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In praise of paper and its gathering into folios


“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

An educational institution of my acquaintance had until recently a head of libraries who was actively and openly hostile to paper. And the discrepancy on that (and probably other matters) between her and her staff was represented by a 110% staff turnover in a twelve month period—you may disagree but that speaks volumes to me about both management skills and the dedication of those people to the historic principles of librarianship. I’m happy to report a change of administration and the arrival of someone with a far broader understanding of an academic library—and a better way with people.

The book’s demise has been foretold since arrival of the computer—which, by the way, was supposed to reduce our consumption of paper by 75% or some such number, but has actually multiplied it—though rumors of the book’s projected disappearance may predate even that. [The demise of book publishers, on the other hand, remains an open question, as does the existence of independent booksellers.]

Then there is the matter of handwriting.

Have you read the Common Core standards currently in place for elementary education? Don’t. Their simplistic single-mindedness is frightening. Physicality—which many scientists say is crucial to brain development in pre-adolescents; the real physical interaction of someone with both books and writing implements—has all but disappeared from the K-12 educational system in public schools. Words appear on a computer, put there in one of two ways: 1) scanning a physical book or print periodical as a PDF file, or 2) keyboard production through word-processing software. One of the witnesses in the Treyvon Martin case could not read a letter she had dictated to someone else, not because she was illiterate, but because she could neither write nor read cursive. She was made to seem ignorant, when the fault lay with the educational system that had ill-prepared her for life.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, a graduate level academic supervising the dissertations of PhD candidates has found that graduate students doing archival work—that is, reading actual 19th century documents as original source material for their theses—also cannot read cursive.

I recall a day at the Wisconsin Historical Society library and archive in Madison, investigating the lives of Joseph and Julia Jackson, early residents of Williston, North Dakota about 1910. Mrs Jackson wrote her mother in Madison every day, sometimes twice, in both the morning and afternoon. I was curious about the construction of their home but more than enjoyed Mrs Jackson’s droll correspondence about the baby’s progress and Joe’s cough. What made the process grueling was twofold: Julia Jackson wrote in cursive (not a problem once you get attuned to someone’s handwriting conventions) and she economized on paper by using both sides and writing twice on each—two texts at right angles to one another. This was common throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. By the late afternoon, however, there was a metaphorical ax in the middle of my forehead. I craved aspirin, with an alcohol chaser, but I had also answered my question about the Jackson home.

But what, you may well ask, does this have to do with Agincourt?

The Agincourt Project has inevitably become a reflection of my own defaults and prejudices. And that has just as inevitably been manifest in some of the community’s documentation: handwritten letters, posters and advertising, signatures on documents. One component of the October exhibit will be a vignette from the living room of retired school principal Rose Kavana: a grouping of oriental carpet, handcrafted table a chairs (for letter-writing and card-playing), a woven linen runner across its surface, perhaps a partially written letter beside Ms Kavana’s pen set, a reading lamp for her failing eyesight, a favorite painting hanging on the wall, and a group of books, one of which will be opened on a book stand. I wonder how many will notice: the book is Charles Ricketts’ 1902 Vale Press edition of Shakespeare’s Henry V, opened to page seventy-one where you will find Henry’s speech on the eve of battle:

WESTMORLAND: O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

And if their eyes should wash across that letterpress texture on hand-made paper, will their encounter have been enhanced?


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