Forever Bound

Books in a Folger Library exhibit are judged not by their covers but by stories they tell of their passionate owners.

January 02, 2003|By Mary Carole Mccauley | Mary Carole Mccauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

WASHINGTON - The large, extravagant handwriting has more ruffles and curlicues than a Christmas package, and it practically shouts self-confidence: "Thys Boke If Myne." This book is mine.

And then he signs it, with a capital "P" for "Prince" so tall and plump that it dwarfs all the other letters on the page - as he seems to have believed that he dwarfed all other mortals.

Could any inscription be more revealing? Could it possibly tell us more about the personality of that budding adolescent who later would become England's King Henry VIII?

This boast, scrawled on an inside page of a schoolboy text of Cicero that was owned by the young prince when he was about 12 years old, is just one of the intriguing insights to be gleaned from the Folger Shakespeare Library's current exhibition running through March 13. The 114 items on display span the 15th to the 20th centuries, and are "association copies." In other words, they are noteworthy not because of who wrote them, but because of who owned them. This exhibit primarily celebrates not authors, but readers.

"It is an exhibit about people and their books and the way they have passionately connected with them over 500 years," says the Folger's Richard Kuhta, who curated the exhibit. "It is as much about the people as the books. It includes the famous and the forgotten. For some people in this exhibit, the only trace of their lives on this Earth is in the books they left behind."

Indeed, the most enchanting part of the exhibit is its almost visceral intimacy. These books exude attitudes as pungent as scents. It is one thing to read in a textbook that Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church because he would bend his will to no man. It is quite another to see that supremely self-assured signature.

It is one thing to know that American poet Walt Whitman carried a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets with him on his walks. It is quite another to see the book itself, about the size of a human hand, its cover bent from being crammed into a pocket, its pages water-stained, perhaps from tumbling into a puddle.

For every book included in the exhibit, Kuhta rejected nine others. Just three manuscripts on display are being loaned by private collectors; the remainder come from the Folger's permanent collection.

"Spend enough time here, and gradually different tones, voices and personalities emerge," Kuhta says.

Contrast, for example, Henry's proud inscription with that inside a missal given to the monarch by his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves: "I besiche your grace humb[ly], when ye loke on this, remember me."

Each tiny, painstaking pen stroke is artfully formed. Nothing about this message was rushed. It is easy to imagine Anne devoting hours to first composing, and then writing these words. How tender and timid they are, how modest and unassuming.

It's not surprising to learn later from an encyclopedia that Anne consented to a divorce after just six months of marriage, or that she befriended Henry's children. Her accommodating nature may partly explain how she survived her royal husband, who has a well-deserved reputation for doing away with troublesome wives.

The Folger's exhibit room seems made to foster such speculations about the past, with its wrought iron chandeliers and the dark paneled walls reminiscent of England's Oxford University. You learn, for instance, that all those funny spellings of "loke" (look) and "boke" (book) don't represent an educational deficiency on the part of the writers. "Spelling has only been standardized for about 150 years," Kuhta says.

Here are other insights that can be gleaned from a quiet hour or two of happy contemplation:

The 19th-century British writer Anthony Trollope seldom read a text by another author that he liked. It was Trolloppe's habit to write comments in books that he owned, and Kuhta thinks that their near-universal crankiness reflects a common assumption of the British Victorians - that their age and society represented the pinnacle of human achievement.

Consider, for instance, Trollope's assessment of What You Will by John Marston, a contemporary of Shakespeare's. Trolloppe grudgingly acknowledges that the play, written in 1601, is funny but adds that it is "terribly confused, loaded with unnecessary characters, and almost unintelligible in its language."

"And that," Kuhta says, "is one of his kinder comments."

A strikingly different tone emerges from the verse scrawled on the dust jacket of Langston Hughes' Shakespeare in Harlem, which, with a publishing date of 1942, is the most modern book in the exhibit. Hughes chronicled the struggle of African-American families in the second half of the 20th century, and the epigraph he dashed off is typically melancholy and lyrical:

The wishbone is broken,

The dice have thrown a deuce.

The song's an old, familiar one:

"What's the use?"

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