Wednesday, Nov 14, 2018 | Last Update : 12:09 AM IST

Shelve a book and store a memory

THE ASIAN AGE. | SRIDHAR BALAN
Published : Feb 2, 2018, 1:25 am IST
Updated : Feb 2, 2018, 1:28 am IST

Mays records that five copies of the First Folio are in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford has one precious copy.

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays records the relentless quest for copies of the Shakespeare First Folio by the millionaire Henry Folger who worked for many years with Nelson Rockefeller in Standard Oil. (Photo: Pixabay)
 The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays records the relentless quest for copies of the Shakespeare First Folio by the millionaire Henry Folger who worked for many years with Nelson Rockefeller in Standard Oil. (Photo: Pixabay)

Henry Petroski in Book and the Bookshelf, a superb account of the history of books and bookshelves, states that it’s a natural law that books soon outgrow the shelves originally meant to house them. I was reminded of this recently when a publisher friend dropped in at home and looked into my study.

“I love the chaotic way the books have been piled up on the shelves,” he said. I hastened to inform him that this was a temporary arrangement as we were going to shift to our own house soon and the books would be packed only to be unpacked and shelved hopefully in a more orderly fashion.

A much more daunting task confronted the noted Argentinian writer and now a Canadian citizen, Alberto Manguel when he had to shift his library of over 30,000 books to his new home in a reconverted 15th century French chateau in the Loire district of France. The books were to be stored in a barn adjoining the chateau. While packing his books into cases to await shelving in a renovated barn, Manguel would gaze longingly at his books. He would remember how and where he had got them, a scribbled note on the fly-leaf, a bookmark, and an occasional date marking a page, the reason for it now forgotten. “My memory is less interested in me than in my books and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who read it”.

As I look around my own modest library, my mind too goes back. Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, Oliver Cox’s Class, Caste and Race and Galbraith’s The Age of Uncertainty all got in New York more than 40 years ago. World classics like Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the subject of so many film versions, still resonate. On a Goa tour some years ago, I found a young film-maker who had done a documentary on the Abbe Faria who lived in Goa around 300 years ago. The father of hypnotism, he had got the better of Antoine Mesmer in a hypnotic duel and was incarcerated in the Bastille in Paris. I also learned that Dumas had met the Abbe in Paris and had based his character of the Abbe Faria incarcerated along with Edmund Dantes in the Chateau d’If, on the real Faria.

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays records the relentless quest for copies of the Shakespeare First Folio by the millionaire Henry Folger who worked for many years with Nelson Rockefeller in Standard Oil. Folger, an inveterate collector of Shakespearana, used his considerable resources to collect the all too rare copies of the First Folio. His collection was kept a closely kept secret and it was only after his death when the Folger Shakespeare Library was inaugurated near the Library of Congress in Washington that the true extent of his collection was known. Some 750 copies of the First Folio were printed in 1623 and only 234 of them were known to have survived with one more being discovered in Scotland a couple of years ago. Folger managed to collect 82 copies and this is the single largest collection of the First Folio.

Mays records that five copies of the First Folio are in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford has one precious copy. The story of how Folger made a determined bid to possess the copy and how the library fought back to retail its copy is fascinating. Simon Winchester’s two works, The Meaning of Everything and the Professor and the Madman deals with the absorbing account of the Oxford English Dictionary whose first edition in 12 volumes up from the original 10 was first published in 1928. The second edition in 20 volumes was published in 1989 when our then President R. Venkataraman visited England. Winchester records that it was a chance remark by James Murray on the OED, “I rather wish I could have a go at it” that led James Murray to become the editor of the OED. Though Murray is called the father of the OED, he was its third editor, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and Fredrick Furnivall being the first two. Among the more famous writers who worked on the OED, was J.R.R. Tolkein in 1919. Today, he is best known as the author of the famous trilogy, Lord of the Rings, but what is not so well-known is that his word “hobbit” found an entry in the OED.

In The Professor and the Madman, also published as The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Winchester records that the most prolific contributor of new words to the OED was an American surgeon and Civil War veteran, Dr. W.C. Minor. The cards on which Minor sent the new words so regularly simply bore the postmark Dartmoor. When Murray finally made a trip to thank his prolific contributor, he found that Minor was a convicted murderer who was lodged in a prison for the criminally insane in Dartmoor!

Peter F. Drucker’s Adventures of a Bystander is more a history of his times than an autobiography. Drucker says, “Bystanders have no history of their own. They are on the stage but are not part of the action. They are not even audience. The book uses the sequences of my life mainly for the order of its dramatis personae.” And what a dramatis personae it was. His grandmother and parents, friends Hemme and Genia who were like surrogate parents to him, more formally known as Dr. Hermann Schwarzwald and Dr. Eugenia Schwarzwald, Hemme was Austria’s minister of finance during the First World War and was succeeded by Joseph Schumpeter. There are wonderful chapters on Freud, Karl Polanyi, Henry Luce, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and Alfred Sloan in Drucker’s book. Genia ran a literary and cultural salon which was very popular. The star was Annette, the daughter of an Austrian field marshal. She was the first Austrian woman to take up economics at a time when the Austrian School of Economics was dominated by greats like Wieser, Boehm-Bawerk and Philipovich. Ludwig von Mises was Annette’s classmate but Annette was the superstar. Many years later Mises, who had become famous met Drucker and said that had Annette been a man and encouraged to pursue economics, she would have been the greatest economist since Ricardo!

The last word belongs to Alberto Manguel. His father posted overseas had sent his collection of books home to be shelved along with others he had ordered. When the books arrived, the maid found that some of the books would not fit into the shelves. Undaunted, she had these books trimmed to size and had them rebound to fit the shelves. Manguel had a marvellous time going through the ‘cut-to-size’ books and guessing the missing lines on every page!

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: henry petroski, andrea mays