Arts & Culture » Lit

Boise State Exhibition Explores Rare and Antiquarian Books

A peek inside Chapters from the History of the Book


Old books hold a palpable magic. As you run your fingers down their worn spines, thumb through their thin, inky pages and breathe in the papery must of the past, they transport you to another era. But really old books, written in ancient scripts and sheltered under sterile glass display cases, are a bit harder to connect with.

Which is why Stephanie Bacon, Boise State professor and Idaho Center for the Book director, has spent the last year painstakingly researching and cataloguing a collection of rare and antiquarian books in the hopes of fostering those connections. Her new exhibit, Chapters from the History of the Book: Selections from the Collection of David and Nancy Leroy, is sponsored by Boise State's Arts and Humanities Institute and will open to the public Friday, Aug. 24, at the Arts and Humanities Institute Gallery.

"I think when people look at really old books, they assume that they're all religious or they were just for scholars, not for everyday people, popular interests," said Bacon. "We've tried to pick a selection of books that shows some of the range."

David Leroy, former Idaho lieutenant governor and attorney general, has a passion for rare books. He and his wife, Nancy, have spent the last 20 years combing Europe and the United States to assemble a collection of some 200 old books. For this exhibit, Bacon pared that collection down to 31 pieces--including illuminated manuscript fragments, palm leaf books and early Coptic materials--that represent a wide swath of cultures and time periods.

"In working with those books and notes, I found that there were groupings of objects that were really interesting," Bacon said. "For example, he had several early printed books from Paris or early printed books from Amsterdam or beautiful illuminated manuscript fragments that we could group together."

Under lightly filtered glass display boxes, bright berry-red and glistening gold embellish page after page of painstakingly uniform text. MFA students Amaura Mitchell and Earle Swope helped Bacon research where these texts originated, placing them in a historical context.

"You can tell something is derived from a Monet vs. work that is derived from a Van Gough," said Swope. "So it's kind of the same thing; you can tell where it's like, 'Oh, this must have originated with some master who ended up coming up with this pattern.' And then you might not nail that master, but you can tell he really influenced some individuals and that style was popular for a 40-year period."

For Bacon and Swope, these long hours of research and cataloguing have been about more than just a single exhibition; they are helping to illuminate a broader history of printed knowledge.

"I think when people talk about the history of books or the history of literacy, they really like to speak in big broad generalizations and say, 'Only the elite could read or only the rich could read,'" Bacon said. "But the fact is, they can't test the DNA of somebody's skull and determine whether or not they could read or write. And we know from the spread of literacy all over the world that literacy is kind of contagious."

She continued: "My interest is to look at this stuff and question that dominant narrative and say, 'What do we really know about who was reading and when and why?' Maybe it's a much more complicated story than we've been told."