Once, during the latter stages of my Ph. D. work, I went to the Cambridge University Library only to find that someone had borrowed the borrowable copy of volume 5 of the Histoire Générale de Languedoc in its revised edition and not returned it. I know, I know, happens to you all the time, right? They continued not to return it subsequently, anyway, and while these days such a difficulty is rendered negligible by the fact that the thing is online now, then it was quite the difficulty, at least for me right then. Cambridge UL however had a second copy, accessible only via the Rare Books Room, so I went there and requested it, and when it came up its pages were uncut; in the course of the UL’s ownership of the Acton Collection within which it resided, and of course since its actual printing in 1872, no-one had wanted to read this book albeit, apart from Lord Acton who had no excuse except his other 59,999 books, probably not least because of the other copy that you didn’t have to order up not then being missing. So I sat there for an hour unable to work on it while someone behind the desk slowly and carefully went through every folio with a paper knife, and I felt like an awful vandal. Why am I telling you all this? Because of this, dear readers!
This was an ABE moment brought on by one of my book plans. I had told someone that the only reason I couldn’t start on one of these books was that I probaby needed to own the actual standard edition of the Sant Joan de Ripoll charters, then one evening I wondered how much that would cost to buy, and whoops, ABE and it arrived with me a few weeks later. And yup, look. It was uncut too.
My reaction this was quite complex. In the first place, there was vexation. Now, apart from anything else, I needed a paper knife, and using the book would be laborious even then unless I too wanted to spend that solid hour carefully going slit… slit… slit…. In the second place, I felt quite powerfully that this would be spoiling it. You can’t put a book back like that, after all; as before, it seems weirdly like vandalism even though the manufacturers and indeed authors always meant this to happen and you can’t use the book without doing it.
But lurking behind that is a deeper question. This book was published in 1951, and at that point or soon after, presumably, someone decided they needed a copy, but then never opened it. Perhaps, indeed, there has been more than one owner of this volume before me who never quite got round to actually using it. They’ve left me no clues. But who would buy a volume of Catalan charters with all their supporting palæographical and chronological difficulties studied, the perfect entry to the study of these documents, yet, already, and then never open it? What historian was working on this stuff and then got diverted? Why did it never get used? The book itself has become a source for an abortive endeavour of study about which, never having been marked, it can tell us nothing further, and it’s just that little bit maddening…