Imagine the thousands of hands that have held the spine of a library book, the fingers that have turned the pages. Imagine the moments in history that have intersected with the text through the lives of its readers.
Beginning in 2015 and ending in June of 2017, a project called Book Traces @ UVA sought to catalog minutia in 19th- and 20th-century library books that may have been overlooked—notes that readers wrote in the margins, and objects, such as pressed flowers, they left tucked between the leaves.
Now, composer Matt Boehler has sifted through their findings and written a song cycle about them called Marginalia, to be performed by Victory Hall Opera. If you’re not familiar with song cycles, Boehler describes them as “a collection of songs that are linked thematically,” and adds, “The concept album is the modern version.” Running about 50 minutes long and scored for three vocalists and three instrumentalists, Marginalia is a dialogue among readers throughout the shelf lives of various books.
In one such dialogue, Boehler draws on marginalia documented from two separate books. In Poems and Ballads by Henry Wads-
worth Longfellow, a reader named Jane Chapman Slaughter wrote to a lost former lover, “Our readings together were in this book.” And in a Dutch translation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, an inscription by one James R. reminds the recipient, Thomas Randolph Price, they “read it together” in the original English. Boehler was amazed by the parallel. “It’s something that is really beautiful and coincidental,” he says.
Kristin Jensen, project manager at the UVA Library, writes in an email, “In a way, Book Traces is a reaction to the mass digitization of print materials, which is one of the most important developments in the library world in recent years. Digital collections are great for sharing and searching texts, but Book Traces is all about taking a deep dive into physical books and bringing out these hidden histories of how people in the past interacted with their reading material.”
Book Traces has, in turn, been digitized, and this digital collection gave Boehler, who does not live in Charlottesville, access to the material. “It was a long process of sifting through information and deciding what needed to be said,” he says. Most of the marginalia Jensen and co-principal investigator Andrew Stouffer found, Boehler likens to “tiny shards and scraps. It’s like this landscape covered in glass and it’s my job to make a narrative mosaic out of it,” he says.
One of the challenges was finding material that could stand on its own, without the context of the book in which it was written. “I wanted things that leapt off the page of their own accord and didn’t need something outside to reference them,” he says.
The books that make up the Book Traces project generally date from 1820-1923. They aren’t rare enough to be physically protected copies and aren’t new enough to be part of the general collection. Due to this designation, many of the books in Book Traces happen to overlap with the Civil War.
“Especially where we are now in our history at this very moment, looking at this marginalia is an interesting experience,” Boehler says. “You feel almost like you’re in an in-between space, seeing something at once nostalgic and horrifying. Part of the legacy of the University of Virginia and its library are the collections of wealthy white slave-owners. To not acknowledge that at this point in time would be at best tone-deaf,” says Boehler.
In line with all VHO performances, the song cycle will be performed in an unconventional space. In this case, the elegant McGregor Room at the Alderman Library provides the perfect backdrop. “It is my hope that people will experience this piece as if voices are coming out of the stacks and out of the books, that it is immersive in that way,” says Boehler. “I hope it gives the audience the feeling of being between the past and the present.”
Boehler credits the work of the Book Traces team in documenting and preserving the marginalia that inspired his composition. “The Book Traces project finds that the book is more than just its text,” he says. “It also gains meaning from the hands that held it. And metaphorically that extends to the lives of individuals. Our lives are enriched with meaning through the presence of those around us.” He hopes that this is something the audience will garner from the performance: “to have enough presence to listen and to bear witness.”