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John Sym

- John Sym
The meticulously illustrated title page of Davidson College's first-edition David Copperfield, housed in the Rare Book Room.

Rare Book Room celebrates Dickens' 200th birthday

Posted: Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

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John Syme

John Syme graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor of arts degree in French in 1985. He worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal, where he later wrote freelance travel stories during his first solo cross-country road trip in the summer of 1989. He worked as a copywriter at a Charlotte advertising agency, as a research translator at a French nutrition center outside Paris, and as a politics and education newspaper reporter in Charlotte. He returned in 2001 to Davidson, where he is senior writer, alumni editor and instigator of the "Road Trip 2009" blog, which evolved into his current blog, "Daybook Davidson."

Did you see The New York Times Magazine's feature on England's Dickens World on Sunday? "The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut."

And for dessert, a slice of Miss Haversham's wedding cake, no doubt.

If you can't (or won't) go to Dickens World, you can celebrate the celebrated Victorian author's 200th birthday right here in Lake Norman, with a lively interlude of learning and awe at the "Charles Dickens' 200th Anniversary Exhibit," on display in the Rare Book Room of Davidson's E.H. Little Library. It’s free and open to the public Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Feb. 29. The display includes copies of Dickens' works, including first editions of both David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, as well as a copy of David Copperfield autographed by illustrator John Austen.

The real treat for me in a trip to the Rare Book Room is simply being in the inner sanctum of the room itself. The "RBR" is an impressive study of a space—sort of a less grand, 1974 Presbyterian version of Lord Grantham's library in Downton Abbey—and it never fails to unfold magical perspectives for me. Time itself takes on the unhurried (at least in my imagination) allure of old in the RBR, its books imbued with the artisanal care that humankind has offered to its most important words since time immemorial. Or at least since Gutenberg until very, very recently. A week ago last Friday, I think it was, on Twitter.

One of the RBR's oldest books is a 1492 Venetian edition of Seneca. Think about that. In 1492 Venice, Seneca was already a hallowed classic, a century before Shakespeare.

"Like, Columbus 1492?" a student always asks Sharon Byrd, special collections outreach librarian. Yes, like Columbus 1492, she'll respond with the patience of, well, a librarian.

An encyclopedic knowledge of the RBR's contents resides in the files of Sharon's head. "You'll have to interrupt me or I won't stop," she quips. On the shelves over the Dickens display are two centuries' worth of Gentleman's Magazine dating to the 1730s. ("Sort of The New Yorker of its day—or, I should say, its centuries.") In a curio cabinet around the corner there is a Sèvres bisque porcelain bust of Débussy, a radiant Japanese firebird/phoenix-rising plate, and a black marble and malachite inkstand that would be at home on Dumbledore's desk.

Older than that oldest actual book in the place is written Gregorian chant from 1250, Sharon shares. "And the oldest thing with writing on it? We have cuneiforms from 2350 BCE."

The day last week that I was there, Sharon had out for academic class study the 1821 Bible of Omar iba Sayyid. It is a storied Bible, unique in all the world, a singular product of the confluence of two continents tied by slavery, two religions tied by language, a lineage of history that made its way to Davidson’s Rare Book Room by way of the N.C. governor's office in 1871. Tidbit: Printed in Newcastle, England by a woman, a rare occurence in its day, the book's recent restoration was also accomplished by a woman, in Greensboro, N.C.

You never know what you'll find when you step into the Rare Book Room of E.H. Little Library, but whatever your great expectations, you can be assured of the best of times....

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