Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Lydia Pyne’s ‘Bookshelf' re-imagines the history and life of everyday bookshelves

Tue, March 15, 2016
Lydia Pyne’s ‘Bookshelf' re-imagines the history and life of everyday bookshelves
Dr. Lydia Pyne, and detail of John Foxe's "Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happening in the church" (Harry Ransom Center)

Story by Samantha R. Rubino, Ph.D. Student in History and IHS Graduate Research Assistant, Univ. of Texas at Austin

Have you ever wondered what your bookshelf could say about you? Amid the so-called-death of book culture, Dr. Lydia Pyne’s new book Bookshelf offers a vibrant look at how bookshelves are the holders of not only books, but of so many other things: values, vibes, and verbs. Put together, these objects contained and displayed in the buildings and rooms demonstrate the contemporary human experience.

Bookshelf is part of the Bloomsbury-Atlantic Object Lessons series that focuses on the “hidden lives of everyday objects” — everything from hoods to remote controls to phone booths to dust. The historian and writer first became interested in “bookshelves as objects” as she realized anyone who wanted to read a book in the series would have to use a bookshelf—whether physical or digital—to do so. The current trend of digital books also fascinated the author. “I was curious to explore how the history of book technology shaped access to books and how, in turn, access influenced bookshelf construction and curation.”

Photo of "Actes and monuments ..." John Foxe. At the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at AustinIn an email exchange with the Director of the Institute for Historical Studies, Seth Garfield, Dr. Pyne recalled her experience as a Visiting Researcher affiliated with the Institute. At UT Austin, Pyne was able to draw from a plethora of books—and bookshelf-related materials. One of her favorite texts came from the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center —Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happening in the church, written by John Foxe (see image below, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin). Published early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and only five years after the death of the Catholic Queen Mary I, Foxe's account of church history asserted a historical justification that was intended to establish the Church of England as a continuation of the true Christian church rather than as a modern innovation, and it contributed significantly to encourage nationally endorsed repudiation of the Catholic Church.

The author expressed that “more than any other book that I used for this project, I felt that this text helped me appreciate that there is a tangible, physical relationship between the material design and manufacture of books that strongly correlates with the bookshelves that the books’ creators envision their objects being shelved on.” According to Dr. Pyne, the Institute has “an amazing intellectually community—with lectures, workshops, and symposia—which helped [her] feel connected to other scholars during the research and writing of Bookshelf."

Reviewers of Bookshelf have raved about Dr. Pyne’s recent addition to the Atlantic Object Series. Many things can happen on a page—and as Bookshelf demonstrates our bookshelves partakes of that astonishing range of possibility. One reviewer stated bookshelves represent “a mode nonpareil of storing, displaying, distributing, assembling, categorizing and contextualizing knowledge. Even virtually, it continues unabashed, as a metaphor, like browsing.” Bookshelf, the reviewer contends, offers a “lovely glimpse of the joy and scale of human culture endeavor, its forms and functions, contexts and containers.” You can pick up your own copy of Dr. Lydia Pyne’s fantastic book at Austin’s own BookPeople, as well as online at Bloomsbury Publishing and Powell's City of Books.

Lydia Pyne is a historian interested in the history of science and material culture. Her book, Bookshelf, was published January 2016 by Bloomsbury Press, and her upcoming book, Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, will be published August 2016 with Viking. She is the co-author, with Stephen J. Pyne, of The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene (Viking, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Nautilus, JSTOR Daily, Slate, and Electric Literature.  She earned her Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

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Dr. Pyne will present a talk entitled “Piltdown: A Name Without a Fossil,” for the UT History and Philosophy of Science Colloquium on Friday, April 1, at Noon, in WAG 316, on UT campus. More info about the talk.

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