Monday, August 24, 2009

My job with rare books explained!

This month, I've been working part-time at my old employer's, Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. My job: cataloging (i.e. writing about) old books and letters for one client's collection. This particular client is building an extensive library of books written by and about American women; she also collects Judaica and cookbooks.

But whenever I try to explain my job to my friends, their eyes kind of glaze over and I know they don't really understand what I'm doing on a daily basis. They know it involves books and writing and research, but that's about it. I used to get the same look on my face when my former roommate Kim would describe what she did at her job at a consulting firm. To this day, I have no idea what consultants do.

So to clarify matters, I'm posting an example of what I write here. It's challenging work, usually enjoyable, and combines a strange and specific set of skills (for instance, knowing the difference between foxed and soiled endpapers, or what deckled edges look like). A good description should stand in for the object itself and explain why it's important and valuable. The description I'm posting below I'm especially fond of because it actually inspired me to write a poem (a bouts-rime, to be exact), which you can read here.

A Manuscript Account of the Burning of Louvain

[Religion] Autograph letter signed, “Sister M. Ignatius O’Kavanaugh,” to Miss Walker, Graymoor, Garrison, N.Y., April 5th, 1915.

Three 8vo. leaves, all sides covered; uneven left margin on first leaf; some small tears.

Together with:

Dosch, Arno. Louvain the Lost. The World’s Work, disbound from the October 1914 issue.

Four 8vo. printed leaves; left margin unevenly torn where it was removed from hinge; some leaves chipped at the top.

The six-page letter by Sister O’Kavanaugh graphically recounts the destruction of Louvain, Belgium at the hands of the Germans, who were occupying the city at the time. It reads in part:

Reverend Mother tells me you would like to hear from me something of what we went through in Louvain, Belgium, before the Germans made us evacuate the city…I must tell you that there was no provocation given by the citizens; they strictly followed the advice given them by the Belgium staff, when the latter held the place; up to the 18th of August, to keep very quiet & offer no resistance. They freely gave up all firearms…even those who had rusty guns, dating from the days of Waterloo…

On the evening of Tuesday the 25th of Aug. at about 7 pm we were suddenly terrified by the deafening noise of firing; it seemed as if all the guns in the country were firing within a few yards of us…Most people fled to their cellars; some who went to the street were shot dead…

The strength of their guns is so great that the bullets go through brick walls 25 inches thick as if they were going through walls made of cheese…After about half an hour they stopped firing and began burning the city. They took about 36 hours to do it. Groups of 5 or 6 soldiers went about, one officer being with each group to see that they did it. Hundreds of our poor neighbors climbed over our walls and gathered round us. When they tried to flee from their houses into the streets, they were driven back into the flames. One poor woman, a Marie de Bekker…was shot through the side because she tried a second time to escape from her house. The bullet passed thro’ her flesh past over the hip bone…

Towards 8 o’clock on Thursday morning (27th Aug) soldiers came into the house crying out, as if they were in a great hurry & in great fear, that we were to flee at once, that the city was going to be bombarded. They were kind & even respectful…We had to go to the big open square in front of the railway station…we had to wait for about ½ hour till the population of that part of the city had been gathered there. Then we had to march to Tirlemont. We numbered about 7,000…

The letter concludes with a discussion of Sister Kavanaugh’s current activities in the United States and her fundraising on behalf of those affected by the war.

“Louvain the Lost” also tells the story of the fall of Louvain, but through the eyes of an American journalist. The piece was inserted into the Oct. 1914 issue as an appendix. The editor’s note, which was published alongside Dosch’s article, explains that Dosch was commissioned by World’s Work magazine to write from the frontlines of battle. Also included is the note Dosch sent with his article, with a post-script that reads: “I have not put a thing in this story that I did not see. It might have been more vivid to give the lurid details told about Louvain, but I send enough to indicate what it must have been.”

Dosch breaks up his narrative into sections with dramatic headings such as “The Hush of an Invaded City” and “Soldiers With Drawn Pistols.” He describes the days leading up to the fire, when the citizens of Louvain waited hopefully for either French or English troops to arrive and drive out the Germans. Dosch and the other American journalists in his party were in Brussels when Louvain began to burn and he describes how the town looked when he arrived a day later: “…it was not until we came in sight of Louvain that we realized the extent of the destruction…I was prepared to find one or two of the troublesome quarters destroyed, but the first thing that caught my eye was the roofless church of St. Pierre. Across the Grand Place the Hotel de Ville still stood, but everything in between, a distance of half a mile, and everything for a mile beyond to the farthest rampart, was burnt…I wondered what had become of the little Flemish woman of the restaurant with childbirth approaching, and the many lone women whose husbands and brothers were in the Belgian army.”

World’s Work was a monthly magazine founded in 1900 by W.H. Page which covered American politics and cultural trends. The magazine published its final issue in 1932. Neither Dosch nor Sister Kavanaugh look up in biographic resources.

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