What is a book? A source of wisdom, a cultural artifact, a sacred relic, a text that can be rearranged into pdf, ebooks and pasted into a cloud. But in an earlier era, books were more than that: they were bosom friends.
Denise Gigante, a Stanford English professor, traces the power of the book in the 19th century and then looks forward to the future of the written word. Her research for her forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, which earned her a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, also recalls the half-forgotten English essayist and “tastemaker” Charles Lamb, a cultural icon as popular in the 19th century as Charles Dickens.
Gigante’s newest intellectual adventure began with the Jay Fliegelman Collection of “association copies” now in the Stanford Libraries. The collection is important not just for the books that it holds, but for the signatures, notes and dedications to and from the era’s leading cultural figures contained in them. English Professor Emeritus Albert Gelpi, describing the Fliegelman Collection, noted how “the books speak to each other.”
Gigante found inspiration in the collection. The idea of “association copies” was central to the 19th-century world of letters. When a book had the pencil marks of an admired literary friend or had been owned by a long-dead colleague, it deepened the conversation between book and reader.
We’ve turned the page onto a future without pages. The medium is a computer screen. “The center of association shifts from the self to the commodity that is the computer,” Gigante said. “The agency of connection is likewise transferred from the internal space of reflection to larger corporations.”
What’s missing is a tastemaker’s wise words in real time and the presence of a bosom buddy on your bookshelf. Does it matter? Gigante thinks so: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures,” she said.
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