Tanquam tabula naufragii, like planks from a shipwreck, was a common image used by early modern writers to describe the remains of antiquity. Inherent in the image was a sense of loss, of the impossibility of ever fully recovering what had once been. The metaphor has appealed to me ever since I first came across it as a student, both for its vivid truth and its emotive quality. For a long time, I thought of book collecting, especially my own book collecting, in these terms. I was, at best, only salvaging flotsam from the wrecks of far greater libraries than my own, the worn-out dross of collections which I could never hope to rival.
Of late, though, I have begun to think that this metaphor has its limits. Most obviously, its application to book collecting is infinitely regressive and so ultimately meaningless. I buy a book which had once belonged, say, to David Laing. Yet his library was no organic whole, but a tesselation of fragments from earlier libraries and they fragments of earlier libraries still. Each generation of collectors forges new patterns out of the remnants of their predecessors, so to imagine us simply as scavengers – true though that may be – suggests an unequal relationship between past and present which is not, I think, entirely true.
Instead, we must seek other metaphors to understand the process of collection. The liquid image of circulation is an old one, and valuable, but suggests perhaps too much fluidity; libraries are built and dispersed, but for a time at least they are fixed objects. Perhaps a better analogy would be the work of the mosaicist. Each tessera is a book and the meaning of the library as a whole comes from the relationship of the tesserae to each other. Thus, tesserae can be re-used – infinitely, perhaps – to create ever new patterns, just as books can find new homes which present them in a novel light to the world.
No metaphor is perfect, but reflecting on them allows us to become aware, not only of their value as intellectual tools, but also of the way in which these tools can govern and limit our understanding. Scavenging rotten planks on the beach and carefully, lovingly constructing a mosaic are two very different things.
(c) 2021 Kelsey Jackson Williams
NB. The header image is a detail from the c.1595 woodcut After the Shipwreck, attributed to Simon Novellanus after Cornelis Cort. National Gallery of Art.