From Last Book to Lost Book

We are rapidly becoming a lost book society. This is the name I have given to how we consider books to be important not to our daily lives, but most to just our schooling, our ride to work by train or bus, any ongoing training we are trying to do to advance in the workplace. We also use books to escape from the present, to go back to the past and reminisce about things that could have been, ‘should have been’ we tell ourselves.

My interest in books is due to the undiscovered truths that some books hold in between their printed lines, those notes that appear in their front and end pages, or sometimes in their margins, or as a piece of paper folded and inserted, left there as if meant to be some sort of book mark for the last reading this book ever experienced, that is until some later owner of this book first got a hold of it. One book I found for example was purchased because it had some notes about the author in it. From these notes and the name of its first owner inscribed within I knew this book was sold by by way of a circuit tour its author, a metaphysical minister, popular from 1845 to 1855, regularly took up and down the Hudson River Valley. Another book I own has a note by its first owner, a famous newspaper political historian and writer in the Pacific Northwest, with an inscription dedicated to the new owner of this book, telling us something about the interests of the now famous writer that normally we wouldn’t consider to be a part of his persona–his interests in religion and science and the natural theology or metaphysics of things. The owner of Thomas Brown’s late 17th century book on the various legends, myths, tales and folklore of Europe, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, drew in pencil the various creatures discussed by Brown, to remind himself of the appearances of a Minotaur. One of my pocket sized books published by the Fowler press in New York City, the publisher of which produced thousands of writings on metaphysics between 1845 and 1860, was originally owned by an 1850 Oregon Trail family, members of which brought this book with them to Oregon in 1850 and so started a movement lasting the life of that State. Quite often, there is more to a book than just its printed contents.

We see these same histories for books in the Google book world as well. Many of the books contained in Google books are not only rare to scarce as a book in itself, their previous owners, the library or institution they come from, their history of readers, all reveal something to us that previous wasn’t known. One book of medicine I reviewed on metaphysics was owned by a monk. The books on magnetism and animal electricity were owned by New York’s 1810 physician and medical school instructor, the famous medical botanist David Hosack. A number of the first United States presidents possessed books on medicine, submitted to them as a sign of respect during the first years that the first American published medical books were being printed and circulated by local book dealers. John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the two most noted presidents with this kind of power of having, but not necessarily believing in every written word contained in these books.

The Google Books movement and the development of electronic books has impacted the two major avenues that people in the book world like to take. Most people will appreciate the electronic book for its convenience and portability due to the reading devices we have available to us. Scholars and others who like myself tend to always turn to the classics and the books of the past like the fact that the ‘book world’ has become a global world, it is no longer that local library world we depended so heavily upon and the repeated visits to the local regional library on some college or university campus, or owned and sponsored by some local historical or genealogical society or museum.

My use of Google Books has increased the rates at which I read, discover and write about the history of medicine perhaps 50-fold, if not 100-fold. As a historian I know that I am seeing for the first time references unavailable to many of the past researchers whose books I have read. Genealogists who depended so heavily upon government and institutional (church, etc.) documents now have more to study, should they decide to take the time, such as small locally published writings about the local families, travel books and journals about trips through the towns and cities their previous relatives lived in, the words of the local ministers once sold locally in pamphlet form between services, the advertising pamphlets and locally published political statements contained in small town papers printed by editors with ulterior motives in mind.

Currently there are two ways in which electronic books media has benefited us intellectually. Its primary influence is upon scholarly work. For those of us who have the time, we can look up anything we want to see what was published about it and when. For the first time, we can look up the origins of things in writing. Whereas ten or twenty years ago, if I wanted to look up the first time a dandelion was called a dandelion, I had to search for numerous herbals, taking notes on each assuming I could see them, look at a variety of plant name dictionaries and the like, peruse the various Encyclopedias, but especially the Encyclopedia Britannicas of the early 1900s since these were written by scholars and the best in their fields, and even after doing all of that, still have to decide if I have to go to another library or special collections to see what I have missed. Perhaps 10 or 20 years later I would learn that I should have gone to this specific dictionary on plant names, in which all the variations of the names were listed for the time the book was published. Then I would finally know who the first French writer to pen ‘dent-de-lion’ as the name for a common weed planted his first bit of wisdom about how best to name it.

A problem with the electronic book market is it physically removes us from these ancient to classic writings. Their form, shape, color, original images (which Google is pretty poor at keeping intact in the scanned book libraries), linen paper texture, true leather, pigskin or vellum cover are no longer evident if we depend upon electronic books. I once owned at least 7 different forms and copies of Nicolas Culpeper’s book on medical plants, because so many people reprinted it over the years using many different formats and publishing trade skills. This most unusual hand-crafted version of it was a small 16mo version measuring 3 inches by 4 inches or less in size and about 1 inch think, with 16 color illustrations per page, in a smaller form that most other versions of Culpeper’s text bore, dated to about 1860 or 1870 and probably distributed out of London. This was produced by a big fan of Culpeper obviously; it had all the exact same text, only the illustrations seemed different. I had my choice as to how to read and interpret Culpeper’s writings.

In a way, we can still do this with Google books and the more history-focused version of this kind of site– We have the various renderings to choose from in many cases, like the University scanned copy with a faux cover produced using an image from the body of the book, or an actual photographed copy of the original cover, brown marble board and all typical of a library, with a library card pocket just inside the front cover showing the last time this book was read, be it a century or more ago, or even whether or not it was ever read at all. (I’ve seen both.)

The fortunate thing is that Google books and have made it possible to read the original writings once more, much more than any past scholars have had such a chance. I know I can peruse the old writings and know I am more likely to have seen the history of something that my predecessors in medical history spent plenty of time searching for, and then once they wrote the essay on this piece of history, still never had the chance to see these earlier writings in other languages that I have had the luxury to discover during the course of my investigations.

Complicating the past scholars’ writings even further is the tradition we have of patting our predecessors on the back. A requirement for a good dissertation and thesis is to cite everyone before you who went the same route as you intellectually, brought together that knowledge and wisdom you are now using to produce your own, and then citing them in some seemingly endless manner turning you work from a 50 page writing project to a 150 or even 250 page final product. Not that their wisdom is not important, or useless, or unnecessary, its just that once the original version of this review of the past is written, it seems a tremendous waste of time and energy to regurgitate much the same logic, especially when that logic is now in its 4th or 5th generation of transition, reiteration, and change, with little to no new wisdom to impart to the reader. Now, grant it this is an important step to learning that a final writer has to have developed when constructing his/her graduate school masterpiece, but at times the redundancy of restating knowledge, followed by someone else’s work that has modified the meaning and importance of that knowledge, followed by still another version now a generation closer to your work, has the effect of changing the original statement made, the original value of that statement, even reassigning some new value that is not absolutely correct.

One of the more interesting examples of this re-stating the facts as a historian rewriting the history as it was told by others I uncovered in my review of most of the actual writings of Cadwallader Colden and New York’s flora. We often read that Colden is the one to define binomial nomenclature for Linne, encouraging him to take advantage of this way of naming plants by providing him with examples. Was Colden’s work the inspiration that led Linne to make such a change? When we review at Linne’s and Colden’s work, we see little to no binomial nomenclature in use. So where is that discovery that led to this great ‘change’ and where is the proof for that ‘change’? It ends up Linne does make mention of this importance of Colden’s work, so the acknowledgements needed are there.

Historians cite this like it is completely true and the modification in botanical nomenclature was sudden and exact. But such was not the case. It ends up that the much later, more recent historians and rewriters of this part of history have never spent the time reviewing the past primary resources. They just rely upon the knowledge of their predecessors, leaving behind the chance they had to introduce this new wisdom to their readers. Sometimes historians are not the best storykeepers apparently.

Electronic book writing and reading has the possibility of sterilizing our knowledge base of its older, more accurate minute truths. If we rely upon contemporary books mostly by use of the electronic media route, and as a result believe we don’t have to review the older writers because that means we would have too much to peruse and not enough time, we miss an important opportunity and the point I am trying to here–due the the internet, international web, Google books and, along with many of other such eBook sites now opening on the web, we can now, for the first time, retrace and determine whether or not those ancient truths told to us in past writings are really truths. We can look at Linne’s first book and see if he really did say that (assuming we can translate his Swedish and Latin of course). We can also review Cicero’s writings about government and politics to better understand what Colden was talking about when discussing Iroquois politics. We can review the earliest herbalist’s rendering of their philosophies–like is the case for Nicolas Culpeper’s book, the forward of which is composed by Nicolas himself, in his afterlife, a message received by Elizabeth his wife via “seancing”. (Culpeper died before it was published, without permissions when an associate published it first, without Elizabeth’s permission.)

Not that everyone should go out there and buy old books, which can be quite expensive at times. But it helps to stay alert when the opportunity arises. I once had an opportunity to purchase Fowler’s pocket book on phrenology, signed by the author himself, not his associates. I did take on the opportunity to purchase a copy of Dodd’s book, in which the student inscribed additional notes taken about Dodd’s galvanic process as it was carried out on his own blood vessel (akin to 3-levels Chinese pulse reading one might say). Likewise, my copy of some governmental documents on the polygamy issue concerning Mormonism, as the government also tried to question some of the claims of its founder, Joseph Smith, had papers and ephemera inserted documenting the Egyptian art work that Smith had apparently copied to produce his drawings related to that document. We can see similar books on Google books and elsewhere, since these books come from some of the largest and oldest libraries, with many books signed by their authors and originally owned by individuals like Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. The Lavatier phrenology book I reviewed was originally owned by a military school (see my Physiognomotracers pages).


Some of these books I will review due to interesting ownership history, sections, special topics, etc. They are listed in order by year of publication (not order of review):

Thomas Brown Knight, MD. Pseudodoxia Epidemica: Or, Enquiries into very many Received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, Together with Religio Medici. The Sixth and last Edition. . . . London. 1672. [has some hand-drawn illustrations and notes inside]
Michael Etmullerus. Etmullerus Abridg’d: Or, A Compleat System of the Theory and Practice of Physick. Being a Description of All Diseases Incident to Men, Women, and Children. With an Account of their Causes, Symptoms, and most Approved Methods of Cure, both Physical and Chirurgical. To which is prefix’d a short view of the Animal and Vital Functions; and the several Virtues and Classes of Medicines. Translated from the last Edition of the Works by Michael Etmullerus, late Professor of Physic in the University of Lipsic. A book very proper for families. The Third Edition, Corrected and Much Improved. Printed for Andrew Bell at the Cross Keys and Bible in Cornhill, near Stocks-Market; and Richard Wellington, at the Dolphin and Crown, at the West End of St. Paukl’s Churchyard. London. 1712.
W. Derham, D.D. Physico-theology: or, a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, from His Works of Creation. Being the Substances of Six-teen Sermons, preached in St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London. At the Honorable Mr. Boyle’s Lectures, in the years 1711, and 1712. With large Notes, and many Observations. In Two Volumes. The Eleventh Edition. Printed for W. Innys, on Paster-now Row, London. 1749.
The European Magazine and London Review containing the Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners, & Amusements of the Age. Vol. 19, from Jan to June 1791. London. [a Freebee!, with Adventures of Daniel Boone . . . an autobiographical serial, a letter to Benjamin Franklin, etc.]
The Economy of Human Life Translated from an Indian Manuscript Written by an Ancient Bramin. To which is prefixed An Account of the manner in which the said manuscript was discovered: In a letter from An English Gentleman residing in China, to the Earl of ********. Paraclete Potter: Poughkeepsie. 1816.
Rev. Isaac Taylor. Scenes in America.for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-home Travellers. Silus Andrus, Hartford [Ct.] 1829.
F.-V. Raspail. Aux Riches, dans l’Interet des Pauvres; a ceux qui sont heureux, dans l’Interet de ceux qui Souffrent. 1845. Much of the body of this book is a section entitled Manuel Annuaire de la Sante, ou Medicine et Pharmacie Domestiques. ca. 1830. (A book on the rich and poor, in terms of health.)
The Military Journals of Two Private Soldiers, 1758 – 1775. with Numerous Illustative Notes to which is added A Supplement, containing Official Papers on the Skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. Poughkeepsie: Published by Abraham Tomlinson, at the Museum. 1855. [Has the French and Indian War Journal of Lemuel Lyon of Woodstock dated April 5, 1758 on first entry, and the War for Independence jounral for Samuel Haws, beginning date April 19, 1775.]
Huxley. More Criticisms on Darwin and Administrative Nihilism. [Pamphlet sized essay] ca. 1860-1870 date?
Rasmus B. Anderson. American Not Discovered by Columbus. An Historical Sketch of the Discovery of America by the Norsemen in the Tenth Century. . . with an Appendix of the Historical, Linguistic, Literary and Scientific Value of the Scandinavian languages. Also a Bibliography of the Pre-Columbian Discoveries of America by Paul Barron Watson. 3ed, enlarged. S.C. Griggs, Co., Chicago. 1883.
Sebastian Kneipp. Vivez Ainsi ou Avis et Conseils Pratiques pour Vivre en Bonne Sante et Guerir les Maladies. 13ed. Paris, 1892.
Sebastian Kneipp. Meine Waller-Kur, durch mehr als 35 Jahre erprobt und geschrieben zur heilung der krankheiten Erhaltung der Gesundheidt. Kempten, 1894. . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s