Dead scholars’ books

Ann Johnston was a friend of my current department, a sporadic visitor whom we were always pleased to see and a deeply engaged and scholarly numismatist whose interest was the more easterly Greek coinages. As I have most of this week been cataloguing Indo-Greek stuff, lettered in both Greek and Kharosthi and as likely to show Zeus on the reverse as Shiva, I know why she found this stuff interesting. Dogged in her final years by repeated health problems, she was finally hospitalised by an untreatable cancer shortly before Christmas, and lived until January 4th, a fortnight past the doctors’ forecast. Numismatists are hard to kill.* Before dying she had received dozens of tributes from friends and pupils trying to make sure that she knew how much she had helped them in their lives and study, and I hope that when she died she could do so sure that her time had not been wasted. But it was a cruel way to go.

And now her books have been brought into the department, those not already claimed by those closer than us, and we are invited to pick and choose. I should have little shame about this, given the number of books once owned by dead men that crowd my bookshelves, and the more that must be so, unknown to me, bought from the literary undertakers we call second-hand bookshops. But it’s different, and uglier, when it’s someone you knew and liked. She would urge me to take this volume of the Cambridge Ancient History, and probably be childishly flattered that I, whom she knew well was not a numismatist and not ancient in my interests, would grab a couple of her numerous offprints to remember her by. But the fact that I can imagine her doing that urging doesn’t alter the fact that I’m getting these because she’s dead, and I suppose I’m hoping that paying tribute to her publically like this will ease my conscience as the volumes go into my rucksack. Sorry, Ann. I hope it’s easier now.


* Good conscience compels me to admit that this should probably be refined to, “well-paid professionals in the West profit from high standards of healthcare”, but all the same, this is a discipline where very old men continue to make important contributions for much longer than one might expect. Women, perhaps less often, but then female numismatists are less usual to start with.

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3 responses to “Dead scholars’ books

  1. Barring an unfortunate flood or fire, you will be doing the same soon enough. At least her stuff isn’t ending up in a dumpster, and I am sure she would be happy about that.

    In the case of my parents, it’s the stuff we couldn’t keep that bothers us in the younger generation.

    • Morbid but true, I suppose. That it will never end up in a dumpster is probably a bit beyond me. So much of my academic library has been picked up by bequests either living or posthumous and implicit that quite a lot of it is more antiquarian than useful. When I eventually have to move a lot of this stuff will have to go into storage. Whether it ever comes out again, well, may be wondered. But once one’s acquired something like this, one feels of course that it can’t easily be disposed of.

  2. Morbid but true, I suppose. That it will never end up in a dumpster is probably a bit beyond me. So much of my academic library has been picked up by bequests either living or posthumous and implicit that quite a lot of it is more antiquarian than useful. When I eventually have to move a lot of this stuff will have to go into storage. Whether it ever comes out again, well, may be wondered. But once one’s acquired something like this, one feels of course that it can’t easily be disposed of.

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