Rhymes and Roundelayes

An excerpt from "Rhymes and Roundelayes in Praise of a Country Life," a 1904 volume in the University of Richmond's library collection.

You might not be an undergrad anymore, but you can still give learning the old college try. At the University of Richmond, Lynda Kachurek of the Boatwright Memorial Library teaches a course called "The Secret Life of Books." We asked for some insight.

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Why teach a class on books to 21st-century, digitally minded Gen Z students?

When I talk with students about books, it often feels as if we are discussing alien objects! Yet these same students have an almost reverent hush about them as they gingerly ask permission to open a 400-year-old book – and are amazed when it proves sturdy and accessible.

On the first day of class, we talk about e-books and digital devices. Students almost constantly use electronic tablets and devices, scrolling through pages or chatting with their friends using emojis. What startles them is that these concepts are not new with the digital age. They actually take us back to the earliest history of books and the transmission of knowledge.

They see a cunieform tablet from 2350 B.C.E., scroll through a reproduction of a 12th-century Japanese painting, look at hieroglyphics from the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," and page through a book printed in 1470. All of these forms still function for their intended purpose to convey information.

So rather than a simple contrast between printed books and digital ones, we take a deeper look at how things of the present developed – and how the transmission of knowledge evolved – by exploring what has changed and what has not over thousands of years.

Tell us a bit more about tradition and technology when it comes to books. 

E-books are certainly part of the conversation here, as students compare reading and retention between something in print versus a digital version. If you look at e-books, though, the technology is designed to mimic the experience of reading a print book – you can even hear and see the pages turn.

And book technology affects larger social and cultural issues. When we think about ease of access, portability is an important element of e-books. Centuries earlier, the printing press was a revolutionary technological shift that helped bring books out of the monasteries and universities into a more widespread popular audience.

With that came the need for increased literacy to be able to read those books, as well as booksellers and libraries to provide access to them. Widespread production also tended to flatten some language variances as people in different locales were reading texts in common dialects. 

We also learn about the role paper-making technology had on history. While China was making paper from plant fibers as early as 250 B.C.E., it took far longer to become a mainstay in European culture, which only began producing paper in the 13th century.

Thinking of words, what about dictionaries and their own history?

Words and languages are dynamic and lively entities. Just recently, Merriam-Webster put out the list of new words and definitions added to its dictionary.

Early English dictionaries were often bilingual to assist in a new age of global exploration and trade. They also contained lists of words that "educated” people should know. By the time of Samuel Johnson’s famous "A Dictionary of the English Language" (1755) or Noah Webster’s more familiar "An American Dictionary of the English Language" (1828), most people considered the dictionary as the authority on language. Many still do.

But in reality, dictionaries are time capsules that capture and reflect how words are being used at any particular time.

Is there something surprising about book collections or rarity? 

Libraries collect for education and information, so public and academic libraries collect books and materials relevant to their constituencies. Personal collectors are a whole different thing.

Such collections are often driven by very specific desires and can become highly specialized. Some may collect specific authors, illustrators or publishers, while others might collect certain topics, genres, sizes or editions.

Even the definition of what makes a book rare or valuable can differ by individual. In some cases, books are rare because there may only be a limited number produced or still in existence. Others become rare for who signed them or who owned them.

We think of books as writing, but how can we think about the book as an art form?

Is a book without words a book? Or what’s the line between “art” and “book”? These questions may help us rethink our definitions.

I have my students actually create a book – and I was surprised to discover how challenging it is for students to tackle creative projects. In part, that is because these are nontraditional assignments that they aren’t accustomed to doing.

The main element of the exercise is that they have to create a collision book. This is a book where the text is from one source and the images are from another – and they have to “collide” into a brand-new story. I once had a student who combined "Pride and Prejudice" text with images from "The Wizard of Oz," making Mr. Darcy into the Scarecrow. And I had one who reimagined "All the President’s Men" told via the Grinch. 

Cutting and pasting, both physically and digitally, to create something new to tell a story really brings together the whole idea of books having life.

Can’t resist asking: What’s your favorite book as UR’s expert on rare volumes?

That’s like being asked to pick a favorite child! But what I consider our most beautiful book touches on a number of criteria that make a book special.

It’s called "Rhymes and Roundelayes in Praise of a Country Life," and it was “designed, written out, and illuminated” by Alberto Sangorski in 1904. It was donated to the library as part of a collection from Regina V.G. Millhiser.

The book is a one-of-a-kind handmade collection of poetry about life in the English countryside. When you first encounter the book, you would think I’m crazy: Its simple green Solander box opens into a cream-colored parchment cover tied with grosgrain ribbon – plain as plain can be.

But then you open the cover, and it explodes into a vibrant, colorful array of hand-painted miniature landscapes and artful calligraphy. It really is a showpiece of the collection as a work of art and a book.

Lynda Kachurek is the head of rare books and special collections at the University of Richmond's Boatwright Memorial Library.

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