On a steamy morning last week Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, was in a windowless basement room here at the University of Virginia, leading a dozen people in a bibliophile’s version of the wave.
He lined up the group and handed each person a sheet of copier paper with a syllable written on it. After a few halting practice runs — “Hip-na-rah-toe …” — the group successfully shouted out, “ ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,’ 1499!”
The phrase wasn’t an incantation ripped from the pages of a lost Dan Brown novel, but the title and publication date of a long erotic love poem printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius and often described as one of the weirdest and most beautiful books ever produced.
And the occasion was just an ordinary class meeting at Rare Book School, an institution whose football team, if it existed, might well take “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili!” as its official rallying cry.
For five weeks each summer Rare Book School brings some 300 librarians, conservators, scholars, dealers, collectors and random book-mad civilians together for weeklong intensive courses in an atmosphere that combines the intensity of the seminar room, the nerdiness of a “Star Trek” convention and the camaraderie of a summer camp where people come back year after year.
Vic Zoschak, a retired Coast Guard pilot turned antiquarian bookseller from Alameda, Calif., took his first class in 1998 and has returned for 14 more. “Flying search-and-rescue missions was satisfying work,“ he said. “But here, I found my people.”
For many Rare Book School is an important networking opportunity, not to mention a chance to bunk in the Thomas Jefferson-designed lodgings that ring the university’s famous central Lawn, with their appropriately antiquarian lack of indoor toilets. But it also fills an important intellectual niche, teaching skills and knowledge that have been orphaned by increasingly technology-minded library schools and theory-oriented literature departments.
Bringing an understanding of the materiality of the book back into literary studies is something that Michael Suarez, an Oxford-trained specialist in 18th-century British literature and a Jesuit priest who took over as the school’s director in 2009, speaks of with an almost missionary zeal.
“A book is a coalescence of human intentions,” he said in a phrase often repeated around the school. “We think we know how to read it because we can read the language. But there’s a lot more to reading than just the language in the book.”
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