Lab #9 – Rare Books Room 2.0


The books that I chose to compare for this lab are the Bay Psalm Book from 1640 and Eliot’s Indian Bible from 1663. These books really did not catch the eye and were easy to overlook when scanning the table that had such gems as a beautifully illustrated copy of the works of Virgil and a first edition of Leaves of Grass. These books looked, and are, very plain when compared with the other books on the table. However, these books are incredibly unique and made me think about books in a way that was different than what the other books made me think.

Bay Psalm BookThe first thing to acknowledge about the Bay Psalm Book is that it’s not a great printing job. There’s nothing particularly special about its layout or font. In fact, some pages are a bit off-centered and the font was quite worn down when it was used to print this book. However, the reason for why the quality is so poor is exactly why the book is so special: it is the first book to be printed in North America. The colonies were just developing and print shops were not high on the priority list of “Things to Bring to America”, so the Bay Psalm Book is not exactly a paragon of printing. However, the fact that it was printed despite this is part of why it’s so rare. It’s interesting to think about how these same conditions that made the book so undistinguished is exactly what distinguishes it from the rest of the books of the world. It’s not an elegant or especially impressive book, but it still carries a price tag of 14 million dollars, which seems pretty special to me!

As an interesting side note, someone at the BPL mentioned that the Old South Church in Boston just sold their second copy of the Bay Psalm Book last year to raise funds for renovations to the church. This apparently sparked quite a debate about whether or not this was ethical. It was, after all, their property and they could do with it how they pleased. Plus, it was one of two copies that they owned so they still had another one to remain at the library. However, there does seem to be something inherently wrong about it. I think this might be because we elevate its status to more than just a book. We see it as a symbol of American ingenuity, as a part of our history that should transcend money. In the end, though, it is just a book and why does it matter who owns it if there’s still access to it? The buyer did say that he intended to loan it to libraries across the country, which technically seems like it is making the book more accessible to the public. I guess people don’t like the thought of mixing knowledge with profit, but I think they should probably take that up with universities first! However, I digress (kind of).

Eliot's Indian BibleThe other book in the pair is Eliot’s Indian Bible. Eliot’s Indian Bible is unique because it is a bible that was “translated” into the native Algonquin language supposedly in an effort to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The problem with this, of course, is that Algonquin was only a spoken language and thus no one that was a native speaker of Algonquin could read or write it. It was a purely oral language and did not exist in a written form until Eliot tried to translate the bible. Furthermore, Eliot himself was not fluent in the language, so he couldn’t read the Bible either. Who, then, actually read this Bible? It seems like the answer is probably no one. One would hope that Eliot had the intention of using this Bible when he made it, but he clearly didn’t think of the logistical issues of having a book in a language that no one could read. It is also possible that it wasn’t actually meant to be read and that Eliot knew that no one would be able to read it. Maybe it was just something for him to do to make him feel like he was making a difference, something to show to the people back in England that they were making progress in evangelizing the native population.

This brings up the question of what a book really is and if it’s defined by its purpose. Can a book be a book if it’s never been read? When trying to give a definition of a book, one would almost certainly include that fact that books are read. On the other hand, no one would look at Eliot’s Indian Bible and say that it’s not a book simply because it might not have ever been read. Still, it’s hard to separate books from reading. This leads to another interesting question: if reading is essential to the definition of a book, can a book be a book at one point because it’s read and then later become not-a-book if it’s not read anymore? Or is just the fact that at one point it was read enough to classify it as a book? And if it’s no longer a book, what is it? In the case of the Bay Psalm Book, this was definitely a book that had a functional purpose at one point that Eliot’s Indian Bible never really had. However, now it is such an important (and expensive!) book that it is rarely, if at all, read, and even then only by specific, qualified scholar. We were barely allowed to breathe in the direction of the Bay Psalm Book, let alone actually touch and read it (and for good reason!). But does this mean that it is no longer a book? Was it a book at one point but now has lost something fundamental that allows it to be qualified as a book? This whole idea, of course, is a little ridiculous because anyone would look at both the Bay Psalm Book and Eliot’s Indian Bible and call them books without hesitating. However, it calls our attention to how we define books and it’s fascinating how we do it. Something inside of us seems to know what a book is and isn’t, even if we cannot entirely define it or pin it down. It seems our definitions of books have many different bits and pieces that come together in a shifting kaleidoscope of descriptions and requirements that alter to fit whatever we are looking at that we somehow know is a book. An eBook is a book. A book with only pictures is a book. A book with completely blank pages is a book. And the book that hasn’t been read, or hasn’t been read in a long time, is still a book.

Even when declaring that these books are indeed books, it’s hard to deny that they still have lost something bookish about them. Going back to the debate people had about the sale of the copy of the Bay Psalm Book, we really have raised these books up to be much more than books. They are still books, but they now have (at least) a second layer to them that makes them more than just books. They are relics of the past with seemingly not much of a functional purpose. Sure, they can still be used to learn, but it’s in a much different way than the original intention of these, and all, books were created with. Most people would agree that you learn from books by reading and learning the knowledge written within them. However, these books are now learned from because of their histories, how they’re made, etc. And what do you know, that’s exactly what we did for this class! This “new” way of learning from books embodies everything we have been talking about this semester: the medium is a message, and sometimes a message that becomes more important than the message in the actual text.

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