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Really Old Books

Today is Thursday of Week 9. The countdown is real – only one more week of classes. I’m probably going to make it.

Today I got to do something that felt like a break – I got to visit the Huntington Library with my Irish Literature class.

Huntington Library is part of a large estate (collectively called "The Huntington") that was owned by railroad baron Henry Huntington. He collected interesting plants and put them in Huntington Gardens, he collected artwork now featured in the museums on the Huntington property, and he collected valuable first editions of books. These books are now housed at the aforementioned library.

If you don’t want to read about really really old books, it’s time for you to bail.

We got to the Huntington at 2:30pm. Today is nice and sunny.

We’re headed to the big white building you can just see over the tops of the trees to the left.

Once there, we sat at a circle of tables and a guy named Steve brought out books for us to look at. Steve is the curator for rare books at the Huntington.

and here is the "menu" of books:

Most of these were early editions of books; a few were newspapers or pamphlets. Sorry it’s sideways. I probably could fix it but that sounds hard.

We got a lot of interesting history about these books. Prof./Dean Gilmartin and Steve combined their powers to educate us about Irish culture. Some favorites includedA Modest Proposal, which I’m sure many of you read in high school as an example of historical satire. This is one of the things I’d heard of before taking this literature class so it was pretty exciting. For those of you who don’t know,A Modest Proposalproposes that poor people give up their children as food so the children wouldn’t be a burden on the families. Again, it’s satire – it’s basically the Old-Timey Onion, but a few people back then didn’t notice and were shocked and horrified that anyone would eat babies.

I think the Ordnance Survey Map was the most popular thing we looked at. During Napoleon’s rise to power, the Ordnance Survey Map was commissioned to protect Ireland (seen as the "back door" into England) from the threat of takeover. Napoleon was conquered before the map was made, so the plan was scrapped. It was later completed for tax purposes. This map was sort of the subject of a play we read earlier this term: Brian Friehl’sTranslations. The map itself is beautiful. It’s hand-watercolored, drawn on nice thick paper, and it comes in a leather box with a gold stamp on the front so you know it’s official. It’s accurate at a scale of six inches to the mile.

We also got to see a beautiful old newspaper – from before photography – printed with wood carvings. This one was I think the only pro-Irish news we saw. We saw a few anti-Irish pamphlets and papers and such, plusA Modest Proposal if you want to count that.

All of these were on a strict "no touching" basis. Prof. Gilmartin could touch a few of the less delicate books/documents, but by and large only Steve handled them. This one and a few others got passed around literally on a velvet cushion. We only touched the white plastic container that held the cushion.

There were a few early editions ofUlysses, a highly controversial book by James Joyce. An incomplete version was originally published serially in some magazines – incompletely because the publishers were indicted for publishing obscenities. We looked specifically at"Penelope," a particularly controversial chapter because it features a female masturbation scene. The notes you see in there are handwritten by the author.

There were a few more, but these are the "highlights". A few students got stickers to stay at the Huntington and view art and flowers. I’m not sure if the Huntington Library has a guest entrance; we came in through the educators’ entrance and did this whole thing in a classroom. I imagine they do.

Happy Thursday andgo to bed, frosh, because Ditch Day’s Tomorrow!
Until next time,