Parable of the Decrepit Book « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 25, 2009

Parable of the Decrepit Book

Monday I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum called “Canadiana Treasures from the Rare Book Collections of the ROM”, given by the head of the library and archives, Arthur Smith.  Not surprisingly, the ROM has some really priceless holdings, including the 1613 Les Voyages of Champlain, Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune, 1st editions of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In the Bush and more.  In many cases they have books in conditions unmatched anywhere in the world (not always hard to do, considering many of these books number less than twenty in the world).

One work, though, really stuck in my mind because of the story associated with it, and that was the ROM’s copy of the 1866 Buch das Gut, enthaltened den Katechismus, Betrachtung or, as it was introduced to us, the Mi’kmaq prayer book.  This is a fat little book of prayers written in Mi’kmaq hieroglyphics, this edition printed in Vienna.  Unlike the other books we saw, the prayer book was not at all in good condition.  The leather covers were falling apart, the book had been written on and the pages appeared largely unbound.  Indeed, Smith noted that the book had been found “languishing in a Toronto auction house” because it was deemed to be in too poor a condition to be of any value.

A page from the Mi'kmaq prayer book.

A page from the Mi'kmaq prayer book - but not the ROM's copy.

But the ROM bought it anyway.  As the story goes, the shipment of these prayer books from Europe was largely lost at sea, and so very few copies remain.  A dilapidated copy is still a copy, valuable even in this condition. The librarian went about contacting the owners of the other known copies (exclusively, as far as he knows, institutionalized) to compare his, and found that the ROM’s copy was the only one in the “damaged” condition.  Pity, right?

As it happens, not such a pity after all.  The origin and use of Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs, as it turns out, is a source of some contention.  This story goes that a 17th century Catholic missionary witnessed the Mi’kmaq using porcupine quills to press shapes into bark, then adapted and expanded this system of shapes into a written language that could accommodate Catholic prayers.  This story is thought by some to be apocryphal, and they argue that the “language” was invented entirely by the Catholic church, and no actual Mi’kmaq read it.

Except that some, very evidently, did.  The evidence is all over the ROM’s prayer book.  The geneology of the owning family is carefully inscribed on the first page, and the book shows evidence of repeated readings throughout.  The value of this book is in it’s poor condition, in the use and character of this individual copy.

Not every book can be hoarded and not every copy should be archived, digitized, conserved.  But sometimes it’s worth remembering that there’s more to the value of a book than the printed contents in their idealized form (sorry, bibliographers).  There’s as much story to be gleaned from the marks, wear and scars.  From the ghost, as they say, of the “hand that touched the hand”.

The ROM library and archives are, incidentally, open to the public for research.  You can’t withdraw books as in other libraries, but you can use the University of Toronto library system to search the museum’s holdings and can request and inspect the books in the museum’s reading room.

7 thoughts on “Parable of the Decrepit Book”

  1. Susan says:

    Your comments on the Mi’kmaq prayer book take me back to your original post and comments on ‘marginality’. Here is another example of a wonderfully layered story inherent in the book’s life as an important object in that family. Hopefully that is the reason the museum values it, rather than its condition as an art object or as a commercial collectible.

  2. Rusty Priske says:

    This is a case of some looking at the book as an object and not as a – you know – book.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Well, yes. Though I definitely believe that books are objects and have value as such. That’s the raison d’être of most book collectors, after all. There are as many reasons as there are collectors for wanting to own specific copies of books rather than any old edition.

      Like I recently learned (from the Manguel book, in fact) that the brand of Monte Cristo cigars are named after the book because the cigar makers used to have it read to them as they were rolling their product. I would KILL to own THAT COPY of Monte Cristo. Read hundreds of times to illiterate cigar makers, leading to the naming of a brand? Hook me up for that history! It would go excellently in my collection. 🙂

    2. Susan says:

      But Rusty, the implication here is that this book WAS heavily read and valued as a ‘book’, but gathered other layers as a valued thing by the fact of its book-ness plus its history of use. A family bible has both.

      1. Rusty Priske says:

        Oh, that is what I am saying as well. My criticism was against those that claim no (or low) worth because of the condition.

        I suppose my kneejerk reaction against that sort of thinking comes because of my days back in the comic industry. I lived through a time when people were buying comics to seal them away in a bag and never read them.

        Books (of whatever type) are meant to be read.

  3. John Mutford says:

    I’m not a historian, so I have no idea if what I’m saying is true. A few years ago I was surprised to find that a Cree sign in northern Ontario (if I remember correctly) using the same syllabics as the Inuit of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut where I was living at the time. As it was explained to me, both groups were basically taught this invented written form for their languages by Catholic missionaries. However, while they use the same looking syllabics, each symbol makes a completely different sound for both peoples.

  4. Alan Knockwood says:

    I have a “good” copy of the same book. it is worth more to me than it’s weight in gold. we do have people who still can read the original text. ROM should contact me if they want to copy mine to fill in the blanks of their copy.

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