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Friday, November 5, 2010


Reminiscing about the back-story to this remarkable biography of a sheep station library, the author, Lydia Wevers, writes, "When I was first introduced to the Brancepth library, as a collection of dirty books with faded covers in beautiful glass cases on the ground floor of the university library, I thought it would become the subject of an elegant essay about past reading habits, a little excursion into the back waters of a Victorian library."

Instead, the Brancepeth Library became the subject of an elegantly written book, one that offers a great deal more than a "little excursion".  Reading on the Farm is a richly detailed analysis of not just the station library, but the readers, too.

I know this library myself, in its relocated incarnation.  Since 1966, when it was gifted to Victoria University of Wellington, its glass-fronted bookcases have stood in the corridor that leads to the Beaglehole reading room.  When waiting for the Beaglehole to open, or while taking a breather from a spell of intensive research, I have lingered at the cases, scanning the faded red spines for vaguely familiar titles, wondering why this collection of Victorian popular fiction is there.  It took Reading on the Farm to solve the mystery.

Lydia Wevers begins the biography of the library like a skilled playwright, setting the scene by describing Brancepeth (a sheep station in the Wairarapa, with a grand old homestead) as it is now and was then, and the history of the station libraries that loaned out books to employees who paid the annual subscription fee (one pound, not a small amount in those days). 

Then, in the following chapters, she describes the characters who people her book -- the major player being the station clerk, John Vaughan Miller -- and the conditions in which they read the books.  The last three chapters, which I found particularly fascinating, are lively studies of the books themselves, the men (and a few women) who read them, the marks of their passing -- inscriptions, pressed flowers, filthy fingerprints, spilled tea, scorch marks -- and their opinions of what they found there, often expressed in startlingly eloquent marginal comments.

The chief offender in the list of those who marked up the books was John Vaughan Miller.  He translated phrases in languages ranging from Greek to German, added instructive explanations for less intellectual future readers, highlighted passages he liked, corrected grammatical errors, underlined awful writing, and penned comments such as "Splendid!", all in ink.  As Lydia Wevers dryly comments (239), "Miller was always busy proving that he was a great and a wise reader".

Despite this, it is obvious that she was fascinated by this object of her research.  A one-time Admiralty clerk, and obviously well-educated, Miller was a man who had come down in the world, most probably because of the demon drink.  Of almost the same social status as his employers, yet just their humble clerk, he wrote to bolster his image of himself, penning letters to the editor, and what would today be called "op-eds".  A complex man indeed, deftly and gradually revealed, until he fairly strides off the page.  Quite apart from its other virtues, getting acquainted with John Vaughan Miller makes this book a rewarding read.

Something else I found fascinating about Reading on the Farm relates directly to all my previous posts on the future of e-books and digitisation.  By analysing this library and the people who read the books, the author comprehensively refutes the argument "that when you hold a book in your hand, all you hold is the paper".  Most, if not all, of the books in this collection of Victorian fiction have been digitised, most probably, but all you have on the screen of your e-reader or your computer is the text.  As Lydia Wevers demonstrates in entertaining detail, what you have lost is the eloquent evidence left behind by past readers upon the grimy, well handled pages.

Reading on the Farm should be required reading for all librarians.  It is also highly recommended to anyone interested in books, reading, or domestic life on a colonial farm.


Shayne Parkinson said...

Your excellent review has just reminded me that this book has been on my to-read list ever since I heard an interview with the author on Radio New Zealand.

At some hard-to define point such marginal comments go from being infuriating vandalism (the clearly-recent scribbles one sometimes finds in library books, for instance) to a precious glimpse into the past. Of course the quality of the comment does make a difference!

World of the Written Word said...

I am sure you will find it a rewarding read, Shayne, with a few useful character studies. It's a real glimpse into colonial New Zealand. By coincidence, I received an offlist post from a friend saying she is halfway through it. So the book is getting some well deserved attention. said...

My No.1 Book Group has chosen this for our over summer read.

World of the Written Word said...

I'd be fascinated to hear their comments, Maggie. I found it a most thought-provoking book -- and it's about books!

Sara Miller said...

A fascinating read - particularly interesting as John Vaughan Miller was my Grandad's Grandfather.

World of the Written Word said...

Wow, that must make it really intriguing reading. I know that the author, Lydia Wevers, became more and more fascinated with him as she studied his writings.

Anonymous said...

John Vaughan Miller was my Husbands Great Grandfather , ( via Basil Miller, one of his Sons, ) Lydia really bought him to Life for us , Thankyou Lydia .

I would love to get in touch with you Sara ..... as we know so little about his other children .

Jan Miller