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"This Boke Is Myne"

Celebrating Books and Their Owners
from William Caxton to Langston Hughes

A talk by Richard Kuhta

On December 4, 2003, in the Albert E. Barnett ’52 Reading Room of Archives and Special Collections, Richard Kuhta, Librarian of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., held a capacity audience spellbound with his account of books at the Folger that bear marks of their owners—bookplates, inscriptions, mottoes, marginalia, and binding stamps, among others. These comments are adapted from his “Curator’s Notes” to the Folger exhibition of the same title; the images illustrating the talk were drawn from the exhibition, and can be seen on the Folger’s web site.

This was a talk about provenance—the relationship between people and the books they owned and read, through five hundred years of printing history. It explored how bibliophiles, famous and forgotten, have signaled ownership of treasured volumes, revealing something of their character in the process. Books belonging to writers, collectors, royalty, actors, statesmen and women were discussed, setting out the interesting and amusing ways people connect with their books. Inscriptions, mottoes, manuscript notes, bookplates, book labels, armorials, and binding stamps link texts to their owners. The title is taken from a line writ large in Henry VIII’s schoolboy copy of Cicero, “Thys Boke Is Myne Prynce Henry.”

Writers’ marks are especially interesting. Authorial inscriptions tell us about personal relationships and document variations in handwriting or signature. Annotations record reactions to the competition, reflect prejudices, or show an author being difficult or vulnerable—in short, human. Reconstructing the contents of a writer’s library can reveal source material behind famous works, or produce wonderful stories. Dr. Johnson, “though he loved his books, did not show them respect,” says Boswell. He did not hesitate to slice leaves from a book with a greasy knife, or read while he ate, “and one knows how he ate.”

But while it is thrilling to see books owned by Donne, Sidney, and Jonson, “nobodies” owned books too in the early modern period. In Tudor England reading and ownership was not limited to the rich and famous. Consider Myles Blomefylde, virtually unknown, who communicated with his books. “I am Myles Blomefylde’s booke” they responded—a favorite inscription.

Scholarship is now revealing much about women and their reading habits. For instance, Frances Wolfreston (1607-1677) had a library of more than 400 volumes and almost all have her signature, Frances Wolfreston, hor bouk carefully written with a thick quill pen.

The monetary value of a book may depend on who has owned it. Ordinary copies become unique when we know they were annotated by Anne of Cleves, George Eliot, or Walt Whitman. But establishing proof of ownership is not always easy and the talk presented some puzzles for viewers to consider.

The talk was a celebration of the history of private libraries, of people and their books. We know more about these human beings by the way they wrote in their books. That’s what the Folger exhibition, “Thys Boke Is Myne,” and this talk, were about.