Each time that I start a week of research into the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I’m obliged to ask the kindly receptionist on duty for a quarter to access one of the lobby’s lockers to store my bags. You’d think that after three previous trips that I’d have anticipated this and just kept the quarter, but no. Instead, I have opted for the slightly awkward routine of requesting, using, and then returning that single quarter four separate times over the 2019 fiscal year in which I’ve held the Houghton-Mifflin Visiting Fellowship in Publishing History. It’s become a bit of a ceremony, I suppose.
My last visit, from June 17 to 22, the final quarter (in both senses), coincided with a certain degree of completion, even more motivation (and anxiety, all told) to continue on to this project’s next stages, as well as the bittersweet acceptance that all good things must come to an end.
A Mixed Bag
This past winter, after my third visit, I established a preliminary outline for which banned books/authors I planned to featuring in my manuscript. The total number remains at 46, though I have replaced a few of those original selections. That meant that for my final trip in June, I saved time by more intentionally and strategically selecting and requesting the books to consult in the Houghton reading room. Previously, I had picked more serendipitously from J.M. de Bujanda’s Index des Livres Interdits, Vol. XI: Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1600-1966 (2002) based on whatever seemed the most interesting at the moment.
One of the most important details for me to start considering has been the differences between first and subsequent editions of banned books. The greatest benefit of having access to a world-class rare-book library like the Houghton is that it holds so many first, as well as other early editions, along with early translations thereof. In many cases, I’ve tried to rely as much as possible on the forbidden texts as they originally appeared, though for time and clarity’s sake if a work was published first in a language other than English, the most efficient method has been to read the first English translation along with that original (especially in the case of works in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, which I can read to varying degrees). This way, I can have a truer sense of the original’s impact with less risk of misunderstanding the text’s meaning and nuance. Analyzing a first or otherwise early edition’s binding, paper, and printing elements is, of course, an aesthetic and tactile experience that is essential to rare-book study.
Here are a few of the titles that I consulted throughout the week:
Back in the @HoughtonLib reading room. 📚— Bibliographer of the Damned (@bibofthedamned) June 17, 2019
First up, #Basque-Spanish man of letters Miguel de #Unamuno (1864-1936). This book was published in 1912 but not banned until 1957. #indexlibrorumprohibitorum pic.twitter.com/z0eGtwP1SL
Just a lil stack of damnation. ☠️— Bibliographer of the Damned (@bibofthedamned) June 19, 2019
Some books from the 20th century found on the Index. Steinmann’s LA VIE DE JESUS/THE LIFE OF JESUS (1959/1963) was the last book ever to be officially blacklisted. pic.twitter.com/vUMhp6oaPE
The first edition of Erasmus Darwin’s ZOONOMIA, Vol. 1 (1794) has these three interesting color plates in the chapter about the retina. pic.twitter.com/mQmOxHAd6E— Bibliographer of the Damned (@bibofthedamned) June 20, 2019
And the piece de resistance… Αγεωμετριτος μηδεις εισιτω (Nobody Ignorant of Geometry Should Enter)
One of my earliest reads of Index titles. What a story.— Bibliographer of the Damned (@bibofthedamned) June 20, 2019
Here’s the 1688 first EN translation, and the original first edition of Dellon’s RELATION DE L’INQUISITION DE GOA (1687).
Condemned: April 24, 1690. #inquisition #indexlibrorumprohibitorum #bannedbooks pic.twitter.com/1tylY9Xe8c
The book that changed the world. Pretty surreal that a regular joe like me can touch it with bare hands. @HoughtonLib is amazing. #Copernicus, Nicolaus, DE REVOLUTIONIBUS ORBIUM CŒLESTIUM, LIBRI VI, 1543.— Bibliographer of the Damned (@bibofthedamned) June 20, 2019
Banned: May 15, 1620…
until 1822.#heliocentrism 🌞 pic.twitter.com/KOHiMt864I
Handling and skimming the 1543 first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium) was one of the most singular experiences of my life. Having Houghton curator-librarian John Overholt retweet the above post also really added to this in the sense that it felt as if several others were beholding this truly world-altering text right there with me. As you’ll see in the replies, many of the comments were along the lines of “Woah! You could just touch it with your bare hands?” the answer to which is: yes. In most rare-book and manuscript libraries, it’s actually much better to just handle these kinds of items with bare hands as long as they’re clean and dry. Cloth or latex gloves, in fact, potentially cause more damage because they limit dexterity, which can lead to tearing pages or other elements. But more importantly, I wanted to share that the textual source of the Copernican theory of heliocentrism, along with the other foundational texts that have impacted human history, isn’t something inaccessible or sacrosanct but first introduced in a real, physical — though admittedly highly technical and dense — book. I wouldn’t dare make the claim that I can understand much if any of the original Latin, but knowing what it has signified for our understanding of the cosmos is something strange and wondrous to encounter on a (literally) first-hand basis.
Talking Out Loud
Also during my final week at Harvard a podcast interview I did about the Index and Bibliography of the Damned, which I had recorded months before, was released. The host of this episode of the AskHistorians Podcast, (also a popular SubReddit), is none other than author, historian, and archivist Brian M. Watson, whom I made the acquaintance of through this very blog. Many thanks are due to Brian and the other fantastic volunteers at AskHistorians for inviting me to speak with them.
I’ve also since presented photos and stories of my Houghton fellowship experience to colleagues at my current institution, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It may seem odd to juxtapose rare books and history with the mandates of the United States’ central bank. But, fortunately, many of my patron-colleagues (yes, I am still a librarian!) are well-versed in economics, a field that intersects with pretty much everything. (Incidentally, I also consulted and photographed a particularly rare 18th-century manuscript volume housed at Harvard’s Baker Business Library on behalf of one of my Fed patrons.) Based on their positive response (as well as to the podcast), I am convinced that this project has “legs” to make it to its next stage of existence as a full-length book. Work continues on the manuscript and I am also open to any potential readers for when the time comes. (And — shameless self-promotion alert — that goes for you too, publishers.)
In addition to those already thanked above, many thanks are due to the following: Mr. John Overholt for tweeting out the call for applications for the Houghton fellowships, as well as for his efforts to promote public and egalitarian access to his institution’s and furthermore all rare-books collections; Drs. Emily Knox and Terry Weech of the iSchool at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for both their wonderful teaching and letters of reference; Dr. Anne-Marie Eze and Monique Duhaime for administering all of the program’s logistics; reference-librarian extraordinaire Ms. Susan Halpert for her exceptional service and friendship; Dr. Bill Stoneman for his many tips, insights, and fine conversation; and Mr. Emeka Onyeagoro for his kindness, hospitality…and, of course, for all those quarters.
Find out more about the Houghton, including the visiting fellowship program, which will reopen for applications in the fall of 2019.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. His scholarly interests include historical and contemporary censorship, with a particular focus on the (now-defunct) Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.