Of rare books and bodies

Last week I headed out for my longest ever solo drive up to the Bay Area to take a class at California Rare Book School. While I had some logistical difficulties (to the tune of $600 in towing fees), the class itself was amazing. One would think a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 rare book cataloging course would be deadly, but I was enthralled the entire time and feel like I retained so much about cataloging, but also about the history of the book. I feel like a veritable book detective now. Never fear, little lady, I can tell you if that’s an octavo or duodecimo, no problem. You just leave that to me.

Photo by Randal Brandt

Touring the Bancroft Library at Berkeley (even though we were right on the epicenter of a decent earthquake at the time) was a true highlight. The sheer size of the collection was awing; I saw too many treasures to even share (with some from perennial favorites of mine like James Joyce and William Morris) but the highlight for me was an anthropodermic book. I had seen a few at the Mutter Museum on display, but I had never gotten to handle one before. This particular one was a book of prayers from the 1600s, but it wasn’t bound in skin until the French Revolution over 100 years later. It was such an amazing little artifact with so much history and subtext, yet such a tiny little thing you probably would have never noticed on the shelf. That is one of those books whose details I’ll always remember vividly.

Speaking of momento mori, I now own my very own. I bought it at The Bone Room in Berkeley, where I also gave my Ill-Gotten Brains lecture on October 20. It’s a lapel pin with some hair braided in it, obviously quiet old, and just lovely. You can take the fact that the hair is almost an exact match for my hair as super creepy or serendipity. I prefer the latter sentiment. I really loved The Bone Room, it was just so beautiful in a way that is right up my alley.

Pet at The Bone Room

Much to my surprise and delight, we ended up with a totally packed house. People were turned away even! The Q&A lasted a very long time and the crowd was very responsive. Afterwards I went out for drinks with my friend Ella and a group of great librarians, and it was just a blast. The kind folks of The Bone Room also made me a totebag emblazoned with the rad flyer that they made for the talk.

While walking through Berkeley’s beautiful campus on my way to The Bone Room, I was overcome with the realization that I really do live in pretty rarified air. Whenever I stop to think about it, I’m really amazed at the incredible experiences that I get to have and the interesting work that I get to do. It feels really great to love my job.


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