I’m not sure whether there is, or even whether there should be, a recognised collective noun for a bunch of booksellers, although the googleweb thrums with suggestions – a bind or a binding; a blessing (thank you); a case; a chapter – which has a certain historical basis, although it makes me think of printers rather than booksellers; a commission; a dickens or a trollope (but not apparently a shakespeare or an austen); a doze of bookfair exhibitors; an eccentricity; an extinction (a little bleak); a generosity (thank you, again); a madness (speak for yourself); a mildew (a little harsh); a poverty (a little too truthful) ; a quire; a ream; a remainder – which is quite clever; a ring (careful!); a scruff (ouch!); a set; a shelving; a shuffle; a signature; a stack; a stealth (don’t know where that one came from, although it has a ring to it); a treasure; a volume (not least for the noise they make when assembled together), or even a whinge of booksellers (cruel). No doubt you can think of others – perhaps a corduroy or a tweed of booksellers.
Whatever we call ourselves, there was a gathering of many of our brightest and best at Cambridge University Library the other day. I won’t pick out names – but many of them have featured here on the blog at one time or another. We had been invited there to celebrate an anniversary. The library is celebrating its six hundredth anniversary this year (yes – 600 years – pause to consider that). It’s a slightly arbitrary anniversary – to be precise, it is six hundred years since the first recorded mention of the library – two bequests were made to it in 1416, which implies that the library was probably already something of a feature in university life. There was even a library catalogue by 1424, although admittedly only listing 122 volumes. Big oaks, little acorns – there are now over eight million items and more than 128 miles of shelving.
We assembled at the small exhibition which has been running all summer – “Lines of Thought” – a selection of some of the greatest and most interesting treasures. Mark Purcell, Head of Research Collections, welcomed us with a generous and gracious tribute to the quiet but important part the book-trade makes in the building of great libraries. We met and mingled with the librarians and discussed what we do and what they do. All exceedingly pleasant and good things shall surely flow. Lines of communication firmly established. And the consensus was that more libraries should host receptions for the trade – in fact all libraries should, preferably weekly.
There was some intrigued speculation on who had and had not been invited – and why. But I gather it was simply a matter of the librarians inviting booksellers they knew personally or had bought from recently. Certainly it was an impressive group of the trade’s most scholarly and studious.
As for the exhibition itself – small, as I say – not a vast number of books and two of them on closer inspection turned out in fact to be dead pigeons. Close inspection was mandatory – the lights were low, very low. Conservators are good people of course, but they do sometimes forget that the point of conserving things is to enable them to be seen. Apparently people visiting the exhibition have taken to using their mobiles as torches, which rather defeats the object. No such bad behaviour from the booksellers, obviously.
With so much wealth to pick from, the selection of what to include in this anniversary exhibition must have been far more searching and exhaustive than the question of which booksellers to invite. But under six basic themes – roughly communication, science, faith, history, genetics and anatomy – we were given the key moments in the history of human thought.
So many eye-catching things that it’s difficult to single a handful out – a Gutenberg bible and a first folio in the same room. The great works of Copernicus, Galileo, Halley – and Isaac Newton’s own copy of the “Principia Mathematica”, heavily annotated. A Stephen Hawking draft typescript for “A Brief History of Time” just across the way to bring us up to date.
Much on Darwin and then even more on Darwin of course – hence the pigeons (his observations on selective breeding were largely drawn from the work of pigeon-fanciers). A curious display-case on one wall with the great literature of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer – and Margaret Drabble (I make no comment).
And a personal favourite – an eighteenth-century copper printing plate for a rather crude map of London. The etching and engraving unsigned, the workmanship far from the best, but how nice to see an actual printing plate for a map after spending so many years studying the engravers of such things. All in all, a very pleasant day out. The most enormous thank you to all concerned. Do try and catch the exhibition if you can – it’s only on for a couple more days, but there is a very interesting online version too which will hopefully stay up longer (https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/linesofthought/).