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The painting The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West. (Royal Ontario Museum)
The painting The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West. (Royal Ontario Museum)


Inside old-school books, every scribble tells a story Add to ...

The first thing you notice in General James Wolfe's copy of An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard – the copy he took with him to the 1759 siege of Quebec, the same copy he seems to have read the night before he fell on the Plains of Abraham – is how neat Wolfe's handwriting is.

I could tell because I had the book in my hands (a ninth edition of the bestselling poem, published in 1754 in a slim quarto volume bound in calf, for sixpence) and I could read the notes Wolfe had made in its margins.

He was obviously in a terrible mood. Next to the epitaph Thomas Gray had appended to the poem (“Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth/ A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown”), Wolfe had written: “Yet were he on this score less happy?”

Not exactly looking forward to immortality on the battlefield, in other words.

I was fingering Wolfe's copy of Elegy the same day Apple Inc. released the third and latest version of the iPad, one of the devices that has rendered such a book a thing of the past. And yet, down in the subterranean caves of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto, where anyone can walk in and pore over old Wolfie's mopings, the custodians of the collection's 700,000 rare items have no problem at all with e-books and digital culture.

Indeed, they love the lure of the online, because as digital files replace printed books as the storehouse of the world's texts, printed books are rapidly becoming more and more valuable as “material objects of print culture,” as book scholars like to say – artifacts of the human mind, physical evidence of the way we read and think and feel. In the world's most richly stocked libraries, books aren't dead; they're the newest form of history.

Meanwhile, there is still no agreed-upon protocol for recording the lineage of e-books. No one will own your Kindle after you scrap it, and the most complete record of what you've read on your tablet is probably maintained by the websites you bought from, with an eye to selling you more. But that, too, might turn out to be an interesting account of the way people thought.

“I think it's a fake,” Philip Oldfield said, in his Liverpudlian accent, as he walked over to glance at Wolfe's book. Mr. Oldfield is the Fisher's expert on book history, the history of science and medicine, and provenance, having first earned a master's degree in Slavic literature (a typically meandering career in the world of rare books). “What was he doing making notes on a poem the night before battle? He should have been thinking about strategy.”

Anne Dondertman, the acting director of the library, sang out nervously, “He's kidding!” As well she might: Wolfe's copy of Gray's Elegy cost $325,000. It had better be the real thing.

Tracing books' family trees

People have always written in books, despite librarians telling them not to. This is a good thing for the modern book-history movement, which first emerged in France in the late 1970s, just as personal computers appeared. The theory of book history, as described by David Pearson, a well-known authority on provenance, is straightforward: “A book can be written in, defaced, altered, beautified or cherished, to produce a preservable object with an individual history” – and with wider social implications, to boot.

A scholar of the vast, complicated subject of bookbinding can tell where a book was published, by whom; how many times it was repaired (hence how often it was actually read); and how wealthy the owner was (goatskin “Moroccan” covers were preferred to low-rent sheepskin, except by Germans, who liked pig – according to Mr. Oldfield, “that stuff lasts forever”).

The Fisher owns a stunning 1594 copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, printed in movable Arabic type, which suggests that Muslims had an interest in science education early on. But the text had to be printed and bound in Rome by Italians, because Muslim culture resisted printed books until the late 1800s. The book's physical past tells a subtle story.

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