Reading, Collections and Good Neighbours

This is brief post to flag two delightful discussions from the ABC’s Book Show (11 October 2010).

Neighbourliness at the Warburg Institute

Anthony Grafton talked about the fight to save the Warburg Institute (see too his article with Jeffrey Hamburger in NYRB and Anna Somers Cock’s article). The trail for the interview on the Book Show notes that “Aby Warburg’s research interests were eclectic and his cataloguing distinctive. Rituals of the Renaissance might sit beside the rituals of the American Hopi Indians in a system he described as neighbourliness.”

I was fascinated by the idea of neighbourliness and when I followed up on Anna Somers Cocks’ article I discovered that Aby “collected books and photographs and arranged and rearranged them according to his ideas of how a library could aid creativity by virtue of the “good neighbourliness” of books: that if you went to a shelf for one book, there should be related subjects close by, so that you were led spontaneously into making new connections. Thus, in the Warburg Institute’s library today, books on secret codes are near emblem books, books on heraldry, the art of memory and short hand.”

Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger point out that:

A visionary scholar, Aby Warburg was obsessed with cultural exchanges of all kinds and in all periods, and tinkered throughout his life with new ways to frame and display visual images, in order to reveal their interconnected meanings across time and space (he saw the vital importance of moving images, for example, long before most scholars). His unconventional tool for studying this shifting web of historical relationships was a picture atlas that remained in perpetual flux, and to which he gave the name Mnemosyne, or memory. (The project was unfinished when he died in 1929 and never published, though scholars have attempted to reconstruct versions of it.) For Warburg, cultural memory involved more than the stale invocation of tradition; it demanded heroic struggles with the forces of historical oblivion.

Information about the Warburg Institute Library can be found here and this is a link to the Gateway to the classification scheme.

Libraries of the Literary

In a second interview on the Book Show there was a great link to the collections of literary figures. Craig Fehrman discussed his research into lost libraries. His Boston Globe article provides an introduction to some of the ideas discussed in the Book Show.

Craig points out that:

An author’s library, like anyone else’s, reveals something about its owner. Mark Twain loved to present himself as self-taught and under-read, but his carefully annotated books tell a different story. Books can offer hints about an author’s social and personal life. After David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, the Ransom Center bought his papers and 200 of his books, including two David Markson novels that Wallace not only annotated, but also had Markson sign when they met in New York in 1990. Most of all, though, authors’ libraries serve as a kind of intellectual biography. Melville’s most heavily annotated book was an edition of John Milton’s poems, and it proves he reread ”Paradise Lost” while struggling with ”Moby-Dick.”

Social Reading

The catalyst for writing this post was Joseph Esposito’s discussion of Bob Stein’s taxonomy of social reading. I liked Joseph’s point that “social reading is as much a part of a work as the text of the work itself”. I think the Warburg discussions and the exploration of lost libraries are celebrations of the social dimensions of text.

Photo Credits

A Neighbour’s Barn

Bookshelf Project 1

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