Books never die
A Rare Books exhibition on the history of the book
This exhibition was a celebration of the book over six centuries. Rare Books collects books about books and representative items to show the historical development of book production through the ages. Originally, this was to support librarianship, history and literature studies at Monash. Now it supports the Arts Faculty generally and research by the Centre for the Book. The examples in the exhibition were chosen for representativeness, uniqueness as artifacts, personalisation, and style.
The exhibition was seen from 14 June - 7 September 2012 at the Rare Books Exhibition space, Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, Monash University.
Dr Patrick Spedding, Lecturer in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Faculty of Arts.
The curators of this exhibition have chosen a provocative title: 'Books never die.' The 'death of the book' was pronounced by Jacques Derrida forty-something years ago but Derrida himself is now dead: the book has outlived the prophet of its doom. Of course, Derrida was referring to books as self-contained, self-explanatory texts, but his phrase has long been used—as Monash's Ali Alizadeh wrote—by 'the ebullient advocates of the ebook' and other new technologies, to suggest that the printed book was about to die, or was already dead. But the book is not dead. Readers continue to read and publishers to publish, and they do so in ever-increasing numbers.
Not only is the book not dead—as a communications tool, an art-object, or anything else—the books that have already been printed and distributed are not dead either. Every copy of every book ever printed is a physical embodiment of a moment in the history of culture, ideas, technology. But it is also a witness to its own existence, its own unique history. Some readers have books on their shelves (or held in memory) that constitute an essential element of their self-identity, and some readers can be 're-constituted' from the books no longer on their shelves. So even if it were possible for books to die in the techno-utopian sense, 'the book' would still not die in this personal or scholarly sense.
Serious academic interest in 'the history of the book'—meaning the history of books as physical objects, as manufactured artefacts and as an evolving information technology—is relatively recent. And serious academic interest in 'print culture,' 'the history of reading' and 'the sociology of texts' is even more recent, only becoming well established in the last three decades.
This exhibition demonstrates how it was possible for Monash University staff and students to establish the 'Monash School' of bibliography and book history, and how it has been—and will continue to be—possible for staff and students to sustain their pre-eminent position in this field in future: Monash University Library has an excellent collection of books which well represent the long history of books as physical objects.
The Monash collection is particularly strong in eighteenth-century material, as is well known, but this exhibition features examples of printing from the most famous presses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as outstanding examples of typography, illustration and binding over five centuries.
But, with the ever-widening availability of books in digital facsimile, it is, perhaps, even more important that the Rare Books Collection contains such riches of unique and ephemeral materials: a French occultist's transcript of a rare book, a pamphlet annotated by Jonathan Swift, chapbooks, broadsides and a bookseller's catalogue from Melbourne in the 1860s. Not only are these evocative items, they are essential materials for scholarship, because these items represent an important part of the lives of individual readers.