World War.

The title of The Wipers Times is a combination of the soldiers’ common parlance for Ypres and a scatalogical joke about its ultimate destiny, the pages filled with clever humour and subversive jibes at the ‘expense’ of officialdom. Its notoriety is due largely to its subsequent circulation during the war in facsimile, issued by the London publisher Herbert Jenkins, and in several editions since. Among other duties, Jenkins was an informant to the Official Press Bureau whose archives indicate that from the beginning of the war Jenkins clandestinely reported to the authorities on the activities of his book trade colleagues. On 31 March 1916, he had written to the Bureau to say that ‘If at any time I can be of any assistance, I hope you will not hesitate to make use of me.’ Shortly afterwards he sent the Bureau a list of publishers and newspaper proprietors for closer government scrutiny. When he applied for permission to reissue The Wipers he assured the Bureau that it had been cleared by the censors before its original appearance, ‘each and every number’ having been ‘submitted to and approved by the Army Authorities in France.’

This is very different from the popular story that has tended to exaggerate the subversive nature of the Wipers. The story told by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman in the 2013 docudrama, for instance, presents it as the epitome of subversion, a real-life combination of Oh! What a Lovely War and Private Eye. In fact its closest affinity was with the society magazine, The Tatler, with which it had humorous sport in both of their correspondence columns throughout the war years. Its pages may be peppered with jocular references to the censor’s incursion, lending the paper an ironic air of mock insubordination, but, in practice, The Wipers was far from subversive.

Trench journals were not just tolerated but were sanctioned as part of the campaign for morale, both at home and at the front. They often portrayed themselves to their readers as autonomous, home-grown anarchic publications but they were regarded by the authorities as an outlet for potential discontent. The fundamental role of such magazines, observes Graham Seal, was to engender the ‘willingness of soldiers to endure the palpable insanity to which they were consigned by forces beyond their control.’ Three decades and a world war later the debate was still raging about the political efficacy of a free press among allied troops. In the face of Churchill’s attempts to impose a more patriotic and conservative tone on newspapers ‘produced from below’, surviving censorship reports indicate that ‘what troops liked was not necessarily what senior military figures believed should be given to them.’ Despite their employment of a dissenting tone, many understood that such publications were actually good for building esprit de corps. In giving voice to the disaffected, through irreverent jokes about commanding officers and frank satires on day-to-day conditions, front line print culture offered a public sphere that provided catharsis, or what Field Marshal Montgomery, who gave a free hand to such publications in the 1939-45 Eastern campaign, referred to as a ‘valuable safety valve’.

Before he published his facsimile, Jenkins approached General Haig to write a foreword. That he declined is not necessarily evidence of the old man’s disapproval but that it might have compromised one of the most sophisticated kinds of frontline propaganda deployed by the authorities in the First World War.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

‘I have no books’ Robert Louis Stevenson complained to one of his correspondents shortly after he arrived in Samoa in 1890.  A full six months later he was able to report, not without a little ambivalence:

Our books and furniture keep slowly draining up the road, in a sad state of scatterment and disrepair; I wish the devil had had K. by his red beard before he had packed my library.  Odd leaves and sheets and boards – a thing to make a bibliomaniac shed tears – are fished out of odd corners.  But I am no bibliomaniac, praise Heaven, and I bear up, and rejoice when I find anything safe.

Stevenson may not have classed himself as a bibliomaniac but we do get a sense from this statement of the intimate relationship that he had with his library. In a passage from the Ebb Tide, one of the final works he wrote before his death in 1894, he meditates on the importance of reading to the condition of exile:

One, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket. Certainly, if money could have been raised upon the book, Robert Herrick would long ago have sacrificed that last possession; but the demand for literature, which is so marked a feature in some parts of the South Seas, extends not so far as the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which he could not exchange against a meal, had often consoled him in his hunger. He would study it, as he lay with tightened belt on the floor of the old calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only less beautiful because they lacked the consecration of remembrance. Or he would pause on random country walks; sit on the path side, gazing over the sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and dip into the Aeneid, seeking sortes. And if the oracle (as is the way of oracles) replied with no very certain nor encouraging voice, visions of England at least would throng upon the exile’s memory: the busy schoolroom, the green playing-fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London, and the fireside, and the white head of his father. For it is the destiny of those grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforced and often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student’s own irrevocable youth. 

It was of course not England that haunted Stevenson’s own memories in his final years at Vailima, but his own early years in Scotland.  ‘Scotch is the only History I know,’ he wrote in 1891, ‘it is the only history reasonably represented in my library’. Throughout his time in the Pacific we find him returning in his reading to what he referred to as the ‘Auld Lichts’, and in particular the Covenanting writers of his youth to whom he claimed he turned most often for ‘consecration and remembrance.’ 

An annotated virtual inventory allows us to reconstruct RLS’s personal library at the time of his death. Of the over 1200 titles identified, many are association copies. Drawing together items of correspondence and marginalia it documents a life punctuated by the acquisition of books. Early items include a copy of James Aikman’s Annals of the Persecution in Scotland bearing an inscription of the young Stevenson’s name by his father. On 7 September 1868 the eighteen year old had written to his mother to thank her for this addition to his library: ‘This morning I got a delightful haul,’ he wrote, ‘a precious and most acceptable donation, for which I tender my most ebullient thanksgivings. I almost forgot to drink my tea and eat mine egg.’

Even when he was far away from his books, they were very much on his mind. He referred to the volume by name in a letter from San Francisco written to his friend Charles Baxter in 1880: ‘Among my books there is one . . . in the shelves immediately behind one as one sits at the business table on which I think you will find my name written by my father; if it is so, please keep it.’ In such acts of giving and receiving, Stevenson reinforced his personal relationships and his sense of his own past through the many books he had owned.

Curiously, RLS confessed to having based a number of details in Treasure Island on his reading of Robinson Crusoe, going on to identify the specific appeal of Defoe’s novel for him:

It is the grown people who make the nursery stories; all the children do, is jealously to preserve the text. One out of a dozen reasons why Robinson Crusoe should be so popular with youth, is that it hits their level in this matter to a nicety; Crusoe was always at makeshifts and had, in so many words, to play at a great variety of professions; and then the book is all about tools, and there is nothing that delights a child so much.

Stevenson’s own copy of the novel, an edition of 1851, was given to him when he was eight and is bound in with a Life of Alexander Selkirk. It was heavily annotated and the illustrations appeared to be coloured in by RLS himself.


Jerome in Antarctica

It was common for Renaissance artists to surround Saint Jerome with the equipment of learning—bookshelves, manuscripts, reading desk—in order to convey the image of the great scholar in the sublime isolation of his study, at once a repository for the synthesis of texts and at the same time a place for the production of new kinds of knowledge. Many of these images—take this iconic portrait by Albrecht Dürer—presenting Jerome as an idealised reader, poring timelessly over his books in blissful isolation from the temporal world beyond the walls of the study.

The same potent imagery finds confirmation in later iconography. In the great period of British emigration, involving the displacement of millions of nineteenth-century Crusoes, the same iconography would prove particularly resilient as attempts were made to contain the experience of living at a colonial distance. It is something to which a number of illustrated editions of Crusoe–leaning over his Bible with his precious shelf of hard-won trophies behind him–pay uncanny tribute.

Thomas Selby Cousins emigrated to New Zealand in the 1860s and then on to Victoria, where he was soon making himself a reputation for scenes of Australian life. The Bushman’s Dream (pictured here) was reproduced in the Illustrated Sydney News in 1869. If we compare it to early illustrations for Robinson Crusoe, we get a sense of how this visual tradition was now becoming enmeshed in a colonial context. Such images describe the way in which reading conjures up in the imagination other events and places prompted by its encounter with the printed word. The dreaming bushman, sitting at his makeshift table in the outback, is carried back in his mind to an English scene. In the isolation of his hut, it says, the printed word can bridge the tyranny of distance through a vicarious return to a familiar world. Despite its celebration of reading as a lonely act, we should not forget that The Bushman’s Dream appeared in a mass circulation newspaper, not unlike the one that appears in Cousins’ image. By this time, these tokens of global communication were part of a vast network involving steam trains, cargo ships, and the telegraph lines lately introduced to the Antipodes. Three-volume novels, such as the one that sits in front of him, were by then being produced on industrial presses and regularly arriving in their thousands at Australian ports by steam packet.

In the early twentieth century such images of the reader in exile were still finding purchase in even the most surprising of circumstances. In the fateful Antarctic spring of 1911, before Robert Falcon Scott and his sledging team set out on the journey from which they would not return, this same visual tradition was on Herbert Ponting’s mind as he posed the expeditionary leader for a remarkable portrait in his hut on Ross Island (above). Despite the apparently makeshift arrangement—books shelved in upturned packing crates, equipment hanging casually around, memento mori in the form of the pocket watch that the hangs beside the bed—what results is a tableau vivant, a pastiche of Jeromes. Dora Thornton remarks on the way that such portraits, rehearsed from the sixteenth century on, were elaborately coded. The architectural setting, the choices of appurtenance, the very posture of the sitter, together convey messages about the status, education, and self-awareness of their subject. In this one moment, with his library ranged behind him, pen in hand, Scott takes his place in a lineage of individuals who had for generations taken refuge among their books. On the very edge of the known world, it seems to say, civilization continues, and the familiar practices of reading and writing make it possible.

Jane Austen in the Trenches?

Ever since the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Janeites’ – a short story about a secret society of officers in the First World War with an overwhelming devotion to the works of Jane Austen – it has been rumored that Tommy Atkins was a big fan. It is an idea that appears to have been given historical credibility 70 years after the war. In a letter to the TLS (3 Feb. 1984), Martin Jarrett-Kerr recollected having been told five decades earlier by his non-combatant tutor at Oxford, H.F. Brett-Smith, that the latter had been employed to recommend suitable works for the rehabilitation of shell-shocked troops. Brett-Smith had apparently confided to his student that ‘His job was to grade novels and poetry according to the “Fever-Chart”. For the severely shell-shocked he selected Jane Austen.’ In the 1930s, when Jarrett-Kerr was an undergraduate at Oxford, the relatively young subject of university English Literature still had a relevance problem. This was also a period when the scars of another battle at Oxford (between Eng Lit and German Philology) were still raw. All in all, the conditions were rife for peddling a belief in the patriotic credentials of Pride and Prejudice.

In 2009, Brian Southam wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement asking whether anyone had documentary evidence for Brett-Smith’s ‘fever chart’. No reply appears to have been forthcoming. Since which time the myth of the First-World-War-Austen has been reproduced, recycled, and embellished countless times. John Mullan, picking up on Jarrett-Kerr’s anecdote, wrote in The Guardian in 2013 that ‘It is impossible not to speculate as to his reasons for thinking Austen the best solace for those who were severely traumatised.’ From The Telegraph to The Daily Mail, newspapers were soon jumping on the bandwagon and Oxford professors were happy to oblige them with soundbites: ‘She was read in the trenches. She was a prescribed script for tortured, troubled souls . . . . She’s always been adored by the academic community and the popular community and there are few people who do inspire that kind of devotion.’

Soon the same myth was being peddled with ever greater confidence, a story that became truer in the retelling. In 2016 an exhibition at The Folger Library on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity took for granted the novelist’s special status in military circles, dedicating a section on ‘Will and Jane go to War’. While admitting that the ‘fever-chart’ story has ‘very little evidence to go on’, one critic in the following year went on to write a whole book chapter on ‘Conscripting Gentle Jane’ speculating why Austen might have been popular with troops. The collision of the novelist’s bicentenary and the memorialization of the First World War made the connection almost irresistible to copy writers in and around 2017. Since which time, the dubious story of real troops with an overwhelming passion for her works was being taken for granted in certain quarters.  

Anyone who knows anything about the changing fortunes of the ‘immortal Jane’ can be forgiven for their skepticism. Although it is not impossible that there were some Austen devotees among the millions of men at the Front, there is scant evidence for a Janeite cult in the trenches: in soldier’s accounts I have found only two references, one of which includes ‘Austin’s [sic] Pride and Prejudice’ among an otherwise long list of titles that one man encountered. All of the evidence would seem to suggest that Austen’s fiction held far less popular appeal among troops than Charles Dickens, Rider Haggard, and Nat Gould, who figure in their diaries and letters with far greater frequency. And that, of course, was the whole ironic purpose of ‘The Janeites’ which was not meant to document the way that soldiers identified with the gentil world of Georgian middle-class respectability but was, in fact, Kipling’s conceit on the anomaly of polite tea parties and marriage proposals in the heat of battle.

It seems that Kipling scholars have always got the joke. In 1959 J.M.S. Tompkins remarked about the way that the horrors of war “contrast in every way with the exquisite art of Jane Austen, the strange but natural resource of the men whose duty it is to deal familiarly with carnage.” In 1971, Charles Carrington remarked that “the story would have the same point if it had been called ‘The Trollopians’.            

After the war Kipling himself sent a consignment of books to the Western Front for the entertainment of the occupying force, a full inventory of which can be found in the YMCA Archives at the University of Birmingham. Margaret Ballie-Sanders, Violet Jacobs, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Stanley Weyman and a host of other popular writers were sent, but Kipling didn’t think to include a single volume of Jane Austen.