Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Eighteenth-Century Book in the Midst of a Twentieth-Century War

As a humanist, a student of literature and book history, and as a book-collector, I am morally, intellectually, and personally opposed to the destruction of books. I find the idea of any agent of authority self-importantly imposing themselves between an author and a reader repugnant. But recent doings in the world of publishing present an ethical quandary to my absolutism: is it permissible for the state to suppress the publication of a book if that book might cost people their lives or security? Under what conditions would the state have the right to make that judgment? The recent incident involving Operation Dark Heart, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer’s memoir about his involvement with a black-ops team in Afghanistan, brings this question to the fore.

The Department of Defense -- after failing to suppress the book in its manuscript form -- purchased the entire 10,000 copies of the “first printing” of Shaffer’s book (making it, technically, a sell-out bestseller its first day on the market) and then, on September 20, destroyed 9,500 of them (ironically ensuring that the remaining 500 copies will become extremely desired collectors’ items and ensuring that the second printing -- though heavily redacted -- will sell like mad; of course, if Shaffer’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is business-savvy, they’ll keep publishing the uncensored version, thus guaranteeing perpetual sales to the DoD). Was this just censorship (if there is such a thing)? And how are we to know? If the censor of a book claims that there is material in it that warrants censorship, readers must -- by the very nature of anticipatory censorship -- simply take the censor at its word. It’s a catch-22 of Orwellian -- nay, Torquemadean proportions.

When the military crosses paths with the printed word, the ramifications are often troubling. Roger Clarke famously suggested that “information wants to be free”, but the objective of any military intelligence entity is to limit as much as possible who has access to what information. The two aren’t really reconcilable in a free society.

This week’s book does not, itself, offer up state secrets. However, a telling owner’s inscription does take us back to one of the most brutal conflicts of the last century.

The book is the second edition of Coutumes Generales de la Ville de Verdun (The General Customs of the City of Verdun), revised by jurist, archaeologist, and royal advisor Nicolas-François Lançon (1694-1767). It was published in Lançon’s home city of Metz (located in the northeast Lorraine region of France) by François Antoine in 1747. The first edition (an anonymous book) had appeared in three issues in 1678, but it was substantively rewritten per royal order of February 1741. It took Lançon several years to finish the work, but it was finally licensed for publication on September 30, 1747. The firm of Nancy, Thomas & Sons published a third edition in 1762, though this was largely unchanged from Antoine’s 1747 edition.

The book is a highly detailed guide to the “general customs” of the French city of Verdun and the surrounding county, including, for example, its properties, institutions of law and public order, nobility and gentry, and (in keeping with Lançon’s interest in legal studies) accounts of trials from 1741 up to the date of publication.

It is bound in brown leather, with six compartments on the spine bearing gilt decorations and a red leather title label. It is in fair condition, with some bumping, chipping, and spotting, but not egregious damage or wear. The pages measure 9.5cm x 16.25cm and bear 2.5cm vertical chain-lines, with no watermark. The paper is generally firm (though a slightly flimsier stock was used for some of the later sheets) and in remarkably good condition, with very little foxing and no tears or bends (though one page -- p. 123 -- was at one point dog-eared by a reader). The page edges have all be sprinkled with a dull red dye.

It may be expressed collationally as 8o: [#3] A8-L3. There are no errors in the running titles. Catchwords are used only across gatherings and are without error. There are slight changes in font styles and sizes between the different sections of the book, but nothing to suggest that Antoine changed printers or divided up the job between different print shops. Very often sections are headed and ended with devices; some are whole images, others were assembled by the compositor by putting together various pieces of decorative type or pointing. The contents are: blank flyleaf; title page; table of contents; the sixteen chapters (paginated without error, 1-164); blank flyleaf at the end. It was a generally sound printing job; the type is well-arranged, though in some places -- particularly around ornaments -- it has slipped a bit. The inking on a few pages is uneven -- slightly light in some places and, in others, so heavy that bits of the “furniture” around pieces of type and ornaments can be seen.

The only evidence of readership (beside the once dog-eared page noted above) are two owner’s inscriptions. The first, located on the verso of the front flyleaf, is in a mix of French and English and is written in an elegant cursive hand using brown ink:

Donné par M. Cieche, by M. <>appy < > 10 Mai 1866.

Haubeug < >

I’m not entirely confident in my transcription of this inscription and I welcome those of my readers with a better eye for nineteenth-century French handwriting to correct me if they have alternative readings.

But it’s the second inscription to which I'm particularly drawn. The recto of the front flyleaf bears a pencil inscription reading:

Stanley Dell, Sept. 26, 1916. Verdun.

The date of September 26, 1916 puts Dell in Verdun in the middle of the Battle of Verdun at the precise moment the town was being bombarded by German artillery. Dell was an American, but the Battle of Verdun was a battle in which American forces were not involved.

Born blind in one eye, Dell could not serve in the U.S. military, and so, eager to be involved in the war effort, he enlisted in the French ambulance service. Following the war he returned the United States and married Marion Cleveland, one of former President Grover Cleveland's daughters, and gained fame for his English translations of the work of Carl Jung.

Why -- in the midst of one of the most ferocious artillery barrages of the war -- did he stop to acquire an antiquarian book about local politics, culture, and law trials in early eighteenth-century Verdun? Dell's granddaughter -- my own step-grandmother -- describes him as "intellectual and learned". Perhaps, as the shells were bursting about him and buildings were crumbling to dust, Dell -- learned enough to understand the importance of preserving books from unwarranted destruction -- saw the chance to save a small piece of history from the terrible ravages of war.

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