Posted by Grace Moore
One of my projects at the moment is a small exhibition, ‘Reading Adventures’, which will open in the Noel Shaw Gallery (the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne) in July. The library holds around ten thousand rare books for children and adolescents, and the exhibition will offer a taster of its many adventure stories, drawing on the McLaren, Morgan, and Public School collections.
This is my first time as a curator, and when I became involved in the project it was mostly because it connects to a long-standing research and teaching interest in writing for children, rather than because it might speak to my CHE work. If I’m truthful, I was also very happy to have been asked! As the weeks have passed and I’ve thought about this work alongside my emotions-based research, I’ve realized that it isn’t quite so removed from that work as I had initially thought. On a basic level, I’ve found a number of books for my fire project that I probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise, but I’ve also begun to think much more about the emotions surrounding books and reading, both in terms of stories, but also in relation to the book as a material artefact.
I first visited the university’s special collections about a month after my arrival in Melbourne in July 2004. Armed with torches, my colleague Jenny Lee rounded me up one afternoon and marched me across to the library’s basement, where, she told me, there were things I ought to see. I’m not certain that the torches were strictly necessary, but they certainly added to the sense that we had embarked upon something intrepid. Having just spent two years at a university with very few library resources, I remember being quite overwhelmed by the array of books, many of which are extraordinarily beautiful.
At various intervals over the intervening years, I’ve ordered books from the collection and they’ve arrived, as if by magic, in the library’s special collections reading room. I didn’t really think to go back to look at the shelves, at least partly because I felt that I knew what was there. Over time, though, my research interests have shifted and (hopefully) broadened. As a consequence, returning to the stacks to select books for the exhibition involved being delighted all over again, and viewing things rather differently than I did a decade ago. It also involved a cascade of recollections—partly through re-encountering works I’d grown up reading, and partly because, in the case of the library’s nineteenth-century holdings, I’d encountered many of the works for the first time at the home of my beloved PhD advisor, Chris Brooks—a passionate collector, and owner of more than 12,000 rare Victorian works. When I hold a volume of Henty in my hands, I can hear Chris reading it to me, even though he died more than a decade ago.
As a Victorian scholar, I’ve always loved working with archives and with rare books. My own relationship with them is both highly affective and visceral., even though I’ve no interest in possessing these objects for myself—it’s their seclusion, their comparative inaccessibility that is part of their draw. Carolyn Steedman notes that we can both fetishize and mystify the experience, while writing with great beauty of how scholars can almost commune with their subjects when working in rarefied environments. In Dust (1992) Steedman invokes the example of Michelet, who wrote of breathing the dust of the dead, ‘and making them live as they had never really done before’, a slightly obsessive process that AS Byatt captures brilliantly in her novel Possession.
There is little dust to inhale in the Baillieu’s immaculate special collections area, but the books themselves yield lovely moments of connection with some of their original readers. Page-turning can sometimes evoke memories—particularly when working with a collection of children’s books. It can also occasionally yield childish ephemera, including the carefully pressed—but long-forgotten—flowers that slipped out of one adventure volume, or the painstakingly traced design for a portable wireless, tucked into an annual of stories for boys. While I squirm at the fuss of having my own personal page-turner (as I did when I worked on the original Hard Times manuscript at the V&A), I love leafing through books or manuscripts that nobody has touched for decade. I love being in an environment that only a few scholars visit, and I love the spade-work that can sometimes, just sometimes, lead to an exciting find. On a couple of occasions I’ve had experiences in archives which—without sounding too batty—have almost bordered on the mystical, and these tend to collapse into each other when I begin work on something new.
The nature of the ‘Reading Adventures’ exhibition means that a lot of the work I’ve undertaken thus far has been about the books as objects, rather than about the stories they contain. As a consequence, part of the excitement of this project has been about deferral of pleasures, as I identify things to which I want to return and compile lists of books I want to read over the months and years ahead. The generosity and patience of the team from the library means that I’m learning a huge amount as I go, sometimes about the spatial dynamics associated with displaying objects, and at others about what Dianne Mulcahy calls ‘sticky affect’; the lasting emotional response that can come from visiting an exhibition space. I’ve had to re-think my sense of the aesthetics of the book, trying to anticipate what might look engaging when it is placed behind glass, and inaccessible to readers. At the same time I’ve learned that while for a scholar issues associated with the book’s age, such as foxing, are part of a book’s patina, they mean something very different when the volume becomes an exhibit.
My first discovery was that making decisions about what to exhibit is incredibly difficult and, yes, quite emotional. In the early stages there were weekly and sometimes bi-weekly meetings in which Anthony, the rare books curator, walked me through the shelves, answering questions, making suggestions, and generously sharing his remarkable knowledge of the collections. At the end of this process, I found myself with a shortlist of more than 350 books and an enormous collection of grainy photographs to help me to remember the appearance of the many volumes I’d pulled from the stacks. Some works (like the fabulous Scouts in Bondage and Jancy Scores Again) were, sadly, out before they were in. But reducing the list to around sixty volumes was quite, quite agonizing and, while we’ve now finalized the case content, I still have moments where I find myself thinking, ‘But if only we could make room for…’.
The selection process is inevitably a highly subjective one, and so rich are the library’s holdings that it is possible to configure any number of reading adventures that would be markedly different from my own. While some of my decisions have been informed by a sense of writers who ought to be represented (visitors will, for instance, expect to see books by Enid Blyton), personal taste and nostalgia also play important roles when working with this type of material. I’ve written in the past (with my wonderful co-author, Sue Pyke) about re-reading and the ways that we bring our past selves to favourite books, creating layers of extra-textual narratives that are unique to each of us. Although Sue and I were thinking specifically about the process of (sometimes obsessively) revisiting novels by the Brontë sisters when we wrote the piece, the process of re-reading a book from childhood can be very similar. Our memories of a book’s narrative may be imperfect, but they are often inflected by the context in which we read or re-read the work and, especially for child-readers, recollections of being read to by adults.
And this is where my projects begin to collide. I’m in the early stages of working with a group of musicologists and a psychotherapist, thinking about the therapeutic uses of reading and music in the wake of natural disasters. We’ve been using ventures like Read Me Something You Love and By Heart as springboards to think about the role that the cherished, remembered story or poem can play in helping people to assimilate traumatic experiences into their lives. Books are, of course, often lost in catastrophic events and increasingly, as I’ve been working with these lovingly preserved volumes in one area of my research, I’ve also been thinking about absent books in another. As a Dickensian, this connection makes complete, almost instinctive, sense to me. Dickens had a phenomenal memory and, growing up in a household where money was often short, he recalled walking the streets and reciting classic novels in his head, citing it almost as survival mechanism. Erich Auerbach famously wrote Mimesis while in exile from his library, drawing on his memories of the books that were being burned by Nazis and writing what Arthur Krystal has termed a ‘book about books’ as a kind of fortification against the destruction. When books are no longer present, the memories of their stories live on, just as childhood memories inform our affective encounters with books in museum spaces.
What seems to be emerging here for me is an unwieldy new project about the emotions surrounding books, memories, objects and reading. It’s something for me to chew over as the exhibition planning gathers momentum and I move—very willingly—out of my regular comfort zone to be guided through discussions about colour schemes, book cradles, and a whole host of things I’ve never thought about before in my life. I’m drawn to the tensions between the present and the absent, as I think about these different forms of love for the book, and I’m struck by the forces of memory and nostalgia that bring them together. I don’t have that many answers yet, and need to think carefully about how this work will sit alongside other research programs, such as Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces. However I’m conscious that the reading adventure upon which I’ve set sail might turn out to be something of an odyssey for me….
Reading Adventures will open to the public at the Noel Shaw Gallery, the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne on 16 July 2015.