Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Books”, “Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and, I think, no chair is so much wanted. In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends, but they are imprisoned by an enchanter in these paper and leathern boxes; and though they know us, and have been waiting two, ten, or twenty centuries for us — some of them — and are eager to give us a sign, and unbosom themselves, it is the law of their limbo that they must not speak until spoken to; and as the enchanter has dressed them, like battalions of infantry, in coat and jacket of one cut, by the thousand and ten thousand, your chance of hitting on the right one is to be computed by the arithmetical rule of Permutation and Combination — and not a choice out of three caskets, but out of half a million caskets all alike. But it happens in our experience that in this lottery there are at least fifty or a hundred blanks to a prize. It seems then, as if some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books, and alighting upon a few true ones which have made him happy and wise, would do a right act in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.”

We should not perhaps be surprised that events have caught up with Emerson: we do now have professors of books. However our professors of books are not doing exactly what it was the sage of Concord desired. I follow the SHARP listserv (The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) which is contributed to mainly by professors of books, and I can confirm that the main focus on books is not “in naming those which have been bridges or ships to carry [them] safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples”, but on the social, cultural and technical history of the book as object. A recent vigorous exchange perhaps indicates the extent to which the big problems have already been tackled by this new discipline. The discussion has been about marginalia (a good indicator of past usage): does an X in the margin carry a different meaning from a tick, and are their meanings any different from that of a vertical line? The acme was reached with serious consideration of whether a mark on the left of the text carries a different meaning from the same mark on the right of the text. Of course less minute issues are also grist to the mill of book history. There’s a vigorous study of the book as a physical and social object, and book history has become a university subject.

The great books of the western world in 60 volumes

The job Emerson was calling for, although not perhaps graced with any endowed chair, is nevertheless sporadically performed. A good librarian springs to mind. Some teachers do communicate their delights. I guess Great Books programs in so many American colleges may have been inspired by Emerson’s call, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s on about. I suspect that being hit over the head with Mortimer Adler’s stultifying list of over 500 “great books” would be calculated to make many a student immediately apply for an apprenticeship in metal bashing. Emerson’s looking for a professor who’ll communicate his/her enthusiasm for their reading so that students will follow up for themselves. I would think this would include lots of books which aren’t “Great” but which are good and fun. Many of such books may of course actually be or become great, but the enjoyment is the thing. I rather doubt that anyone who has fun reading Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics is also going to yuck it up on Georg Cantor: Transfinite Numbers, or even consider wasting time reading Congreave’s The Way of the World. The sort of thing we want is the reading group reported on in a recent issue of The Wheel, a St Catharine’s College newsletter. A couple of history professors have set up a reading group to read “beyond research specialisms”. The group, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an élite organization, is made up of Fellows of the college and graduate students. You’ve got to keep the discussion at an appropriate level haven’t you? They are currently reading Eric Hobsbawm’s four volumes on modern Europe. Daringly they now propose opening the group up to “alumni in history and cognate disciplines”, but not to any of those unruly undergraduates. The additional members will be “invited to follow the same course of readings, and then join [the original group] for discussion and dinner in Cambridge on Sunday 5th November and then in London in the summer of 2018”. Not sure I’m cognate enough.

Then of course there’s The Western Canon. “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them” mowing swaths through the charging cavalry of eager youth. Rather than bury the lads and lasses in Grotius’ The Law of War and Peace, Emerson would have his ideal professors just talk at random about things they’d loved reading, and thereby catch the enthusiasm of the student. Still I guess there are some things you do just have to plough though in order to be well educated! Actually I think the best university education will make you read the books you are meant to read, but make the experience rewarding enough that you’ll go on after graduation and read the best of the rest.

The literary critic, a title hopelessly compromised by its association with the book reviewer, is the sort of figure we’d look to for inspiration: someone a bit like Emerson in fact: the man of letters. This is rather an unfashionable job, seen as too conservative and hectoring for our modern permissive mores. Harold Bloom and George Steiner are surviving examples. I was always very glad to have bought The Modern Movement: 100 Key Books from England, France and America, 1880-1950 by Cyril Connolly when it was published in 1965. I’ve certainly not read all 100 (106 actually; he has one or two a. and b.s) but I have benefitted from Connolly’s directing me to most of the books included. Each entry is accompanied by a little essay telling you why you should care, and the book is completed by a comprehensive bibliography. Now there’s bridges and ships.

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