You could easily be excused for thinking that in the seven-month-long hiatus between major American book fairs (April in New York, November in Boston) there would be a sort of doldrums in which booksellers settle down and catalogue away, alone in their lairs (or maybe even just go fishing).
Not so. Each summer beginning in June an institution called, simply, "Rare Book School," hosts a series of week-long sessions on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Rare Book School (from here on in I'll just call it "RBS") is dedicated to, well -- the study of rare books. It's death-by-chocolate for serious book addicts, attracting dealers, collectors, librarians, researchers, academics, students -- really anyone with a deep and abiding interest in everything books.
2015's season began on the 7th of June, on a Sunday evening, with a welcoming lecture by the dynamic director of RBS, Michael Suarez. His topic was "The Library (capital L) as both community and as cure for the soul." It was a moving and inspiring talk, and the assembled crowd drank it up, then dispersed to talk of bookish things with their fellow students (there may have also been either drinking or dining involved), before falling into bed, ready to dive into book heaven bright and early Monday morning.
8 am. The RBS doors open, and a lavish spread of bagels and cream cheese, yogurt and granola and fresh local fruit, and an assortment of juices, teas, and coffee awaits.
I recognize several familiar faces: Kara Accettola, John Kuenzig, Heidi and Tom Congalton, Kiley Samz Tharler, Jason Dickson, plus a number of other former attendees of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, and several librarian friends from past years at Rare Book School, not to mention favorite members of the RBS staff, including Barbara Heritage, Megan Gildea, Donna Sy, Amanda Nelson, Tess Goodman, and Jeremy Dibbell. I am among friends, and there are many others to meet. Even before coffee, the bonding begins.
A few minutes later, the staff sorts us into our assigned cohorts and marches to our classrooms, and this week’s sessions swing into action.
There are five courses on offer this week. One focuses on how to identify the various types of illustrations used in books printed before 1900; another on bibliographical resources useful for researching used and rare books; yet another on the scholarly preparation of new and/or original editions of existing texts; a fourth on the development, display, and dissemination of collections; and the fifth, an "advanced seminar in critical bibliography" (which, according to inside sources, today involves the students removing their left shoes, and considering them critically as objects: "What can you tell from their appearance about their function? How were they made? What are their parts? What can an investigation of their physicality tell us about the people who use them?" -- and then extrapolating about books-as-objects from there...).
Each course runs all week. Class sizes are limited to 12 students each; entry is competitive, and by application (see http://rarebookschool.org/schedule/ for both the course schedules and a link to the application page).
I’ve been lucky enough to take several RBS courses in the past, but this time I’m here for the “Developing Collections” class, taught tag-team style by Katherine Reagan, Tom Congalton, and Johan Kugelberg. I’ve heard great things about the class from past students, and I’ve been looking forward to it all spring.
And so, book-geek heaven begins. More tomorrow!
The school day at RBS begins promptly each morning at 8:30 am (if you want to partake of the delicious daily breakfast spread, you’d better stop by early!). This is, no question, a Grove of Academe (the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and features his personally-designed 18th-century architecture set on a lush, garden-and-tree-covered campus), and as such keeps academic hours, which can be grueling. (Cast your mind back to finals week in college, and you'll get the general idea.)
Each day is composed of four one-and-a-half-hour sessions, plus an evening activity (lectures, round-table discussions, book-oriented films, field trips to local bookstores, and the like). To boot, many instructors give homework: As I type this Tuesday evening I can see from my perch several Illustration Processes students feverishly carving away at their woodblocks or scratching at their dry-point plates, and I know many of my fellow Collections Development students are researching and cataloguing the archives they've been handed. I suspect (since I haven't seen them in a day or so) that the Critical Bibliography students are locked away somewhere being Critical, and that the Scholarly Editing students are high in an ivory tower (probably the top of the Rotunda, Jefferson's architectural centerpiece building), no doubt editing away in a very scholarly manner.
In their infinite wisdom, the administration of RBS realized long ago that if you're going to throw an avalanche of information at people over the course of five days (and expect their heads not to implode), you'd better do it in discrete units, and give them plenty of breaks.
And so the class sessions are punctuated with social get-togethers (complete with hosted locavore refreshments -- very civilized!), which serve a dual purpose: Not only does your (incredibly overloaded) brain have a chance to rest; you also get to meet and debrief with the other RBS attendees: students, faculty, staff, guest speakers, and visitors, who, together, comprise some of the smartest and most interesting book brains on the planet.
It's all exhausting, but really, really fun. (And if you've got anything left in the tank after the day’s work is done, there's 1980s Trivial Pursuit and a beer or two at the dorm picnic tables before you collapse into bed!)
In the end -- if you're a book person, and the idea of complete immersion appeals: This is the place to be.
Information overload, check. Long days and late nights, check. Hump day, check.
Joel Silver, instructor-extraordinaire of the Reference Tools class, told me at the break that he saw a student glaze over for the first time this afternoon. "It happens," he said. "We're into the home stretch, though," he said.
It happens, indeed. So much amazing stuff is going on, so much information is flowing, it's hard to process it all. (I had a brain freeze myself today, in the middle of a guest presenter's talk. I'll wonder forever what nugget I missed, that 30 seconds when I spaced out... Grr.)
Last night, though, no glazing was allowed: We had an amazing speaker, Thomas Bonnell of St. Mary's College, on the subject of Boswell's Life of Johnson. The guy has gone back to the MANUSCRIPT -- the hand-written manuscript that went to the PRINTER -- and read and transcribed EVERY SINGLE hand-written emendation -- revealing the authorial and editorial processes, the relationships between author and compositors, between author and proofer, between author and printer, between author and -- OMG, we're talking about being inside Boswell's BRAIN, --
("Okay," you're going. "You've lost it, book-geek. Shut the barn door!")
You're right. So I'm going to toddle off now and do my homework (I have to look into a WWII pilot's diary before I go to bed -- he flew in the Pacific in 1945, I'm still figuring him out...)
Meanwhile, I'll follow Professor Silver's advice: Get a good night's sleep tonight. And come back for the home stretch tomorrow.
Thursday proved just as exhilarating and exhausting as the first few days of the week. I heard from my in-situ mole that Joel Silver continued to entertain, regaling his Reference Tools students with tales of bibliographical intrigue, including "The Mysterious Affair of the Sophisticated Tom Jones" (a synopsis of which can be found here (scroll down to item 48) and a full recounting of "The Wise Ultimatum" on the misadventures of master forger Thomas J. Wise.
Both stories feature either booksellers-behaving-badly or bibliophiles-gone-wild (none of them, of course, ABAA members!) In Silver’s retellings, academic bibliographers come dashing in cracking their whips, a la Indiana Jones. (You could almost HEAR the Critical Bibliography students preening as the story was recounted over the morning break…)
Meanwhile, over in the Developing Collections course: On Wednesday we had been edified by ABAA member Kevin Johnson of Royal Books on the finest-of-all-possible-points of movie-script collecting; his talk dove-tailed nicely with several of the course's intrinsic concerns, i.e., "Once the traditional literary canon is everywhere ensconced, where do we go from there? What will be the books, objects, artifacts, etc., that will tell future generations who we have been, who we are now, and how they themselves came to be?"
On Thursday we were further inspired by the tag-team of Lorne Bair and Brian Cassidy, two of the most innovative and insightful booksellers in the trade today. Their discussions about their areas of expertise, which include 20th-century social movements and the mimeo revolution of the 1970s and '80s (among much else) continued the "whither next?" conversation the class had been having all week.
Thursday night at Rare Book School is traditionally "Bookseller Night," and many of the students took the local trolley service to visit the several bookshops in downtown Charlottesville, which is home to a greater density of used-and-rare book dealers than any other city in Virginia. Mary Gilliam and her gracious staff put on their usual generous spread of Virginia ham and biscuits, local cheeses and wines, and really interesting books, and other local booksellers (arrayed within walking distance across the downtown shopping mall), including Blue Whale Books, stayed open late to welcome Rare Book School students, too.
The downtown mall is also home to numerous restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques, and an ice-cream parlour, all of which proved almost as popular with RBS students as the book shops, once they'd sated their book-scouting appetites.
So: Yet another memorable Rare Book School day, followed (for a handful of us, unwilling to accept that the next day would be our last together) by a brief star-gazing sojourn on the campus "Lawn" before bed.
And that, of course, is the best part about RBS: The bonding. These are fellow-travelers, people who care about the care and feeding and preservation of books and culture as much as I do. I love RBS for the learning, but just as much for the connections I make with fellow People of the Book.
And so: Good night!
Despite our general exhaustion, and a very real sense of wanting to sleep in our own beds, we are all a little taken aback by how quickly the week has flown by. It can't possibly be Friday -- the last day -- already! And yet. somehow, it is.
Friday is the day the Special Projects are due for the Developing Collections class, so there's a little tension in the air at the morning reception, with everyone stressed out about their presentations.
Except, looking around the room -- huh. Maybe that's just me.
Okay. Yeah. Apparently that's just me.
So, yes, I confess it: I'm nervous. My WWII pilot, whose archive my partner (Shannon Wilson, recently Head of Special Collections and Archivist at Berea College) and I drew from the pile on Tuesday, deserves my best. His diary and the accompanying artifacts tell the tale of a young man who, in the throes of patriotic spirit and supreme optimism, joins the air division of the U.S. Army in 1943 and winds up flying bombing missions in the southern Pacific in 1945, before and during the Battle of Iwo Jima. It's got a psychological story arc to die for, as we watch the horrors of combat take firmer and firmer hold, and in the several days I've been working on this, I've grown quite protective of our young airman. Shannon and I are both determined to give our hero his voice.
When our turn came to present we laid out the who/what/where/when/how of the diary's contents, and the why of its importance as a research tool; we ended with a short reading from the last pages of the diary itself -- allowing our pilot to speak for himself. He has just witnessed a horrific accident, as a plane (a plane he himself had piloted the day before) malfunctioned and failed at takeoff, crashing into the adjacent trees, bursting immediately and irrevocably into flame. He describes the chain of events, tells of the dead and dying strewn about the runway, and continues:
"As I thought of the men trapped in the flaming pyre," he writes, "I realized how easily that could have happened to me the day before. Why didn't it? I wonder. I wonder."
Despite my earlier nervousness, we pulled it off (whew!). A few questions, a few comments, one or two not-quite-dry eyes, and I felt we'd done our young man justice.
The stars of the afternoon, though, were three of our classmates, who basically killed it, with Tart Cards:
"Tart cards" are, essentially, call-girl advertising, ephemeral in nature, generally more flimsy than a business card, designed to be handed out as mini-flyers or pasted up in phone booths, bathrooms, or anywhere else prospective clients might spend a little, er, quality time. These go far beyond the "for a good time call _____" motif, representing every conceivable fetish and kink, generally (but not always) just veiled enough to pass the Not Safe For Work test.
It was a highly entertaining presentation, given by the unholy trio of Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, Aaisha Haykal, and Kara Accettola, who made a compelling scholarly case for the cards as important cultural detritus, worthy of preservation and study, all the while keeping sharp eyes (and tongues) out for opportunities for double-entendre, their combined wits a whip-like rapier which they wielded to great comic effect.
And then it was over! The closing reception, with free wine and not-so-free swag on offer, featured a few pithy and sentimental speeches, and our week in the ivory tower of academe had come to an end.
Not for long, though -- I'll be back for another class in the middle of July (two RBS sessions in one summer -- woo-hoo!), and will report in then. Next time, I'll be living in rustic splendor (no indoor bathroom, no A/C, but lots of romance, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson himself) on "The Lawn" -- tune in!
Meanwhile, it would be criminal to go to Charlottesville and not visit the Blue Ridge Parkway and/or the Skyline Drive – the town is mere miles away from the spot where the one transitions into the other, and it is, quite simply, lovely. Don't miss it if you come!
For information about attending the Rare Book School, visit http://rarebookschool.org/.