Professor H.R. Woudhuysen began the 2013-14 Lyell Lectures on Tuesday, 29 April with a survey of his topic, ‘Almost Identical’: Copying Books in England, 1600-1900
This introductory lecture touched on aspects of copying which encompass a range of behaviours relating to books, documents, and ultimately our relation with the past – whether to venerate, consume, publicise, preserve, or obscure it.
Professor Woudhuysen pointed out that, even before the advent of photography, print technology was pressed into service for copying not only books and manuscripts but tapestries. Not only the text but the seals and signatures of manuscript documents would frequently be pictured in an engraved copy. Examination of these facsimiles reminds us that encounters with traces of the past could happen at one remove not only for us in the digital age but for historians and antiquarians in the early modern period.
Stating his inspiration for these lectures, he acknowledged the contradiction in his title; ‘Almost Identical’ is not identical at all. The spectre raised in Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story ‘The Library of Babel’ – ‘there are always several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma’ – will be familiar to students of the hand-press period.
Regarding ‘preservation copying’, a poignant question about the Cottonian Library fire in 1731 was: why didn’t this incident inspire a rush to make facsimiles to preserve the texts in Cotton’s collection, and in others?
The lecture ended with a look at facsimiles of autograph letters, whether produced as souvenirs of the dead or as cheerful commercial endorsements. These are a reminder of how reproduction strives to capture the magic of authenticity.
In later lectures Woudhuysen has promised to examine ‘sophistication’ (the making up of perfect copies of early books) and the different styles and purposes of facsimiles issued by learned societies and other publishers before 1900.
The Lyell Lectures continue on Tuesdays and Thursdays until 13 May, in the T.S. Eliot Lecture Theatre, Merton College. All welcome.