October 11, 2012

Dullness combined with dullness


The pages of A Course in Correct Cataloguing, or Notes to the Neophyte and A Second Course in Correct Cataloguing, two humorous glossaries written by legendary bookseller David Magee, make for hilarious reading even if you don’t know what a “yapp” is. But one entry in particular leads back to a forgotten game that I for one would very much like to play:

“Extra-Illustrated Volumes”

The embellishing of dull books by the insertion of illustrations from other dull books. The manufacture of these pedigreed scrapbooks was at one time a favorite parlor game. The rules were simple: you found the most unreadable volume in your library and then burdened it with sufficient pictures to warrant extending the work to twelve large, “choicely” bound tomes. Histories of obscure English parishes, compiled by retired clergymen, were usually judged the winner.

This seems like a uniquely Victorian activity, the combining of dullness with dullness to produce something that is, hopefully, not dull at all. Magee invents a parish, “Little Wombly-under-the-Womb (pronounced Wum),” and you can just imagine the pages of long-claused prose dutifully recording the to-ings and fro-ings of Little Wombly’s inhabitants, only to be interrupted by … hydraulic engines! It’s enough to make you want to reach for some steampunk. Or maybe a book about sharpening pencils.

Historically interesting extra-illustrated volumes include A.H. Reed’s tricked-out copy of The Life of Charles Dickens, with letters from “Phiz” and Wilkie Collins tucked in there; Nathaniel Paine’s Freaks of Nature Illustrated, with a nice clipping on “Dangerous Kinds of Pets,” and James Granger’s Biographical History of England, with blank leaves for the insertion of portraits (presumably one’s own). The possibilities seem endless, as long as the tea keeps coming and the supply of glue holds out …



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.