(crossposted at Stanford University CMEMS)
I hate the name "locavore," perhaps because its so often used by foodies -- who generally seem to me like slimmed down versions of Ben Jonson's Sir Epicure Mammon. But in principle, as another character in Jonson's play notes, "the motion's good, and of the spirit." And if locally sourced food is a good idea, then why not locally sourced scholarship too?
For the last few years, at least, that's been my principle, and so while I continue to make my yearly pilgrimage to the British Library and Bodleian, I also try never to miss an opportunity to duck into libraries and special collections that lie off the beaten path.
This partly reflects Thoreau's idea that we should be "the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher of [our] own oceans." I've written about how this has inflected my teaching of Shakespeare, because such collections allow us to understand how such authors have shaped the histories of our institutions and communities. But beyond this, it really is possible to find hidden treasures in smaller, regional collections. Such collections were often cobbled together with limited resources, meaning that the books are less likely to be the pristine copies we're used to seeing in the Bodleian, and more likely to be battered, well-used, and bibliographically more interesting.
|[Fig. 1: Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University]|
So when I was giving a talk at LSU recently, I made my way over to the lovely Hill Memorial Library, where the collections did not disappoint on either local or bibliographical interest. Where but Baton Rouge could one find "The Rendell Rhoades Crayfish Collection?" And what, pray tell, would one find in said collection?
The answer, in short, is that the collection holds basically every book that's ever mentioned a crayfish, crocodile, or crustacean, from (pseudo?) Ovid's fragmentary poem on the art of fishing, Halieutica, in a lovely 1556 edition, to Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (1651). Rhoades was an aquaculture pioneer and obviously something of an eccentric (he also collected thousands of books on croquet, which are held at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, in Ohio).
|[Fig. 2: Conrad Gessner, Halieuticon, hoc est De piscibus libellus, multo quam ante hac emendatior & scholijs illustratus (Zurich, 1556), title page, Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University]|
[Fig. 3: Conrad Gessner, Halieuticon, hoc est De piscibus libellus, multo quam ante hac emendatior & scholijs illustratus (Zurich, 1556), sig. F3v, Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University]
On a side note, "crocodili" is the closest the book comes to the gators that I was told, by my gracious but perhaps malingering hosts, inhabit the University Lakes. Who knows: they do have a tiger, which you can watch here.
[Fig. 4: Conrad Gessner, Halieuticon, hoc est De piscibus libellus, multo quam ante hac emendatior & scholijs illustratus (Zurich, 1556), sig. B3v, Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University]
Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum also made the collection for its brief discussion of whether crustaceans were insects or fish.
[Fig. 5: Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum (London, 1651), 189, Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University].
A book on the subjectivity and sexuality of early modern crayfish would seem to be in order. But the most interesting thing about the Bacon volume had nothing to do with crustaceans or fish of any kind. The Bacon book is well used -- it contains pasted-in pages, some torn pages, and a big, bold, stain:
[Fig. 6: Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum (London, 1651), 9, Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University].
What is that? I might normally guess ink, except there are no ink marks anywhere else in the volume -- no sign that a reader was pouring over it with pen poised. Might the text itself offer a clue? Here, Bacon describes an experiment in which one sets a candle inside a shallow bowl of "spirit of wine," or aqua vita -- probably a highly distilled, and flammable, brandy. This allows Bacon to observe the effect of one flame upon another. And did a reader, following along at home, replicate the experiment? Perhaps I'm being fanciful, but I can't help but think that stain looks about right for a drop of distilled wine, hurriedly wiped from the page (the wipe mark goes down and from left to right, so that the stain tapers off at the word "remains").
Besides being of obvious local interest, in other words, the Rhoades Crayfish Collection is also a great resource in the history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science, perhaps offering us a chance to see how books not only recorded that history, but participated in it.
Thanks very much to all the fantastic people in the LSU English Department, and the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, for showing me such a fantastic time!