Bright Young Collectors: Rachel Fletcher

Image provided by Rachel Fletcher

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Rachel Fletcher, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and one of the two co-winners of this year's David Murray Book Collecting Prize.

Where are you from / where do you live?

I grew up in the south of England, but I've been living in Scotland for four years now, doing first an MPhil and now a PhD at the University of Glasgow.

What do you study at University?

My BA was at Magdalene College, Cambridge; I spent the first two years in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, then finished off my degree with another two years in Linguistics. Since then I've found myself circling back round to the mediaeval side of things. My PhD is an analysis of dictionaries of Old English from the seventeenth century to the present, and specifically how they define the end of Old English as a linguistic period: does it end in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings, or at some other time, how do we categorise texts from the transitional period that might or might not be considered Old English, and how (and why) is all this conveyed in dictionary format?

Please introduce us to your book collection. What areas do you collect in?

My collection focuses on dictionaries, particularly dictionaries that have an interesting connection to the history of English. Some of these are period dictionaries, which look back on an earlier stage of English (such as Old or Middle English) and document its vocabulary for the benefit of modern scholars. Others, when they were compiled, were aiming (partly or exclusively) to record the English language used at that time, but still tell us something interesting about the history of English. This might be because they're concerned with tracing the historical origins of words, or simply because English has changed since they were compiled. I also have a few books that aren't dictionaries but are in some way about dictionaries: works on the history of English written by people who worked as lexicographers, for instance.

How many books are in your collection?

As I submitted it for the David Murray Book Collecting Prize, my collection was only eighteen books. I've bought several more since then, but the boundaries of the collection are fuzzy at best. It grew spontaneously out of books I found, was given, bought on a whim, or purchased for my research, so how many I have depends very much on how I define the collection. I try not to let it grow too quickly, though; a student budget and limited shelf-space keep some of my wilder impulses in check.

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

Because I started collecting dictionaries almost without noticing, it's hard to pin down the first. The first that I bought for no other purpose than to add it to the collection was probably my 1832 two volume edition of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language; it was also the first pre-twentieth-century book I bought. I knew when I found it that it would be much easier to read one of the many digitised versions out there, so I suppose that was the point that I admitted to myself that I was collecting purely for the sake of collecting!

How about the most recent book?

I've just bought a very battered copy of John Jamieson's A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, in the abridged edition of 1846. I ordered it online and the seller hadn't included much information about it, but I was intrigued by the mention of some interleaved notes, which are proving very interesting. It seems that they may have been moved from an 1818 edition of the same dictionary, and it's likely that they were written by James Morton, who edited and translated the early Middle English Ancrene Riwle, or Guide for Anchoresses, for the Camden Society in 1853. That means the book fits nicely within my collection on the history of English, despite Jamieson's work being a dictionary of Scots.

And your favorite book in your collection?

It's hard to choose just one! I am very fond of my second edition Webster's New International, partly because of its ludicrously impractical size (it weighs seven and a half kilogrammes) and partly because of its famous 'ghost word'; the entry for 'dord', said to mean density, was added in error and the word never really existed. For amusement value, though, the winner is probably The Super Dictionary (1978). It doesn't have the same connection to the history of English that most of my books do, but it does have the dubious honour of having achieved internet meme status, so when I saw a copy for sale I couldn't resist buying it. Who wouldn't want a dictionary that contains an image of Wonder Woman having her shoes stolen by a whale?

Best bargain you’ve found?

Definitely the Johnson. I was browsing a bric-a-brac shop in Glasgow when I found one volume of the two-volume set. I rummaged around for the other volume and was disappointed not to find it anywhere, so I asked the shopkeeper, who told me that he thought it must have been lost, so he'd give me a discount on the single volume. Some weeks later I was browsing there again and found the second volume halfway down a huge pile of books. The shopkeeper was very kind and didn't charge me full price now I had the matching set!

How about The One that Got Away?

I came very close to bidding on a copy of William Somner's Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum at Bonhams, before deciding that I couldn't justify spending more than one and a half thousand pounds on a seventeenth-century book that I didn't have any appropriate storage for. It was very tempting, though; I wrote my MPhil thesis on Somner's dictionary, so I have a particular attachment to it, and this copy was owned by J.R.R. Tolkien, who was himself both a lexicographer and a scholar of Old English. If I had my time again, I'd probably go for it.

What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?

In an ideal world, very possibly that Somner!

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

I think my favourite book-buying experience will always be encountering something unexpected in a charity shop or second hand stall, and knowing that by buying it I'm making sure it goes to an appreciative home when it might otherwise have been overlooked.

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

Funnily enough, it's a bit of a running joke in my family that I don't have much of a collector's instinct. Books seem to be my exception because I can always justify it to myself by pretending I'll get round to reading them.