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  • Fast Bind, Fast Find: The History of the Book and the Modern Collection
  • Jeffrey Todd Knight

It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone.

—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

This and the accompanying 11 volumes had been bound together as one, full calf of poor quality over pasteboards. . . . Book taken down. Pages washed/deacidified in limewater bath and all folios strengthened using Crompton 10 gsm tissue with “lamatec” adhesive. Sewn on 3 tapes, attached to split boards. Bound ¼ Oasis with vellum tops and marbled sides.

A twentieth-century binder’s note in a seventeenth-century copy of Shakespeare’s Richard II from the Glasgow University Library1

In 1799 at Cambridge, a cataloguer named William Pugh was dismissed from his post for making insufficient progress on a new category of books, the “AB class,” which was to comprise all valuable specimens of early printing then held in the university’s Royal Library.2 Pugh, a respected fellow at Trinity College, had been at the job for nearly ten years, having been hired almost immediately after taking his bachelor’s degree on the strength of his reputation as a voracious reader.3 He was widely knowledgeable and passionate about working with rare books. But, according to contemporary accounts, he was also eccentric, and eventually he became [End Page 79] slovenly, obsessive, and antisocial. After his dismissal from the library, Pugh reportedly “dreaded the society of everybody.”4 He would lock himself in his room for long periods, emerging suddenly to scandalize the college by throwing all his linens in the Cam or by doing something comparably erratic.5 One evening at the height of his madness, and after a rash of unexplained vandalism in the town, Pugh was spotted outside of his room and followed. On leaving the college grounds, he

went down to the water’s edge, and from among the water flags and duck-weed brought up a long stick. This he seized and hurried back to the street. No sooner had he got there than the frenzy seemed to seize him. He gnashed his teeth and rushed along like a madman. Presently he saw a lamp . . . and with a loud oath exclaimed “You are Robespierre” and dashed it to pieces with his stick. So he went on with the others, crying Danton, St Just and other names till he had broken six or eight, when he returned to the ditch, hid his stick, and made his way back to the college.6

Tolerance for fellows’ eccentricities was high at the time, but the incident was enough for Pugh to be dismissed from college and declared insane. Many years later, he was said to have regained some of his former reputation, but he never returned to work. According to contemporaries, “he still had a somewhat insane look.”7

Pugh’s undoing has interested scholars of book because, by all accounts, it began with a near-pathological tendency to read rather than merely catalogue the texts in the AB class. To the dismay of the university librarians, Pugh would often become fixated on a single volume in adding it to the shelf list; if it was unfamiliar, “he was not content with looking at the title page, but applied himself to reading the contents.”8 This, of course, is a diversion that the cataloguer, striving for efficiency, ought to avoid. And, indeed, Pugh’s unfinished AB-class catalogue, long since superseded, survives today in the library archives at Cambridge University as a monument to bad bibliography.9 Its entries are digressive, unsystematic, and sometimes speculative. Pugh recorded not only titles, authors, and imprints, but also formal features, irregularities and curiosities in the texts, cross-references, and notes to himself and to posterity about seemingly anything relevant that crossed his mind as he read. With such a taste for detail, Pugh frequently used up to ten folio-sized pages (rather than the customary line or two) to catalogue a single book, piece by piece, at a rate that eventually exhausted the patience of his colleagues...


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pp. 79-104
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