Hunting Season – Hiding on the Shelves

While Western Europe sees a record-braking heat-wave, all is well in San Marino! I am currently enjoying a two-month Dibner Research Fellowship at the Huntington Library. As devoted readers of this blog will remember, it’s a place I’ve been before (see here, here & here), and hope to return to sometime in the future. Staff, librarians, administrators: they’re all extremely friendly and devoted people, hosting a marvellous collection that serves both literary scholars and historians.

Newton's inscription in his copy of Boyle's Novum Experimentorum
Newton’s inscription in his copy of Boyle’s Novum Experimentorum

One of the reasons I am here is because the Huntington harbours about twenty books that once belonged to Newton – and some that may or may not have been his. There they are again, the famous bookplates and shelfmarks that serve as a guide to identify a Newton library book. Some titles won’t come as a surprise: Robert Boyle’s Experimentorum Novorum, which Newton received from Boyle (as he dutifully recorded), or his recently discovered copy of the collected works of Joseph Mede. And there’s also William Cooper’s Catalogue of Chymicall books, with many dog-eared pages indicating titles that Newton was interested in.

Other titles seem out of place, however: they do not cover any of Newton’s interests. What about Samuel Pepys’s Memoires relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England, for ten years, determin’d December 1688? Or a book titled Valor beneficiorum: or, A valuation of all ecclesiastical preferments in England and Wales. To which is added, a collection of choice presidents, relating to ecclesiastical affairs? None of these books bear any traces of reading though – just like the Boyle volume, they might well have been presentation copies.

But what to think of this book: Dramatica Poemata, by Gvilielmo Drvrao, aka William Drury?

William Drury's Dramatic Poems
William Drury’s Dramatic Poems

It’s a book full of popish poems; Newton however was a self-confessed anti-Catholic, so it’s highly unlikely that he’d be presented with a book like this, let alone buy it himself. When James II appointed a Catholic professor at Trinity College in 1686/7, Newton was furious and stood up against this popish intrusion of the hallowed grounds of the protestant trinity (with which Newton, incidentally, also had some issues…). The book has some underlining, and the odd annotation, but not in Newton’s hand. It might well be that this book was never originally Newton’s. Earlier, I wrote about the voyage of Newton’s library books – how they ended up with those bookplates and shelfmarks – and it might well be that this book was added to the library after Newton’s dead, and subsequently catalogued by Musgrave in the 1760s. It lacks the Huggins and Musgrave bookplates, but it has the Musgrave shelfmark.

There’s another category of Newton books at the Huntington – books that definitely belonged to Newton. It contains titles such as Walker’s A modest plea for infants baptism, and Stillingfleet’s A discourse concerning the idolatry practised in the Church of Rome. These are the sort of titles that were of personal interest to Newton, so we would expect him to have read these books. Now he might have done so, but there are no reading traces whatsoever. No annotations, no dog-ears, no underlining – nothing. So the law of dog-ears becomes shaky – because, what does this mean? Did Newton indeed not read these books? Especially the Stillingfleet volume is right up his alley, so let’s assume he did. But he left no reading traces. And this is where it gets really tricky when it comes to Newton library hunting.

Old book, new binding (and interesting topic, by the way. You have no idea...)
Old book, new binding (and interesting topic, by the way. You have no idea…)

I have come across a number of books that might have been Newton’s – but it’s impossible to ascertain their provenance. Some of them contain a few dog-ears, Newton style, but they lack all the other points of recognition – no bookplates, no shelfmark. What they also have in common, is that all of these books have been re-bound: some in the eighteenth century, some in the nineteenth or twentieth century. And what happens when a book gets a new binding? The old book covers are discarded, including all the bookplates and marks they bear. Which means that – apart from reading traces – all the external signs are gone. The only indicators left are those reading traces. But – as we have seen above – even titles that were definitely of interest to Newton, books that he must have read, do not always bear these signs.

This unfortunately means that we will never be able to retrieve all of Newton’s books. There will be books, hiding in plain sight, on library shelves and in archives, that Newton had his hands on, that are there, but will never be recognised as such. But still, ye all who enters libraries and archives and lays thy hands on books published before 1727, be aware! Ye might hold in your hands a priceless gem…


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