Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Research Books Before Post-Its: Hamilton's Manicules

Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Susan reporting,

One of my rituals after I finish writing a research-heavy manuscript is the removal of the Post-Its. I write surrounded by stacks of research books on the floor, each book bristling with multi-color flags to mark inspiring and important passages, facts, and images. Peeling off all those Post-Its means they've done their job, and it's time for the books to return to their shelves.

Post-Its are perfect for me, because I've never been able to bring myself to write in books. I like my pages clean, my spines intact. Even as a college student, I was horrified to see other people's textbooks striped with neon-yellow highlighter. In my generally cluttered world, unmarked books are one of my few attempts at order.

It's also a habit that would have marked me as clueless in an 18thc personal library. First of all, of course, I would have been the wrong gender to possess an extensive collection of books. Even the most well-read of 18thc American women - such as Abigail Adams, or Mercy Otis Warren - relied on libraries owned by husbands, fathers, and brothers. Studies, libraries, and offices were the male domains where books were kept in private homes, intellectual retreats that women entered by invitation (or to clean.)

Books were expensive, a sign not only of the prosperity necessary for such a purchase, but also proof that the gentleman possessed the luxury of sufficient leisure time for reading. Living in a country far removed from the great universities of Europe, books provided an intellectual connection to great minds of the past and the 18thc present, linking Americans with the Age of Enlightenment. Books were read and reread extensively, considered and referred to and used to settle disputes and discussions. Books were the primary source of knowledge and authority, and prized as such by their owners. They were symbols of continuing self-education, as well as of literacy.

All the American Founders possessed personal libraries of varying sizes. Many of these men were trained as lawyers, and their libraries were filled with the legal books required by their practices, but also filled with ideas that also helped shape the most important documents in American history. Benjamin Franklin's library alone had over three thousand volumes. Thomas Jefferson's library was the largest in the country; after the Library of Congress was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Congress purchased most of Jefferson's personal library as a replacement - nearly 6,500 books.

To men like Jefferson and Franklin, reading and studying a book included annotating it. Whether making comments or asking questions in the margins, underlining important ideas, or even "editing" by physically cutting a page, they viewed these notations as a way of personalizing the book and tailoring it to be more useful for their individual needs.

As can be imagined for a successful lawyer and statesman, Alexander Hamilton, too, possessed an extensive library. (Yes, I know, I've managed to include another Hamilton reference - but since he's the husband of my heroine in I, ELIZA HAMILTON, I've looked at far more examples of his books and handwriting lately than of Jefferson's or Franklin's.) Although the Revolution had interrupted Hamilton's studies at King's College - he was granted an honorary degree later in life - he was a voracious reader on topics that ranged from medicine to history, agriculture to military science, and famously prepared himself for the bar in a matter of months.

And as can also be imagined for someone who was so opinionated, Hamilton freely wrote in his books, and his law books in particular were often marked to highlight a precedence or argument useful to a particular case. One of these - a copy of the 1738 The Rights of War and Peace by Hugo Grotius - has recently been shared online by a private collector; thanks to his generosity, you can view it here, as well as learn why Hamilton's annotated copy is considered an important volume to legal historians.

Hamilton not only wrote his name in the book, right, but he underlined, labeled passages alphabetically, and corrected printers' misspellings and translations. One of his favorite ways to call attention to a salient point was with a manicule, a decorative notation in use since the 12thc. Manicules are tiny hand-drawn hands, pointing into the text, and are as varied in style as the writers who made them. Some have exaggerated index fingers for emphatic pointing, and others have elaborate lace cuffs around the hand.

Hamilton devised his version of the manicule as a single calligraphic line, a pointing hand that often ends in an elegant curl, above left. He was, however, a bit breezy about anatomy; some of his manicules have only four fingers (much like Mickey Mouse), or even just the thumb and forefinger, lower left, with only a hint at the other digits. Still, they're distinctive, and variations appear throughout his books, and in drafts of his own work, too. Manicules are also elegantly utilitarian, because they do catch your eye, and make you look at what they're marking.

Hmm. Perhaps with a little practice, they might even replace my Post-Its.

Many thanks to Robert Pattelli for sharing this book from his personal collection, and for his assistance with this post.


Kathy Whalen said...

Loved seeing the "manicules". Your posts about the Hamiltons have brought American Revolutionary history alive for me! But I cringed reading about the post-it notes. As a Librarian I have seen all too often the long-term damage that the adhesive on post-its can cause. Even using them for a short time leaves an acidic mark that looks ugly as it ages and makes the page margin more fragile. If you use strips of paper instead the books will thank you.

Heather said...

My husband was finishing up his Masters Research project when our daughter started Kindergarten and our son was 2...Every morning I would say, 'Don't touch Daddy's books!" (They sat on our dining room table, stacked with post-its and tabs of paper sticking out of them).....Fast forward to Fire Prevention Week in October. Her Kindergarten teacher asked her students to finish this statement... : "You should never,ever__________________!" thinking they would say 'play with matches etc..' Our daughter finished it with; "You should never,ever touch Daddy's Books!' :)

Elena Jardiniz said...

Our modern books are made with wood pulp paper - Hamilton's may have been rag paper, more expensive, but far longer lived. And pulp goes brittle and yellow quickly, no matter how careful or careless you are, alas.

There are lovely things called book darts, a bright coppery bronze, thin sheet metal 'clip' that ages to a lovely brown - these would be easier on your books, and are reusable - they're one of my favorite Christmas gifts to friends, being classy and inexpensive. Just googled them - one seller has brass, bronze or stainless steel.

The only trouble I can see with a manicule would be that you can't see them until you actually leaf through the book. And of course different research projects may have different important passages

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