Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The novelist Nick Hornby writes a column for The Believer in which he chronicles his battle to read all of the books he buys in any given month. I read the columns when they come out collected in book form. My literary tastes rarely jive with Hornby's but I love how he writes about literature, so I read far more for the criticism than for the recommendations.

In June of 2010, Hornby finished reading Austerity Britain by David Kynaston, and in writing about it in a column that would be collected in More Baths, Less Talking, he offered such a kind and charitable insight into the private intellectual life of the historian that it, in and of itself, made the book worthwhile:
"At one point Kynaston quotes a 1948 press release from the chairman of Hoover, and addis in a helpful parenthetical that it was 'probably written for him by a young Muriel Spark.'* The joy that extra information brings is undeniable, but, once you get to know Kynaston, you will come to recognize the pain and frustration hidden in that word probably: how many hours of his life, you wonder, were spent trying to remove it?"
That's sort of what I'm up to this week: Trying to remove the probably from a manuscript conundrum in which I've become mired. I'm working with a manuscript in the US that has a funny owner's mark. So far, the only part that's legible to me (and more than a few really serious manuscript people) is the patronymic: Son of Menachem. Although marginal (in the literal and figurative sense), knowing who he was is probably important to my project. So while I was mainly coming to Oxford for a different reason, namely to collate a few letters from one of my translators to friends and relatives, I decided to take some hours to look up every Menachem and Son of Menachem listed as book owners, sale witnesses or scribes in the Hebraica catalogue and go through them systematically to see if any manuscript with that name bore the same mark.

None of these is it. Neither is any of the seventeen other manuscripts now owned by the Bodleian, previously owned by some guys called Menachem.

It was a long shot. I went in knowing that it probably wouldn't pan out. And in fact it didn't. But there was that probably again, and I had to face it down.

*Hornby's inexplicable literary crush on Muriel Spark is kind of a running joke theme of the columns collected in this most recent volume.

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