Thursday 2 May 2019

Exploring a beautiful book (part one), by Gillian Polack

Right now, caught up in the rather interesting Australian elections, I feel as if we’re in the middle of history. Some years are more significant than others for story purposes and for interpreting people over time and this one is a good example. I’m not going to describe it today, however. Being in the middle of big events is not so comfortable. What I want today is safety.

I have a few volumes (not nearly enough volumes) of British Parliamentary Papers about Australia and they are what my history-soul craves. At times like this I find peace in enjoying the beauty of a book and then opening a page at random and reading the documents. I’ll enjoy the external beauty with you today and then do the internal exploration next month.

I only have a few volumes of this exceptionally large series and all the volumes I own are about Australia. The Irish University Press put them out about fifty years ago, and when many of my books were stolen, these beautiful green leatherbound books on archival quality paper were some of the first I looked for. I was so worried they had gone and so relieved when I found them.

The first volume to come to hand is from 1850.

Opening at random, let us explore. Or rather, let me explore and report the exploration as I go. So often readers see what fiction writers have done after the exploration, when we have caged and domesticated and reshaped what we find. It’s fun to see what happens on the job from time to time.

Before I can explore the content, you need to meet the book. Paper books each have their own personality, and volumes as exquisitely made as this are rare these days. It’s solidly and well-bound, with more leather than a good pair of shoes and with tooling to render a plain cover library-worthy.

One of the things I love about books is finding miscellaneous paper tucked away. The paper I found when I opened my 1850 volume is paper I’ve seen before, and each time I find it I stop and remind myself why it has to stay there. It’s not extraordinary, but it illuminates the volume’s reason for existing in an extraordinary way. Ephemera can give us critical historical data.

There are two different documents hiding in the front of the book. One is a reprinted page from The Times Literary Supplement, July 24 1969. It consists of two full newspaper-size pages explaining the Parliamentary Papers. 

It tells me that there are thirty-four volumes just for Australia: I only have six of them. The complete set of volumes for Australia cost $2,110 in 1969, which was enough to buy a small house in suburban Melbourne. This amounts to over 19,000 big pages of dense text. 

The content of the thirty-four volumes walks the reader through the colonisation of Australia and some papers about New Zealand (for New Zealand was governed from Australia back then, but there are another seventeen volumes just for New Zealand, enough to buy, I suspect a 2 bedroom flat). My life feels incomplete and my bookshelves bereft and I need a cup of tea.

The other sets of papers include ninety-four volumes on the Slave Trade (worth a much better house in 1969, which is sad and ironic) and three volumes of collected material from 1834-7 about Australian Aborigines. 

I need to read those fifteen hundred pages of those three volumes one day more than I need to read anything else in this vast series, but I don’t own any of them. Those early days set up a lot of problems for everyone who lived in Australia when colonisation began and I don’t understand them enough to write about them.

I suddenly need another cup of tea, because this is a reminder of how little I know about things I ought to know very well indeed. I encounter this often when I read the fiction of those who don’t quite do their research. We’re all influenced by what we were taught (all kinds of prejudgements flood our writing and the people left out of history seldom enter it) and unless we think ourselves past the problems given to us by our culture and our education, we carry those problems into our fiction. 

There’s a library only fifteen minutes away by bus where I can see those three volumes – it’s now on my ‘must do’ list.

The other two pieces of paper are an inspection slip and its duplicate. They tell me a lot about how much care was spent crafting these books. They’re some of the best quality volumes I’m ever likely to own. This particular volume was inspected by “H.J.W.” and the inspector had their own stamp to announce this on the dotted line. Filling in the form may have been a bit rushed, for in fact, the stamp is on a slope halfway to the next line and right near the wrong edge of the page. The date was 6 January 1970, and below the date is this wonderful announcement. “In the unlikely event of this volume being found faulty in any particular of manufacture, please send full details of the nature of the complaint and this Inspection Slip to THE PUBLISHER AT SHANNON IRELAND.” The duplicate means that no-one ever sent a complaint. I suspect that I’m the only owner, however, since I bought my volumes from a bookseller who’d bought them from someone who found hundreds of them in storage and who wanted to clear the space, so this is not useful knowledge. 

I love the way some tidbits are fascinating but not at all useful. It’s as easy to overinterpret ephemera as it is to underinterpret ephemera.

For me, this inspection slip (number C11203) brings the whole volume to life. The advertorial is informative and very useful, but the small piece of paper with it shows just how much the Irish University Press spent on the volume. The volume itself backs up the claim of perfection in publishing. You can see that from the pictures.

Now that you’ve met this marvellous volume… you have to wait a month to find out what’s in it.

No comments: