The Quest for the Perfect Text

Back in January, we told you about the Beinecke Library's current exhibition, Bibliomania; or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance. Today we're taking a closer look at one section of that exhibition, a collaborative project between the Beinecke and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and curated by Kathryn James, Early Modern and Osborn Curator at the Beinecke, and Aaron Pratt, Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Ransom Center. Collated & Perfect, an exhibit within an exhibit, takes its name from the phrase that actor and playbook collector John Philip Kemble inscribed into his books in the early nineteenth century. What, the curators ask, "does it mean to 'collate'? What does it mean for a book to be 'perfect?'"

A supplementary pamphlet (freely available online and as a downloadable PDF) provides an accessible overview of these bibliographical topics. James undertakes a description of collation from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries and examines the "ways in which collation was defined and used to stabilize an English textual heritage framed by an originating loss." Charlton Hinman, who invented a mechanical collator in order to compare copies of Shakespeare's First Folio (and publish an "ideal" facsimile), is one of her five main examples. Pratt then takes on the idea of "Perfect," describing Kemble's habit of aggressively trimming and rehousing his playbooks in an attempt to enforce his idea of perfection, even discarding leaves he deemed unnecessary -- thus making it "imperfect" in the eyes of today's collectors. Pratt also traces booksellers' use of "perfect" in this context to the late sixteenth century and considers the history of "made-up" or "sophisticated" books.

In February, the Ransom Center held a related panel discussion between James, Pratt, and Megan Heffernan, assistant professor English at DePaul University. In his introduction, Pratt sets the tone, saying, "...What the books that survive today themselves make clear is that what has counted as a 'perfect' or 'ideal' copy of an old book, or the text it transmits, was far from stable, changing from one generation to the next, especially once elite collecting really ramped up in the nineteenth century. I think all of the speakers here today believe that tracking these changes is important if we want to develop robust narratives about literary and cultural history." It's now available to watch in full:

Yale's exhibition closes on April 21, but the Ransom Center's Stories to Tell exhibition will remain on view through August 11.