Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2008 Issue

Collecting in the Known and Unknown World

Newb.1913

History is in the details.


By Bruce McKinney

This is an article written to accompany this month's issue of the Comet - whose focus is Pamphlets, Broadsides and Ephemera.

History is the imprecise masquerading as the certain. Read history and it always contains opinion dressed as perspective because history is not all the facts, it's specific facts selected by writers. To dress up the text and confer credibility the occasional statement of uncertainty is included implying the rest of what's said is "known." What would history look like without perspective? Possibly something like a Google devoted entirely to all of history's disparate facts. It might tell us everything and nothing. Interpretation is that important. But because history is interpretation it is always subjective. It is also immense in scope and thereby provides finite opportunities for the amateur and the interested to understand specific history uniquely, even perhaps better than experts do. Just don't expect to find consistent confirmation of your research in the big books. The popularizer of history, often an adept story teller, employs an impressionistic approach to tell a coherent story that both explains who we were and by extension who we are. The historian looks intensively into the underlying facts and often clarifies, even debunks conventional wisdom. Between them we have the story leaning toward myth and the facts converted into story. The reader is in the middle.

We of course prefer myth masquerading as fact although it says more about us than it does about the past. When we do confront the past, for safety and convenience, we first separate ourselves from it. It isn't us; it's never us. When confronted we most often omit and what we cannot omit we sometimes deny. Our popular histories hence are more comforting than accurate. It's them. It's not us. Throw a thousand grains of sand into the air and see the sparkle of a few. Writers of popular history write of these while the darker grains are left to academics, lost, forgotten and ignored. What Al Gore characterizes as "inconvenient truths" about a planet under siege it turns out is also applicable to our approach to history. In wilfull ignorance we lose much, not just much of the crucial facts but also the opportunity to understand who we were, what we did, and why we did it. The past wasn't necessarily bad but neither will the future be necessarily better unless we come to terms with it.

This is relevant today because it has become possible, even easy, to reconstruct the past from the enormous volume of ephemera of all types - pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers and magazines, that is increasingly visible. The detailed stories that emerge may confirm, deny or elaborate what we believe. The outcome hardly matters. The principal difference is between believing and knowing. We can learn from what we know. We can only hope from what we believe. Anyone with computer access can do it and the scale and scope of such collecting is always under the control of the collector/researcher. The flow of material is constant. The collector engages and disengages and reengages when time permits.

Looking intently into the past will certainly confirm a substantial portion of mainstream historical narrative be it forms of transportation, demographics or attitudes toward alcohol in the 1840s. At the same time, in the details, the story is always different, perhaps true but not true enough. Other aspects of our understanding and expectation will emerge as fiction. What's compelling today is the opportunity to parse the details in ways inconceivable just a decade ago. And it doesn’t require special access and passes. It simply requires imagination, experience and awareness that unknown material regularly crosses our horizon at unpredictable times, is present briefly and disappears quickly. Those who understand and are interested in aspects of this lost history will pursue such material.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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