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Classics Textbooks Win Collecting Prize

Written by Georgia Reeeves |


What do bibliophiles collect? Answer: anything that takes their fancy. Add to the query: “What do student bibliophiles collect?” and financial cost will usually matter, rendering originality especially important (competition inflates prices). The Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, administered by Senate House Library and the Institute of English Studies, has generously been supplied by Oxford and London graduate, lawyer, and book collector Anthony Davis to encourage incipient book-collecting students of the University of London and to help them along with their collections through a generous injection of cash. The winner in 2019, Emer O’Hanlon, demonstrates originality and thoughtfulness with her collection of school textbooks of the Greek and Latin classics from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In true book-collecting spirit, Emer sourced old-fashioned Latin and Greek school texts: “simply because I liked the way they looked and felt. I only ever used [four of the books] in my formal studies; the rest were collected for fun”. She was inspired to collect from undertaking a University crash course in Latin which used school textbooks. As a female undergraduate reading editions initially intended for young boys, this instantly posed the question of shifting reception. Initially Emer’s interest was in the nature of the editorial notes and their change of focus over time. The choice of texts and authors also fascinated her, with its ‘Great Man’ theory of texts appropriate for schoolboys to study, and Cicero, Caesar, Tacitus and Virgil in particular standing out as men to emulate. Interest then grew to embrace annotations and evidence of use from school stamps and varying prices to interlinear glosses and translations indicating which parts of the textbook were read and to expressions of classroom boredom: “Do you want to go to the film or work?”

In 1874 Cambridge University Press increased its educational publishing with its Pitt Press Series, intended to prepare pupils for University local exams, and this series is at the core of Emer’s collection. Books published by Macmillan and by Oxford University Press also feature. Some books have been included in the collection to shed a comparative light on the core: a few textbook editions of English, French and German writers (it comes as no surprise to learn of the prominence in the field of Chaucer and Shakespeare) and some books intended for adults, notably early editions of Loeb classics. That the area is not one of general attraction is clear from the books’ prices. They are, after all, often scuffed and battered, and are remnants of books published in thousands of copies. But such a collection, with a strong personal element of interaction, abounds with research potential – including the female involvement in books of a traditionally male domain of authors, editors, and initial target readers. As the winner of the prize, Emer will help to select a rare book linked in some way with her own interests for Senate House Library. Early in 2020, she will be exhibiting some of her books in the Library. And in addition to receiving £600 to add to her collection, she will compete with the winners of student book collecting prizes at other universities in the United Kingdom this year for a national prize awarded by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. We wish her luck. 

Image caption: Students have been annotating Classics textbooks for centuries. Some of the annotations in this example from 1620 in Senate House Library are dated 1705 and 1706, showing the durability of school textbooks. Classmark: [Q.M.L.] Bb [Virgil] (RBC).