Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books

By Lindsay Dicuirci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Lost and Found
Antiquarianism and the Fantasy of Preservation

Of thousands of editions of printed books, not a copy of them is
now to be found; and if, of others, there may remain here and there
a copy among rubbish, they are of no use, for no one knows where
to search for them.

—Isaiah Thomas, 1814

When a book is said to “stand the test of time,” it usually means the book contains some element—a compelling voice, an enduring message—that forestalls the book’s inevitable erasure from public memory. But the phrase also gestures toward the ephemerality of the material book itself. Because it is a printed artifact, a book must stand the test of physical decay, the weathering work of time. Thus, books that stand the test of time, those that live on in the minds of readers from generation to generation, do so at least in part because of their materiality. So much of what is remembered depends upon what is reprinted and the material existence of particular books often depends upon the ideological commitments of bookmakers. As I described in the introduction, those early U.S. antiquarians and bibliophiles who sought to preserve and reprint colonial books forged an existential link between the book’s endurance and the nation’s endurance. They feared that without the materialization of particular memories and mythologies, centuries of colonial history—in which they located the nascent republic—would be lost to time. In their view, the early American archive was in a debilitated state and in dire need of new preservative techniques and technologies. Such fears became a

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