Friendship by the Book: The Book by Friendship

[Image: Jean Grolier’s copy of Baptista Mantuanus‘s Omnia Opera, which features Grolier’s famous inscription “Jo[hanni] Grolierii et amicorum,” meaning “This book belongs to Jean G. and his friends.”]

Here begins a series of posts of the “comparative textual media” variety regarding the relationship between friendship and the book, which I hope to intersperse with other threads over the coming months. This post is a two-for-one deal. First, I offer prefatory remarks about what I’ve taken to calling “the relational meanings of books.” These words seek to set up some of the terms and concerns of the series as a whole. Second, I offer a brief first case study of what I call “the friendship paratext,”  in the present case an inscription applied to early modern books. More studies of the friendship paratext, along with other aspects of the reciprocal relation between textual media and friendship, will come in good time. Happy reading.


I. Prefatory Remarks

In his “In Defense of Book,” published in the McSweeney’s magazine The Believer in 2013, the writer Damion Searls undertakes a curious mission: to make an apology for a technology that he doesn’t fully understand. All the arguments for books and against ebooks (or vice versa), Searls observes, “assume that we already know what the existing technology is, what e-books are trying to be (or trying not to be).” Searls questions that assumption and thinks that you should, too.

To illustrate our current level of (mis-)understanding on this issue, Searls offers a cheeky analogy between the history of the book and that of food science as reported in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He rates our culture at the superficial “macronutrient stage” (fat, protein, carbohydrates). We are “aware of only three things a book is or does: you can buy a book, you can hold it, and it delivers information. Replicate these features [in an e-book] and you’re done.” He continues: “We’ve arguably discovered vitamins and minerals: the importance of page layout, illustrations, annotating, lending to friends, organizing a library, and so on. The next generation iPad will no doubt evince an antioxidant or two.”

Searls’s point is that the popular discourse of the book has reduced it to the dimensions that can be advertised on an Amazon page. Does it rest elegantly in your palm? Is it affordable? Wifi’d? Searls awaits the advent of “another Michael Pollan” who will expose now-imperceptible qualities of books. From such a guru, we might learn, for example, that the smell of ink aids reading comprehension and that glancing at the spines of completed books while puttering around the house has innumerable the benefits to “memory and synthesis.” Coming decades will reveal “more, though surely not all, about the moral, social, and geospatial dimensions of the book.”

What’s a book? Searls preaches a gospel of progressive revelation. A better answer will emerge once we’ve plumbed “dimensions” of books that aren’t immediately tangible. The length, width, height, and weight of a codex are easy to ascertain, just as they are easy enough for engineers to emulate when fabricating electronic reading devices. But physical books serve countless other purposes that cannot be measured by a ruler and a scale. Even a 20-megapixel camera can’t capture them. Searls points us into the murky zone of a book’s meaning or value. Not just its commercial value. We are called here to acknowledge that “the book” has never been a merely physical phenomenon. It has also been operative in such “extra dimensions” as the moral and social lives. Books bear the traces of the rise and fall of nations and the traditions of great and insignificant households alike. Copies have crisscrossed the globe, whether by design or the accidents of the first-, second-, third-, n-hand book market. Book Was There? Book’s been everywhere.

Searls’s defense closes on a note of resignation:

We are hurtling on with the project and practice of replacing books, and nothing anyone writes will change that. But let us at least not presume too quickly that we understand what it is we’re replacing.

Based on the story that Searls has told, how could the end be otherwise? If physical books are assessed exclusively according to the “macronutrient stage” metrics–can you buy it? hold it? get info from it?–, then they may be rightly deemed outmoded. They would seem to have futures only as museum pieces (perhaps alongside other antediluvian Paper Age tools such as the un-mechanical pencil). Or maybe as home decorations. Simply stated, the book as it is now generally conceived is beyond defense. Searls’s piece thus teaches a valuable lesson: that our apologies for the physical book, as well as our designs for its electronic counterparts, are only as good as our explanations of what books are. For Searls, as for me, a better explanation requires richer accounting for what books do to, for, and between us.


In my view, the codex’s “antioxidant and omega-3” stage has already begun. As the above discussion suggests, I find Searls’s “defense” useful, particularly, once again, his point about how reductive the recent debates about reading technologies have been. But we also need to recognize that “In Defense of Book” belongs to the popular agon between the genres that I’ve taken to calling digital court prophecy and the apologia pro codice. Largely composed by fiction writers and essayists rather than academicians, these pieces often overlook decades of scholarship in the overlapping fields of book history and bibliography that has indeed sought to expand the “dimensions” of the concept of the book.

What’s a book? Consider these words from Leslie Howsam’s introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book: “Despite its undisputed materiality, ‘the book’ is a more flexible and abstract conceptual category than many people imagine, and it is this very quality that makes it interesting.” She urges would-be book historians to attend four interwoven “aspects” of books:

Although none of the four aspects analysed below can be separated from any of the others, it is nevertheless useful to think of the book (and the periodical) as a text, an object, a transaction, and an experience.

In this wide field, room remains for old-school (and, in the age of massive data migration, extremely important!) textual scholarship. But there’s also space in this paradigm to heed the great D. F. McKenzie’s call for bibliographers to “consider the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption.” McKenzie reminded his fellow scholars of the role of human lives in making books and books in making human lives. The resulting affair he dubbed the “sociology of texts.” Howsam has this expanded purview in mind in her last two categories, particularly the third, later clarified as “cultural transaction.” Here Howsam gathers “communication and exchange … that operates within a culture and a political economy.” There’s space under this umbrella for the book as a legal and commercial transaction–between publisher and state, between buyer and seller–but also as a “nexus between one reader and another.”

What goes on in this “nexus,” though? What sorts of “transactions” take place between readers? What evidence, if any, do transactions between readers leave behind? If we can answer questions like these, I believe, then we might be able to nudge the public discourse about books (v. ebooks) beyond the “macronutrient” measures of buying, holding, and information-retrieving. To pose such questions would be to approach the book as a medium of communication and aneconomic exchange between readers. Or perhaps we need a different term for these parties, since, as forthcoming posts will attest, the “text proper” (viz. the printed content in the case of a print book) might not even need to be read in order for the book to underwrite transactions between a book’s handlers. And perhaps the familiar labels of the “social” or the “cultural” don’t adequately characterize what transpires between readers in the private pages of their books. In what follows, I favor “relational” not only because of its suggestion of greater intimacy but because I hope to catch with it the way that the exchange of a book (or comments within a book) can build or deepen personal connections along with strengthening ties to a larger group (a “society” in its narrow, clubbish sense). Books can have relational meanings and uses, indeed meaning and use here are thoroughly entangled. The book that I give you in friendship enacts that friendship, while also serving as its lingering sign; the gift book renews and remembers our fellowship.

As noted above, friendship will be my focus in this series of posts. Before turning to friendship’s particular virtues for a study of the relational meanings of books, I want to acknowledge that there are, of course, other kinds of relationships that could model this dimension of book-use. Depending on whom you ask, you might learn that there isn’t just one form of love, but as many as four, friendship (φιλία or amicitia) being one. At least two of the other three seem relevant to the meaning and practice of the book to me. So, too, can I imagine that the “relational use/meaning” of the book could be pursued within the context of religious communities, or political movements, or scholarly societies, all contexts in which membership has been maintained through the circulation of and shared rituals over books. The book, in short, becomes a way of binding its handlers.

Friendship, in my view, represents an ideal starting point for reflecting on the “relational dimension” of books because of its particular character. Unlike many of our other closest ties, friendship is not grounded in biological necessity. While it may, in some cases, be accompanied by physical attraction, that attraction does not sustain it on its own, does not make it vital. Friendship, as thinkers since the ancient Greek philosophers have recognized, is in so many ways our most voluntary relation. Indeed, the point at which you no longer have choice in the relationship (as in, the other party has some control over you, has something “on” you) often spells a friendship’s end. Friends must be equals (though in what respect(s) is a topic of continuing debate). Exactly because Nature does not need friendship to keep Life going, friendship may grow out of common interests and concerns. The ancients thus revered friendship; it held the promise of a relationship rooted in–and itself promoting–a shared commitment to virtuous living (which, in turn, was good for society). We pick friends for ourselves, according to our own inclinations and purposes. (This is why our friends can tell us so much about ourselves.) In turn, our friendships are sustained by the persistence of our shared concerns– among which I’ve learned to include the maintenance of defining memories. (This is why keeping a friendship going can be such a burden when the original basis is no longer urgent for both parties.)

Because friendships are 1. voluntary, 2. expressive of our deepest convictions and enthusiasms, and 3. in theory at least catalysts to virtue, they have a long and privileged role in the history of the gift economy. Since friendships don’t issue biological reminders of themselves and don’t have legal status, they require other signs of existence and souvenirs of a common history. Gifts are ideal memoranda, and not only of the friendship but also of its underlying premises. My working claim for this series is that books have been one of the principal goods passed between friends since Westerners stopped chaining them to bookcases and developed a congeries of industries–papermillers, scribes/printers, binders, etc.–capable of sustaining personal libraries. In other words, we have done friendship by the book across the modern era. But perhaps we can also reverse those nouns and say that we have done the book by friendship, too.


II. Case Study: “Et Amicorum”

As explained in the incipit, with the remainder of this post I will offer a brief case study of one aspect of what I want to call “the friendship paratext.” In an earlier post, I noted that Genette coined “paratext” to describe all the paper and ink that surrounds the “text proper.” Pace those who treat such space and markings as merely “transitional,” Genette  argues that the paratext is, instead, transactional. Here’s another layer to add to our key word “transaction.” Genette’s primary concern is the set of transactions that shape the experience of a generic reader, such as the author’s title or the publisher’s inclusion of a preface. These elements can profoundly affect our understanding of what follows. Genette acknowledges, however, that there are diverse transactions that may take place in the paratext that are aimed at particular parties, such as those who receive dedications and inscriptions. Here Genette’s “transaction” begins to shade into Howsam’s. Friendship comes up briefly in Paratexts, including in a discussion of the practice of dedicating books to friends, which Genette characterizes as a curious blending of the public and private spheres. To that issue I hope to return in a later post in this series. At present, I want to discuss a paratextual practice of friendship on which Genette is silent, one belonging to the beginning of the modern era. I have two concerns: 1. how the book enables–and, moreover, molds–friendly transaction and, turning that formula around, 2. how friendship shapes the materiality of the book.

The practice in question consisted of inscribing books with a little Latin formula: [owner’s name] et amicorum, or “of/belonging to X and his friends.” Alternatively, one could show off one’s Greek and write, as Rabelais did, καὶ τῶν αὐτοῦ φίλων.  It could appear in a colophon, as in the image below of an incunable, a collection of sermons from the late fifteenth-century printed in Florence. Here Jacques Chevalier, a royal notary in sixteenth-century France, penned a bit of information about the book’s ownership right above the publisher’s information:


Who owns this book? The handwritten phrase informs the reader that the book belongs to Jacques and his friends (et amicorum). Actually, it says more: Jacques portrays the book as circulating in a gift economy: brother Claude gave it, and now, fittingly, Jacques’s friends should share it.

Et amicorum was also inscribed by the sixteenth-century Englishman Christopher Harvey, likely a cleric, on the title page of his copy of the Dissertationes of Maximus of Tyre (as reported on the MCRS Rare Books Blog):

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The phrase appears again in the inscription on the cover shown in the “feature image” above, a possession of the so-called “prince of bibliophiles,” Jean Grolier. And it also adorns the covers of one of Grolier’s rivals for that title, his fellow sixteenth-century “Italianate Frenchman,” bibliophile, and courtier Thomas Mahieu (or “Tommaso Maioli”). Here’s Mahieu’s Works of Cicero (including “Laelius,” a.k.a. De Amicitia or Of Friendship):

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And, this time in the dative plural construction sibi et amicis (“to/for himself and his friends”), it shows up again on the famous bookplate designed by Albrecht Dürer for the German jurist and man of letters Willibald Pirckheimer (ca. 1502), shown on the left. Two hundred years later, the French official Michel Bégon used the same motto on his bookplate (as related on this blog), as shown on the right.

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What happened? In a word, humanism. Humanism has been summed up as a moral and cultural program arising from the exhumation of forgotten Greco-Roman classics. As a scholarly uprising against Scholasticism. As a theory of education. As a set of attitudes about what constituted good Latin. All true. It was also, and this is what’s important for present purposes, a revolution in book culture initiated by fourteenth-century Italians. Humanism was something that you did with books.  Your humanist credentials were established not just in the titles that you read and how you talked about them but also in your books’ materiality. Humanism played out in the margins of books (stripped of the layers of scholastic commentary), in the shapes of (pseudo-antique) typefaces, in the catalogues and colophons of printing houses. To make the right books the right way, some even became printers, as in the case of Aldus. Humanists favored particular book sizes, such as small octavos that Aldus called “libelli portatiles,” a perfect fit for a gentleman’s pocket. In short, you knew a humanist by his library. (Indeed, as Jennifer Summit argues in Memory’s Library, the image of the scholar in his study quickly became a “humanist trademark.”)

The “et amicorum” inscription is a reader-side (as opposed to printer-side) practice within this book culture. By making this expression a prominent feature of their books, Chevalier, Harvey, Pirkheimer, and company signified their participation in the movement. Indeed, we may make this point more strongly. These were performative jottings (or stampings): writing such words in one’s book was part of how one “did humanism.” As the above examples suggest, the inscription was a convention, on which grounds some modern scholarly accounts seem to view it with suspicion (as in, “it was just a convention” and so not meant sincerely). Yet the very conventional nature of the expression created its force and appeal. It marked one, and one’s books, as members in an emerging or, later, established pan-European tradition. One wrote this in a book with the hope that others would recognize it from their acquaintance with other books.

What did such readers, indeed the writers themselves, take “et amicorum” to mean? What sort of “transactions” did it underwrite? What kind of “friendship” did it de-/in-scribe? We cannot understand the import of this expression without first acknowledging how thoroughly bookish humanist friendship was. Friendship was one of the principal themes that the Italians and then later French, English, Germans, etc. discovered as they pored over those rediscovered Greco-Roman classics. The humanists took from their classical reading the belief that friendship had a central role to play in the ethical life. (Although different in methodology, the Scholastics, we should recognize, had found good use for friendship in their ethics, too, and based on some of the same authorities. Consider Aquinas’s dialogue with Aristotle on this issue.) Friendship’s significance is witnessed in Erasmus’s decision to begin his bestseller the Adagia (1st ed., 1500), which would swell to thousands of proverbs by the time of his death in 1536, with two (or maybe it’s three) proverbs on the subject:

Amicorum communia omnia [Friends hold all things in common]
Amicitia aequalitas. Amicus alter ipse [Friendship is equality. A friend is another self.]

As with the rest of the Adagia, Eramus trailed these sentences with commentaries many times their length that discuss their occurrence in classical texts. The first, for example, he finds in the works of Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, and Euripides, among other classical authors. The good life rested on sound textual scholarship.

Friendship was an ethical-cum-textual condition for the humanists, a way of living out the beautiful Latin and Greek texts that they painstakingly edited for each other. Not surprisingly, they seized on the book when looking for property to “hold in common.” They made a virtue of book use. Indeed, one can do worse than to define “amicus/philos” in humanist as one with whom I share reading. Such a definition helps us to explain the way that an “et amicorum” inscription functioned not only as marker of shared ownership within a local circle but also a pledge of allegiance to the wider Republic of Letters. “Friends” in this virtuous, international program of scholarship (or scholarly program of virtue) should be welcome to make use of one’s unique manuscript of Quintilian’s Institutio.

International friendship (in contrast to a circle in, say, Florence or Lyon) need not be thought of as a purely academic affair, devoid of warmth. Erasmus at least was able to maintain an international network of friends, and the book was its lifeblood. Consider this letter to Pieter Gillis of Antwerp concerning the dedication to Gillis of the Parabolae (1515), translated from the Latin by Natalie Zemon Davis in her superb work on gift-giving in sixteenth-century France:

Friends of the commonplace and homespun sort, my open-hearted Pieter, have their idea of relationship, like their whole lives, attached to material things; and if ever they have to face a separation, they favour a frequent exchange of rings, knives, caps and other tokens of the kind, for fear that their affection may cool when intercourse is interrupted or actually die away […] But you and I, whose idea of friendship rests wholly in a meeting of minds and the enjoyment of studies in common [NZD notes: “a slight exaggeration, since Gillis helped Erasmus sell his books”], might well greet one another from time to time with presents for the mind and keepsakes of a literary description […] Any loss due to separation in the actual enjoyment of our friendship should be made good, not without interest, by tokens of this literary kind. And so I send a present-no common present, for you are no common friend, but many jewels in one small book.

This is an extraordinary set of claims, and one that could point us in several directions for a study of friendship by the book and the book by friendship. For example, there’s the very fact that this “personal” message to a cherished friend appears in the opening pages of a published volume (indeed, perhaps one, if we follow NZD, that Gillis might help to sell to others). And we could then attach this dedication to the friendly letters between Thomas More, Gillis, and Erasmus that comprised the front matter of various editions of More’s Utopia. As noted above, I will have more to say about the blending of publicity and privacy (whatever those categories mean) in dedications to friends in another post. For now, I want to observe that dedications and book-gifts speak to our reciprocal formula: the book is the ideal means through which friendship is enacted (far superior to rude rings and knives!); the work of friendship shapes the material design of the book (its paratextual front matter).

Before wrapping up this case study, I want to acknowledge a tension latent in such a scheme that hinges on individual ownership of books (rather than, as in an earlier Europe, books as the property of institutions such as monasteries and universities). We must remember that, as the work of Christian Bec and others have shown, book ownership was astonishingly low by contemporary standards (single-digit percentages of even Florentines appear to have owned books for much of the early modern period, for example, though literacy rates were higher than elsewhere in Europe) and that the majority of personal libraries consisted of only a handful of books. The private possession of one hundred books was extraordinary in the fifteenth-century and remained so even after the coming of print. The issue, of course, was price; we needn’t rehearse the causes of expense here. Thus, the willingness to share books was not only a desirable attribute in a friend but, especially for those humanists with scholarly pretensions, indispensable. Lending from private libraries was a vital part of the circulatory system of the Republic of Letters.

So where’s the tension? Book-collecting on a grand scale, at least with the intention of keeping the collection stable and intact, was seen to be at odds with the humanist moral principle that property had to be useful to the common good (see the work of Angela Nuovo and Christian Coppens on this topic). Book-hoarding could get you a first-class ticket on Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff or “Ship of Fools.” The first passenger, the Book-fool, claims that “to have plenty” books is a “pleasant thing / In my conceit and to have them in hand / But what they mean I don’t understand” (from Alexander Barclay’s translation). In the woodcut, the Book-fool holds a fly-swatter (its use being of one of his favorite pastimes):


Scholars have questioned, in turn, whether the “et amicorum” inscription gradually declined in force in the sixteenth century, becoming simply a pleasant motto rather than an expression of heartfelt conviction. One figure who has come in for regular criticism on this score is Grolier (once widely esteemed for his generosity). A representative critique appears in Leila Avrin’s Scribes, Script, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance:

Grolier liked the formula “Io. Grolierii et amicorum” (as did Mahieu with his own name), gold-stamped on a painted blue panel, implying that he shared his books with friends. His motto was taken from the ex libris of an Italian humanist who did shared his library. It was said of Grolier that he would rather give a book away than lend it, and indeed he frequently purchased duplicate copies, making a gift of one of them. Some of his books that did not disappear altogether when his collection was scattered after his death are still in mint condition from seldom having been opened.

On this reading, Jean applied “et amicorum” to his books not out of profound humanist virtue but bibliophilic taste.

There’s still debate about the state of Grolier’s heart (and those of his fellow collectors), and I for one am inclined to view the “et amicorum” label as more than just a fashion statement. That said, the very debate about whether the most famous users of the friendship formula may not have happily or easily lent out his books (as the formula seems to have entailed) offers us two useful points for future posts in this series:

  1. that great personages in the history of friendship-by-the-book:book-by-friendship are fallible, just like the rest of us (and even our brief discussion of Erasmus may have made some readers wonder about whether his comportment squared with his verbiage); and
  2. that books and friends have been a complicated mix from the start of the modern era; sometimes those with theoretical commitment to “friendship by the book” have preferred their books to their friends (or would-be “friends”); friendship with books (over against friendship with living friends) is another issue that we’ll need to consider.


Scholars have argued that the use of the “et amicorum” inscriptions seems to have petered out around the year 1600. While that might be true, the dative construction appears to have soldiered on, at least in France, in bookplates across the seventeenth-century. Indeed, I suspect that a dedicated book historian could find some version of the friendship formula somewhere in physical books in every period subsequent to the early modern. Consider, for example, the bindings of the nineteenth-century Spanish jurist and bibliophile Joaquín Gómez de la Cortina:

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Friendly expressions are found, too, on many bookplates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as this art nouveau style one (on the left) and its “arts-and-craftsy” fellow (on the right):

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In this context, of course, the meaning of “sibi et amicis” changes, since there’s no longer a local coterie, much less an international network, of humanist scholars with which to share one’s book. In other words, one did not invoke this formula on a bookplate with the same knowledge that others were also doing so as a part of an international movement. These expressions may well have been employed by these book-owners as meaningful signs of a wish to share their collections. Thankfully, such practices have survived the decline of the humanists (as we’ll see in subsequent posts). But the Latin phrase might also have been invoked in the manner that scholars suspect of Grolier: as a pleasing feature found on some “old” books,” which, when applied to modern books, gives them an antiquarian look. “Et amicorum” and the like indeed have a new life in the context of modern societies for bibliophiles, like the one that gathers in Grolier’s name.

We need to take great care in discriminating between principles for/models of friendship as we move between periods in this series. “Friendship” and the “book” are not stable concepts across the modern era; as we will see in upcoming posts, changes to one are reflected in changes to the other. Yet, while respecting difference, we should also be alert to perennial issues, whether problems or possibilities–with books for friendship, and with friendship for books–that are not limited to a single generation. The humanists set up for us (at least) two themes that we’ll take up again in later posts. There is, first of all, the ideal of book sharing, which the humanists raise for us in the context of small but growing personal libraries.  While the inscription of “et amicorum” on a title page, colophon, or cover might comprise a small physical change to the book’s paratext, it could enact a transformation of the book’s status in the three “extra dimensions” that Searls names, the “moral, social, and geo-spatial.” Books were a means of fulfilling precepts about friendship that the humanists culled from their reading of classical authorities. Books registered one’s local connections and tied one’s circle to the wider network of European humanism. Books indeed migrated between households and states on the strength of these convictions (producing, in the process, a literature of lament for lost borrowed books; see here for some Victorian, Grolier-themed verse on this subject).

The second theme hit home for me upon the receipt of my very own “et amciorum” volume. In a nineteenth-century edition of Clough’s poems, four friends wrote the inscription with a Latinized version of my name, signing theirs beneath. The loss of one signatory last year has only magnified the book’s value, already among the most treasured in my library. Every time I spot it, and I’ve taken care to set it in a place where I often do, I enjoy the remembrance of its givers. And the actual reading of the book is happily beset with friendly thoughts. Now, of course, this gift didn’t work in exactly the manner of the humanist practice. Yet the experience nonetheless suggests to me something about the humanist experience–even perhaps mentality–of reading. When taking up their books, humanists would have been reminded of their friends, whether through their own amicable inscriptions or by gazing upon a borrowed book. Within the text, too, there may have been regular reminders of friendship, through, for example, the elaborate annotations that humanists often prepared for their fellow readers. (I hope to consider amicable annotation in another post.) In his famous reflection on book collecting, “Unpacking my Library,” Walter Benjamin observes that in pulling old books from storage and shelving them “what memories crowd upon you.” He has in mind the personal memories of a book’s acquisition. My point is that for humanist readers there was likely space in the “crowd” for memories of other readers. Perhaps many books in a humanists’ library, then, served as minor alba amicorum (the “official” kind being ideal matter for this series). The same object served as invitation and guest book: the humanists opened their libraries to friends, and were rewarded, in turn, with the physical and spiritual traces of fellow handlers.


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2 Thoughts to “Friendship by the Book: The Book by Friendship”

  1. This is fascinating; thank you for sharing it. I look forward to reading more in the series. I’m also reminded of John Keats’ will, “My Chest of Books divide among my friends.” “My USB Drive of Pirated .mobi Files” hasn’t got nearly the same ring to it.

    1. Rhg

      Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve written a bit about that bit of pentameter from Keats (perhaps his last line) in an article that’s now looking for a journal home. Happy to share it in good time if of interest. More to come on the Keats circle, certainly. On the transmission of books v. files: well said.

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