June 9, 2016 by Andrew W M Smith
Parking tickets, library cards, recipes, notes, and adverts; I love second-hand books and the stuff that you can find tucked inside them. These little things seem to make the everyday nature of their reading resonate, reminding me of the material history of the book alongside the wider history that I’m researching. Coming across someone else’s expired parking tickets (or their idle doodling) calls to mind my own experience, and makes me wonder where I fit into the broader stories of the text and the context that produced it.
The life cycles of books and documents are a wonderful trove for a historian. Their authorship has its context, steeped in the climate that created them. Their inscription also has its own history: they’re printed, sold, passed down and more, made to satisfy the demands of eager minds. So too does my own research context inform why and how I accessed the document in the first place. By considering all three of these together, I think that something of real historical interest emerges.
Recently, I ordered some books to help me write up some papers for conferences this summer. When they fell through the letterbox, I eagerly opened them up to flick through them, and see what they had in them. I had bought them to build on work done in my upcoming book Terror and Terroir (Manchester University Press, 2016), and they were designed to help me start writing up a larger article which can serve as a bridge into my next book project.
I’m particularly interested in how the concepts of regionalism and decolonization interact, and this is the heart of the new project. In France, both became particularly important in the 1950s, towards the end of the Fourth Republic. Both were directly influenced by the end of the Second World War, and the reduced status in which the French state found itself, giving opportunities in the periphery to challenge the central state’s dominance of “the nation”.
What interested me about these books was the simple inscription that I found in the inside cover of the first, The Bretons Against France (University of North Carolina Press, 1977). Inside the cover there were two separate entries: “Jack Brand Strathclyde 1978” and “Jack Brand Strathclyde 1980”.
My interest was piqued: as a Glaswegian, it’s always nice to bring home to mind. Yet, this was pretty unremarkable in a broader sense until I opened the contents page of the next book to scan the contents. That book was Nations Without States (Praeger, 1980), edited by Charles Foster. Sure enough, Jack Brand appeared again as a contributor to the Edited Volume.
I did a little reading on Brand, who was a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde, and died in 2013. These few strokes of his own pen introduced him to a new reader in a far more personal way than would the consideration of his many articles or books. Brand was a fascinating figure, and his obituary was a great read that celebrated a life well lived. His research into the minority nationalist movement in Scotland was clearly informed by its European context. Brand, like myself, looked to other movements like the Breton movement, in order to give contextual insight into the processes and rhetoric of minority nationalist politics. In his obituary David Torrance (himself a prominent contemporary commentator on nationalism in Scotland) quotes one of Brand’s colleagues who eulogized him as “the cultured European”, seeming to reinforce the intuitive link between France and Scotland implied by his reading habits. There is a clear intellectual link between Scottish and Breton nationalist movements, yet to see it illustrated so tangibly in one postal delivery was striking.
This, in turn, connects into something I have explored in recent works. In a chapter in my upcoming edited volume Future Imperfect (UCL Press, 2017), I looked at the life cycle of 3 documents relating to the end of empire. In each case, I looked at the late colonial context in which they were written, before considering how they were recorded, and how I came across them. These weren’t the histories of “Great Men” conceiving “Big Ideas”, but of middling sorts reacting to the world that surrounded them. Looking at the documents in this light opened up the contingency of the historical narrative, stripping out the certainties of our teleological perspective. This was not intellectual history, but something more like the social history of ideas. I was inspired by Antoinette Burton’s discussions of Archive Stories (Duke University Press, 2005), and Anne Stoler’s call to read Along the Archival Grain (Princeton University Press, 2009). I also reflected on some of the discussions that I’d been party to in the Storypast reading group, especially how Seth Koven talked about writing the history of “fragments” in The Match Girl and the Heiress (Princeton University Press, 2015). In addition, I was struck by the discussion of hidden objects and their supple narratives on the Modern British Studies blog. Looked at in this light, each of these sources and their life cycles held surprising and informative insights into their multiple contexts, strongly enriching my ability to discuss these individuals, the late colonial state, and the broader study of decolonization.
Brand was a prominent political scientist that I came to simply through his inscription in a book. The figures in my other chapter were likewise people I encountered as a result of serendipity in the archive (or outwith it). This makes me think a little about the things we leave behind, not so much our legacy as the physical traces of our thoughts and ideas. I guess I’m in a soppy sort of place, having just welcomed my beautiful baby daughter Penny into the world, but I increasingly wonder about the little trifles that might recall me to some far off researcher, some future echo of myself. There’s some arrogance here (in the hope that my work will survive), but also a mawkish sentimentality, I fear. In the case of Brand, I will undoubtedly look further into the man and his work, it might make an interesting blog post or even article, contextualizing the study of nationalism alongside the networks and nodes of its contemporary development. That’s a subtle legacy, but one I feel the man would welcome from what little I have read of him so far.
So, what does that mean for me? Well, I think for starters that I’ll definitely start inscribing my books with my name and the year I got them. I might also start leaving bits and pieces in the pages: the ephemera of my own research process and the grains of the daily grind. Perhaps the life cycles of my own work will help contextualize some future researcher’s vision of the world in which I lived.
Beyond this, however, I’m interested in exploring this process and would welcome input from others. This isn’t some grand reinvention or historiographical stand, but I think that explicitly stating this method lends something useful to my thinking. Has the life cycle of a book or document helped develop its context for you? Have you found “stuff” tucked in the pages of a book and wondered who read it before you and what they did afterwards?