Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas Books

In the past few weeks, as posters advertising Christmas gifts have started to appear at railway stations in and near Oxford, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many of them feature books, and history books in particular. On one windswept platform, the publisher Dorling Kinderslee set out their Christmas wares – glossy books on motor racing, puzzle books for children, and in pride of place History Year by Year: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World. The cover, gleaming out at commuters, shows some thirty images of people and objects of global historical significance, from Gandhi to the astrolabe. Next to one particularly gloomy set of lifts, meanwhile, there is a large poster urging you to buy Simon Jenkins’ Short History of England. The names of Elizabeth I and Churchill feature in large font, but the poster then asks “How much do you know?”, listing underneath the Gordon Riots, the Barebones Parliaments and other less celebrated or edifying episodes of the English past. The idea that you could market a mass history book specifically by flagging up its revisionism, suggesting that the past you have been taught at school or on television might be read in a completely different way, is I’m sure pleasing to many academic historians – so much of what we write is revisionist and iconoclastic, rewriting narratives, that it’s good to know a wider public is comfortable with, and enjoys, that as an approach to history. In some countries on the European continent, books which celebrate the national past fly off the shelves, but it’s hard to imagine works which seriously challenge accepted national history doing particularly well, far less being robustly marketed as such.

            Great though both these books sound, if I were able to buy up advertising space at British railway stations this Christmas, there are two history-related books which I’d like to encourage people to buy for their friends. Neither of them are brand new, but both are imaginative, unusual and exciting books that I keep going back to, months or years after reading them. The first is Chris Lavers’ Natural History of Unicorns (Granta Books, 2009) a highly original journey through zoology, medieval iconography, Victorian travel literature and ancient Hebrew texts, as Lavers pieces together the different myths, sightings, traditions and animals which came together to create the unicorn. The second is a historical novel which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel back in 1999, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence. The story of an English musician who is employed by the seventeenth-century Danish monarch Christian IV, this book for me at least prefigures Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in many ways – in its persistent use of the present tense, its lyricism, and its haunting evocation of an early modern European court. Happy Christmas - whatever books you find in your stocking next week…

Friday, 2 December 2011

Knives in the Library

Historic paperknife, photo by Milgesch
     In this age of technological transformation, when I receive emails daily telling me about fancy new historical resources on-line, I’ve been reacquainting myself with a much older and more basic research tool – the knife. In the past two weeks, I have ordered up 5 1000-page volumes of 16C documents from the Bodleian, only to find that these squat pale books had uncut pages. When you point this out to the staff of the Upper Reading Room, they obligingly hand you a paper knife, although it’s blunt and rounded, and looks more like an early surgical implement or a metal shoe horn. Standing at the reserve counter for 20 minutes at a time, slicing at pages, is time-consuming and unexpectedly stressful. These books were mostly printed in 1950s’ Poland, when resources were rather scarce, and the paper is thin and low-grade, and easy to tear. You feel very exposed standing under the full glare of professional librarians, as your fellow readers and eminent colleagues come and go, hacking away, worried that at any moment in full view your hand will slip and you’ll slice right through a page, publically defacing an irreplaceable part of the Bodleian’s collections. It also feels illicit, in the near-silence of the library standing there quite noisily slashing through paper; usually, even tearing sheets out of my A4 pad in the Bod makes me nervous, because it sounds as if you’re vandalising the collections at your desk.

     It’s also rather sad that no-body has looked at these books since they were shipped from Poland in 1914, or 1956. You read the editors’ prefaces, in which they explain that they have painstakingly prepared these documents for publication, travelling to archives throughout Central Europe, interrupted by world wars, but pressing on regardless – for 10, 20 years. In light of all that effort, it’s rather melancholic to be the first person making use of these volumes, after almost a century lying dormant in the stacks. There is also, alongside that, a slight frisson when wielding the knife to be the first person to ever see the fresh pages of that particular copy, like cutting open a fruit.

     Perhaps the most curious thing about this whole exercise is that strictly speaking I don’t have to do it, because this entire 16C source collection is available on-line, courtesy of the Wielkopolska Digital Library. So it’s either a comment on my own stubborn ludditism, or on the shortcomings of electronic books, that I choose to take up my paper knife (so that I can access tangible physical pages to peruse at my desk), rather that sitting at my computer in college, scanning thousands of pages of sixteenth-century Latin on a screen for weeks on end. In the meantime, the staff have taken pity on me and sent my volumes to the Bodleian bindery at Osney Mead, where there is a magic machine which, they tell me, can cut the pages of a book in 30 seconds.