On Seminars and Book History Reading

In a few weeks, I will be participating in a summer seminar on “Tudor Books and Readers, 1485-1603.”  I’m terribly excited about it, and not only because I’m going to be exploring the vast world of archival research for the first time, or because I will get to go back to Oxford, or will go to Belgium for the first time (though these are all awesome and amazing things). I’m excited because I have been feeling desperately envious of my friends who are still in course work. There’s something rather marvelous about sitting in a room with a lot of other really smart people talking about a common set of readings. As a teacher, you get a bit of this, but it’s not quite the same when you’re in charge: no matter how much I want my students to be the ones directing conversation and developing their own thinking, there’s only so much I can do to keep myself from feeling like I have to take an authoritative stance. (And, if I’m honest, I usually end up wanting to.)  When you are in a graduate seminar, if you have a good cohort, and if you can get over the fear that comes from impostor’s syndrome, there’s a lot more freedom to ask questions instead of know the answers. You can try out different intellectual positions. I’m hoping that this seminar will be the same.

The other thing I like about seminars is that there’s assigned reading.  When I’m working on my dissertation, or another project, it’s easy to get myopic about what to read. I don’t tend to read widely; I read narrowly. Every so often I need to have a push (not always external, sometimes it’s internal) to read a different set of materials.  Just as I probably would never have read Shakespeare when I was in high school (or, if I’m honest, even in College) unless it was assigned, I often find I love the things that are assigned, either intellectually or personally. For this seminar, I’m being immersed in book history in its myriad forms. And–the best part–is that sometimes you find really amazing, amusing bits in the things you read that inspire whimsy as well as serious thought. Here are a few sentences that amused me enough to send me to the blog to post:

The history of books began to acquire its own journals, research centers, conferences, and lecture circuits. It accumulated tribal elders as well as Young turks. And although it has not yet developed passwords or secret handshakes or its own population of Ph.D.’s, its adherents can recognize one another by the glint in their eyes.

 — Robert Darnton, “What is Book History?” Daedelus (1982): 65.

I think we now need passwords, secret handshakes, and a book identifying the different subsets of glints. Then we’ll have a REAL field of study.