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The Culling of Library Books – Yes, thrown in the skip!

September 16, 2012
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Thoughts From The Corner

My job as a private English tutor requires that I follow the curriculum of certain examination boards. I wonder if the day will ever come when, what they consider today’s classics should be thrown in the skip! I refer to the likes of Shakespeare, Browning and Austen. So entrenched are those authors in our education system that I cannot see it happening in my lifetime.

Professor Serendip, however, has found what he considers to be many ‘classics’ that have been culled from libraries and dumped. Sad but true. Here he looks at one of them – well, thirteen volumes to be precise.

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A MISCELLANY

Excerpts from

Books that have been unnecessarily culled by libraries

Books that have been serendipitously encountered

Books that need to be saved for browsers

A ‘LOST’ ENCYCLOPEDIA OF A CENTURY AGO

James Hastings (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh etc. 1908-1921)

13 vols. An index volume appeared in 1926.

This is an attempt to chronicle the existence as well as the passing of a remarkable compendium of ideas, cultures and topics. In recent years many university libraries as well as the reference shelves of major city libraries have dumped this work. Doubtless there were good reasons for this, such as space or the notion that some thirteen tomes of nearly a hundred years ago must be out of date or quaintly obsolescent. One would like to suggest that you devote a quarter of an hour to browsing through these volumes. With their strong book-cloth covers they can’t have all disappeared. Wasn’t there at the London Library a cellar of sorts with the heading ‘Old Encyclopedias’ ? Do you remember – or has everything been digitized?

I got my set at the August Mow Cop book sale. The set was initially priced at £16 and one waited nervously till the last day when everything was half price. As I sat leafing through a volume people clustered around murmuring surprise at the topics to be found. ‘Look, the article on the “Golden Rule” is by Spooner, the Spoonerism man.’ Some earnest fellow asked if he might photocopy a huge article on ‘Animals’ in human cultural activities and beliefs.

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Mow Cop Castle

Many of the articles were by very distinguished scholars. Thus the article on ‘Heraclitus’ is by Hermann Diels, still an authority on the Pre-Socratics. One wonders what Melvyn Bragg would have made of this piece just before he set in motion his one of his Thursday seminars on Heraclitus. Even the shorter articles are by by commissioned scholars and not cooked-up editorially. For example the few pages on ‘Spirit Children’ are by the great anthropologist Malinowski.

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Heraclitus

The encyclopedias seem to have articles on  most aspects of human belief and doctrines as well as schools of thought.

The encyclopedia was issued serially in parts. The last volume appeared in 1921. Its 15 page article on ‘War’ covers issues prevailing after WW1. The themes in the article are mainly ethical and far from being on the waging of war. One notes that Clausewitz is mentioned in the bibliography of the piece by W. Paterson, an academic and cleric from Edinburgh.

One notes the variety of articles which include: ‘Carols’, ‘Transcendentalism’, ‘Dtrangers’, ‘Vampire’ and ‘Lycanthropy’. The article on ‘Metamorphoses’ is long and full. One would welcome a critique of it by Marina Warner.

Of course some articles will show signs of being dated. The ‘Shinto’ article is excellent but it is on the wrong side of the watershed caused by the traumas suffered by Japan after 1945.

The index volume will usually take care of changes of spelling over a century. Those interested in ‘Thugs’  will be taken to ‘Thags’.

David Watson’s article on ‘hooliganism’, written by a minister who had been a prison Chaplin classifies manifestations and causes of hooliganism as he saw it. At best he could inspire present-day workers to produce a system of classification or typography of violence. There is a lesson for us in his list of characteristics which include political as well as industrial hooliganism. Item 4 is ‘Literary Hooliganism’!!! Evidently Watson must have suffered from a spiteful review!

The article on ‘Smoking’ might leads us to expect health or fiscal or social aspects. Instead we are offered four headings from a cultural anthropologist’s point of view:

i.    Smoking to produce rain

ii.   Smoking to produce a trance

iii.  Smoking to produce guardian spirits

iv.  Smoking as a means of propitiation

James Hastings (1852-1922) was a Free Church Minister. He led a loyal team of assistants, collaborators and translators. These included ‘Miss B. Wisely, the typist, whose work often won the admiration of the author of articles’.

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Not a classic in the sense of examination board classics but one which this home English tutor can’t wait to peruse.

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