March 29, 2001

Harvard Prof Stresses Rare Book Preservation

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Institutions such as Cornell are famous for having large collections of rare books.

These original and copied documents are of value because they have stood the test of time, according to the lecture entitled “Resisting Materialism,” which was held yesterday in Goldwin Smith. Harvard Prof. Stephen Greenblatt, humanities, gave the speech which focused on rare books and their ability to “carry complex messages across time and space.”

Greenblatt, who began his teaching career at the University of California-Berkley, relocated to Harvard University in 1997 where he was named the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities.

He has written 10 books including the recently released Hamlet in Purgatory. He is currently working on two new books.

Greenblatt centered his speech around three main ideas.

These included the ideas that rare books are physical objects, having an “inherent nobility” to affect readers and yet possessing a volatile nature, according to Greenblatt.

Texts are volatile because they can be destroyed easily due to their age but are resilient because people often preserve them.

He cited the example of the Puritan preservation of atheist texts that were considered heretic. Puritans copied these books in order to teach about what they didn’t believe, thus preserving them in history, according to Greenblatt.

Even if people attempt to preserve important texts such as these, however, there is a chance that the texts may be damaged or destroyed. This idea led into Greenblatt’s second point, which he explained by discussing accidental destruction of famous texts by their owners.

“Books are particularly weird material objects,” Greenblatt said.

He said this because of their ability to travel great distances, survive the ravages of time and still hold meaning to those who read them.

He noted several aspects of books that make them important such as the actual object, their content and the emotions they evoke.

Greenblatt explained this emotion through a story about his visit to Beijing in 1980 and viewing ancient scrolls.

“The majority of the labels included a character my guide didn’t explain,” Greenblatt said.

When he asked about the unknown character, officials informed him the character was the symbol for a copy of the original scroll.

“I felt none of the intense, hushed delight and wonder I had felt before [while thinking the scrolls were real],” Greenblatt said.

Whether filed in the Cornell rare book collection or displayed in a museum, Greenblatt believes documents such as Chinese scrolls are important because of their “stability” and ability to “adapt to new historical circumstances.”

Greenblatt’s lecture was the 22nd annual Gottschalk Memorial Lecture sponsored by Cornell’s English Department, according to Prof. Harry Shaw, chair of the English Department.

The Gottschalk Memorial Lecture was established in honor of English Prof. Paul Gottschalk.

Gottshchalk, a scholar of British Renaissance Literature and the author of the book, The Meanings of Hamlet, died in 1977.

Archived article by Kate Cooper