Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bowdoin Library Proves Small Is Beautiful

Medici Book of Hours (ms. Marie de Medicis).
Illuminated Italian ms. on vellum, ca. 1530.
Devotional book belonging to Marie de Medicis,
in miniscule script.
With eighteen large and ten small miniatures,
many with elaborate borders in
Arabesque and naturalistic motifs.
(All Images Courtesy Of Bowdoin College.)

What do Alfred Kinsey, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawkeye Pierce, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Admiral Robert Peary all have in common? Along with thirty-six U.S. Congressmen, fifteen U.S. Senators, two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and one U.S. President, (Franklin Pierce--no relation to Hawkeye), all are graduates of small but mighty Bowdoin College in Maine. Despite never having an enrollment of more than 1,800 students, Bowdoin has consistently produced leaders in Science, Art, Politics, Literature, Social Science, Law and Medicine, for over 200 years.

Bowdoin's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library holds an impressive one million volumes, but for a recent online exhibit the Rare Book Department held to the College's tradition of offering the world nothing but the creme de la creme. The 50 Books exhibit features a prime selection of rare books from classical texts printed during the Renaissance to 21st-century artists' books. These works are masterpieces of publishing, scholarship, and literature, as well as elegant examples of fine printing, bookbinding, and illustration. An even smaller sampling appears below, just enough to whet the appetite for the rare book feast Bowdoin's appropriately first-class librarians have cooked up.

BASKIN, Leonard. A Book of Demons: etchings.
Northampton, Mass.: Gehenna Press, 2001.
Special Edition limited to twenty-six copies.
Mostly copperplate etchings printed in color.
(by Michael Kuch).

Leonard Baskin launched the Gehenna Press while he was a student at Yale in 1942. The press was known for its fine printing, blending of unheralded texts with artful conception and illustration, and specializing in collaborations between Baskin and contemporary writers, like Ted Hughes. Gehenna Press publications evolved from examples of superlative press work and exquisite design, to works of art in book form. A Book of Demons was published posthumously in the year following Baskin's death.

GOODALE, Rebecca. Extinct. Extirpated. Endangered.
3 pieces. Portland, Me.: R. Goodale, 2003.
Artist's book; edition limited to ten copies;three flexagons,
hand colored silkscreen prints with collage.

This work is part of a project (ongoing since 2000) in which the artist creates books that represent flora and fauna designated by the state of Maine as threatened, endangered or extinct. When these rings are twisted, one surface is concealed and another is revealed. When shaken, each ring produces a sound relative in intensity to the level of threat that the group of species faces. Extinct shows the Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Sea Mink, and Labrador Duck. Before their extinction, these animals could be found in Maine. Extirpated reveals the Walrus, Grey Wolf, Wolverine, and Caribou. These various species, while still surviving in other parts of the world, were once known to live in Maine. Endangered includes one plant, the Tall White Violet, three Terns (Roseate, Least, and Black), the Ringed Boghaunter, and the Black Racer.

HAWTHORNE, Nathaniel.
Fanshawe: a tale
Boston: Marsh & Capen, 1828.

This, Hawthorne's (Class of 1825) first novel and the earliest "college novel" in America, was published anonymously and quickly disavowed by its author. He sought to suppress copies (his friend Horatio Bridge burned his copy), and his wife Sophia was unaware of its existence until after Hawthorne's death. Surviving copies, consequently, are extremely scarce. Arguments have been made for the setting being modeled after Williams and Dartmouth colleges, but the strongest case remains that the fictional "Harley College" is based on Hawthorne's experiences at Bowdoin. Bowdoin's copy of Fanshawe was donated to the College as the Library's 500,000th volume.

FRANKLIN, Benjamin.
Experiments and Observations on Electricity,
Made at Philadelphia in America ...To which are added,
letters and papers on philosophical subjects.
The whole corrected, methodized, improved,
and now first collected into one volume,
and illustrated with copper plates.

London: For David Henry,

and sold by Francis Newbery, 1769.

The 4th edition, but also the most desirable, being the first complete edition of what many consider to be the most important scientific book of eighteenth-century America. Previous editions contained fewer reports and many errors, and Franklin edited this new one-volume edition himself, significantly revising the text and adding numerous copies of his own letters and notes. The volume includes accounts of his famous kite-key experiment, his design for an efficient fireplace, and a number of scientific findings by his contemporaries. Franklin and Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin, in whose memory Bowdoin College is named, were both founding members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and they communicated regularly about scientific matters of mutual interest. This copy belonged to Gov. Bowdoin.

Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron
to the China Seas and Japan ...
New York: D. Appleton, 1857.

Perry's expedition, which contributed considerably to the "opening" of Japan to the West, was formally documented as a United States government publication (1856) in three volumes, copiously illustrated with chromolithographs portraying various aspects of Japanese and Chinese life, as well as with scientific findings. Volume 1 of that report was reissued by Appleton in the following year, identical in text and illustrations (as was another edition reduced in size and with cheaper illustrations) to accommodate a wider public interest. Volumes 2 and 3, focusing more narrowly on scientific observations, were excluded from these 'popular' editions. The bath scene shown here is found in only a very few copies of the 1856 and 1857 editions--it was deemed too offensive to the public and was excised from most copies.

RIMBAUD, Arthur. Les Illuminations.
Lausanne: Grosclaude, Éditions de Gaules, 1949.
Original lithographs by Fernand Léger
(most are colored by hand or stencil);
preface by Henry Miller;
edition limited to 395 copies.

After completing Illuminations, a collection of prose poems composed in England, the tempestuous Rimbaud stopped writing verse at the age of 21. Paul Verlaine first published the manuscript a dozen years later, in 1886, reestablishing Rimbaud's reputation as a major poet. Numerous editions of Illuminations have followed, and various artists have contributed illustrations to complement the text. The copy shown here was hand bound (1985) by Kerstin Tini Miura in full brown morocco with colored leather onlays, red leather doublures, a half-leather chemise with marbled paper, and a matching marbled slipcase. Miura's cover design echoes Léger's lithograph illustrations that appear in the work. This copy represents the Library's millionth volume, acquired in the spring of 2006.

Fifty rare books, fifty fascinating stories, fifty chances to (virtually) dip into Bowdoin's amazing treasure trove of books. A million reasons why, when it comes to library collections, bigger is most definitely not always better.


  1. A remarkable series of books. I especially find the Franklin book fascinating.


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