Stories Within Stories
The U has one of the top, and most accessible, rare book collections in the West.
Luise Poulton casually holds out the small, unassuming—even plain-looking—book. It lacks the exquisite line drawings, the delicate rice-paper pages, the elegant typeface, and even the literary credentials of many of the other books in the University of Utah’s rare book collection.
“It’s a tiny little book. It’s not very fat, it’s not very tall, and it’s very unprepossessing. The paper isn’t particularly great,” says Poulton BA’01, the rare books manager at the U’s J. Willard Marriott Library. “There’s nothing fancy about it.” But this book is likely the most valuable of the 80,000 pieces in the University’s rare book collection. It’s a treasure among treasures, all of which visitors are free to handle, touch, and read from cover to cover.
That includes this deceivingly valuable little Book of Commandments, or a surviving original of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo, or the first novel Charles Dickens wrote (at age 25), or a tome of sacred Buddhist writings from China printed in 1440, 10 years before Gutenberg’s famous press.
“Here, you want to hold a million dollars?” Poulton says as she hands over the palm-sized Book of Commandments, written in 1830 and containing Mormon church founder Joseph Smith’s description of what he said were his revelations from God. The book, which sat in his brother Hyrum Smith’s library, was donated to the U by LDS Church leader John M. Whitaker in 1969. The U Rare Books Division also has one of only two known copies of the Book of Mormon inscribed by Joseph Smith; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns the other. But the Mormon pieces are, by far, not the only storied stories.
Sumerian clay tablet
The one-by-one-inch square block is smooth like polished ivory and covered with little etchings. The Sumerian clay tablet dates to 2276 BC and is one of the earliest examples of writing. It’s one of three such tablets at the University of Utah, says Luise Poulton, manager of the U’s Rare Books Division.
This tablet is the smallest and was recently purchased by the U as part of the Kenneth Lawrence Ott collection from the small Okanogan County Museum in Washington state. Ott, who was a schoolteacher in the area, began collecting books on the history of books in the 1920s and ’30s and donated his collection to the museum during the Great Depression, with the stipulation that the collection be kept together.
Poulton says none of the U’s clay tablets have been translated, but because of its size, the tablet is believed to be “something like a receipt: ‘Yes, I acknowledge you bought two goats from me,’ or ‘I acknowledge that you paid your taxes this year.’ ”
The Marriott Library is home to one of the top rare book collections west of the Mississippi. The books are shelved in the library’s “inner sanctum,” a 7,000-square-foot, humidity-controlled, secured vault kept cold—between 58 and 62 degrees—and dark, with posted signs demanding, “Lights Out! Lights Out!” Stretching 120 feet long by 80 feet wide, the vault houses the world’s third-largest collection of Arabic papyrus, the largest collection of medieval facsimiles in the state, and the largest collection of fine press and artists’ books in the region. The books are brought to the vault after cataloguing in a “staging area,” but they don’t stay in the vault.
Poulton’s strong belief is that anyone who desires should have access to the collection—from a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible printed between 1450 and 1455 to Isaac Newton’s first-edition Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, an “extremely valuable book” that was printed in 1687 and is worth up to a half-million dollars. Poulton describes her job as balancing security and access. She shoulders the task of safeguarding the books, a responsibility that she acknowledges makes her nervous and keeps her up at night. But just as important, she says, is ensuring access to the books and making them as available as possible. “And I love that. I love the idea that you don’t have to come in with a letter from the president of Harvard to see these books. I love it that anyone—anyone—can walk into that room and say, ‘I’d like to see this book,’ and they get to see it.”
While other universities and institutions around the world may have larger, more impressive collections, Poulton marvels that the University of Utah, a public university, has the collection it does. “This is not Yale’s Beinecke Library, this is not Princeton’s library that has two full copies of the Gutenberg Bible. This is not Oxford. This is not Bibliothèque de Paris. This is a state institution,” she says, “and we have these things.”
The way Poulton speaks about the renowned collection reflects her own background. As a young ballet dancer working in New York, she realized she had advanced as far as she could and needed a degree, so she came to the U as a student in the Ballet Department but ended up switching majors and graduating in history. Of Rare Books’ latest exhibition, Fighting Words: American Revolutionary War Pamphlets, which took months to curate, she says with a dancer’s aplomb: “We want the end-product to look effortless, like any good performance, right?” She rattles off an intricate history of each book but in the next breath betrays a performer’s anticipatory excitement: “The props that I have are just so incredible.”
Poulton has worked at the Marriott Library for the past 20 years, including the last 15 with Rare Books, and her enthusiasm for the job is palpable. She wants everyone to have the sensory experience of holding a centuries-old book—to not just touch it while leafing through pages but to inhale the mustiness of a book’s scent, to hear the thick rustle of pages made from rag paper, to see the fine craftsmanship of books that were early printers’ pride and joy, to handle ideas that were revolutionary.
“To hold a copy of Common Sense, printed in 1776, that was held by hands in 1776, and most likely read out loud to other people in 1776, that’s a connection. That’s a very physical and visceral connection,” Poulton says. And anyone can have that experience, by visiting the Rare Books room during its regular hours, Monday through Saturday. A staff member usually supervises the visits.
The power of holding these books is unmistakable. “There’s just nothing like it,” she says. But equally powerful are the stories behind each book, and the paths of the books through history. Among the most compelling is that of the U’s copy of Galileo’s Dialogo. Only 1,000 copies of the book were printed in 1632. The book’s discourse on astronomy and Galileo’s contention that Nicholas Copernicus was correct in postulating that the planets revolved around the sun rather than the Earth drew the ire of the Catholic Church.
The church considered the book so dangerous that Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Inquisition, placed under house arrest until his death, and prohibited from publishing any future books. The Dialogo was placed on the Inquisition’s list of forbidden books and remained there until 1835. Most of the copies were destroyed. It is believed only about 200 copies survived, and somehow, some way, one of those copies made its way to the U, hidden away and changing hands throughout the centuries.
Other highlights among the scientific books in the U’s collection include Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, the oldest mathematical textbook still in common use today. The first-edition copy, also among the U’s most valuable at $185,000 to $200,000, was printed in 1482 by famous German printer Erhard Ratdolt. “This was his book,” Poulton says, pointing out Ratdolt’s “self-congratulatory blurb” on the first page, in which he describes the quality of work his shop produces. Or there’s the first-edition Novum Organum, printed 138 years later, in which Francis Bacon disagrees with Aristotle to set “the stage for a new way of seeing, studying, and understanding the world around us.”
Da ban ruo bo luo mi duo jing
The delicate rice paper on which Da ban ruo bo luo mi duo jing is printed is just one part of the book’s multifaceted history. Purchased by the University of Utah as part of the Kenneth Lawrence Ott collection, the book is the first volume from a set of sacred Buddhist writings and was printed in China in 1440, during the fifth year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Cheng Tung.
The book’s 100 pages are bound accordion-style and contain Chinese characters, made from a wood-block print, interspersed with lavish illustrations. Most of the U’s rare books tell a strong Eurocentric story, says the collection’s manager, Luise Poulton. “But we do have pieces like this, and we try to use these pieces as often as possible to make the point that book-making—communicating with the written word—has been going on all over the world for a very long time.”
“This is the book for which Galileo nearly had his head cut off,” says Luise Poulton, manager of the U’s Rare Books Division. Only 1,000 copies of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo were printed in 1632, and all of them were supposed to have been destroyed during the Inquisition. Somehow, about 200 copies survived.
Poulton says the book at the U was purchased for $2,250 in 1970 from a private collector, Herbert M. Evans, through donations the U received when the Marriott Library was built. A copy in similarly pristine condition sold a few years ago for $155,000. Evans, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who co-discovered vitamin E, collected books on the history of science. The exact path the U’s copy of Dialogo took over the centuries to arrive in his hands remains a mystery.
In the book, Galileo supports the astronomical ideas of Copernicus, who had been censured almost 100 years earlier by the Roman Catholic Church for concluding that the planets revolve around the sun, and Earth is not the center of the universe. Galileo intentionally tries to make his case in a casual way. He writes his book in Italian as a conversation or dialogue—hence, Dialogo. The book’s frontispiece, a picture of three men engaged in conversation, seems to suggest, “Don’t worry about us, we’re just three guys talking,” Poulton says. But the pope, who was a childhood friend of Galileo, would not be fooled. Galileo was sequestered for the rest of his life and was forced to recant the book “to save his head.” Most of the copies of the book were rounded up, confiscated and presumably burned.
The pieces are among the “big guns” in the U’s science collection, Poulton says. But the science collection is just one part of “a world-renowned archives,” says book dealer Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books store in Salt Lake City. There are “hundreds of significant collections housed at the library, any one of which could provide a student a master’s thesis and a lifetime of research,” he says. One of the U’s rare pieces, an aquatint by Karl Bodmer featured in the 1839 book by German Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, is now on display at the Smithsonian through January 27.
But Poulton finds the simple stories of some of the books in the U’s collection to be as compelling as those of the grander works. She recalls curating an exhibition of 18th-century multi-volume herbal books. In one of the volumes, a dried plant had been pressed on a page that matched the picture of that plant. “This was at least a 200-year-old book,” Poulton says, “and who knows when that particular specimen was added in that 200 years and by whom—and why just that one, and why didn’t they keep going, or maybe they did and the rest fell out. So there’s the find. There’s this very personal touch, and then there are all these questions. So I love knowing. I also love the mystery.”
Like the discovery she stumbled upon in a lesser-known book given as a gift to a woman. Poulton doesn’t even remember the book’s title, but in it, she found an inscription by inventor Nikola Tesla. “I just flipped out,” she says. “I called one of my sisters and said, ‘You won’t believe this.’ ” Poulton’s students have had similar experiences. Just this fall, Poulton was giving a lecture on artist books, which are unique, newer books in the collection, mostly made in the 20th century. “One of those students was looking at a book smaller than a cell phone and burst into tears. I mean, lost it,” Poulton says. The text was about charity and quoted the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides.
“I’ve had reactions like that often. It gets to be personal. … The smell, the touch, the sound really does have meaning to it. It’s the difference between getting an ‘I love you’ in an email and getting a hug in person,” Poulton says.
Emily Michelson, a history professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland who taught at the U from 2006 to 2009, says those stories and the experiences they elicit are extremely valuable. In Utah, she brought her students every semester to visit the Rare Books room. “It was enormously important for the students,” Michelson says. “Often the books were the oldest man-made objects they had ever seen, much less held.”
Poulton says she is always striving to expand the “depth and breadth” of the collection. “I have a wish list that’s five million lines long and a Microsoft-worth of money.” Besides expanding the collection, Poulton also is working to digitize many of its works so that readers can look at them online. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, given her desire for people to physically hold the books and equal wish for the greatest accessibility. She can’t help but think the early printers from centuries ago would feel the same way.
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
With the publication of his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Charles Dickens became famous overnight.
The book, written when he was only 25 years old, was published in installments of serialized, once-a-month chapters. The University of Utah’s Rare Books Division is home to a complete set of the first printing of the novel, printed in 1836 and illustrated by Hablot K. Brown, nicknamed “Boz.”
“I can see them saying on the one hand, ‘Wow, what a great idea,’ because part of the reason for Gutenberg developing printing with movable type was out of an obvious need for more copies of less expensive books. On the other hand, they did make a big deal about making what they produced beautiful.” Poulton—who doesn’t own a Kindle, has “no plans to get a Kindle,” and won’t use an iPad because it has no keyboard—can relate: “Texting is a great example. That’s not spelling,” she says.
Yet that modern-day dilemma is another example of what makes the rare books so intriguing. By handling and touching the books, it is easy to grasp that they are the reflection of real lives and real people who grappled with many of the same everyday circumstances that exist today. Their stories are rich, and the stories behind them even richer.
“The rewarding part is sheer selfishness,” Poulton says. “This is what I do. This is what I am surrounded by. To give students a context as to why they should care about some musty old books and see their reaction, that’s the most gratifying thing.”
—Kim M. Horiuchi is a longtime journalist and freelance writer based in Salt Lake City.