Why research is fun
Well, OK, it isn’t always. I don’t know what longueurs and anxieties go hand in hand with splitting the atom or curing cancer – or any of the equally worthy but less glamorous forms of science research. But anyone who does the library rather than the lab version of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge can tell you about the tedious days of reading pretty unappealing material (just try reading an ancient dictionary) looking for some particular gem that isn’t there. Even worse is the low level panic that the clever idea that set you on this particular month of reading is going to turn out to be a blind alley.
No academic autobiography that I know ever discusses this. In published recollection and authorised versions research tends to go right.
But actually, “going right” is itself a bit more complicated than it seems. Because the best days are not when you find what you’re looking for, but when you come across something completely unexpected.
In the Cambridge University Library there’s one predictable route to the unpredictable. It was the library’s nineteenth-century practice to bind up short books and pamphlets together, perhaps as many as ten or twenty in a single volume. So you order up the thing you’re wanting, and you get a load of what you weren’t expecting too.
The chances are that it’s one of the other things that takes your fancy.
At least that’s what happened to me the other day. I was on the hunt of a short book called The Comic History of Rome, and the Rumuns, published in about 1847. When I do my lectures on laughter in the autumn, I’m wanting to explore not just why the Romans laughed, but also at why we laugh at the Romans (the sort of thing I mean is on the left). So this was obvious material.
But when the book arrived, it came bound up with nine others, two of which were just as interesting. One was a book I’m sure I ought to have known already, but didn’t. It was called Facetiae Cantabrigienses, an 1820s collection of jokes and bons mots about Cambridge. What particularly caught my attention were not the anecdotes about Porson, but the spoof exam papers, which were obviously the ancestors of the famous one in 1066 and all that (“Do not write on both sides of the paper at once”).
The questions went like this.
“Are you anywhere informed by Herodotus, which were the thickest, the heads of the Egyptians or the Persians?”
“Oxford must, from all antiquity, have been either somewhere or nowhere. Where was it in the time of Tarquinius Priscus . . . ?”
“Mention any instances that occur to you of ancients visiting any part of the United States . . .”
“State logically how many tails a cat has.” (This one had a model answer too. “Cats have three tails – no cat has two tails – every cat has one tail more than no cat – ergo, every cat has three tails.”)
Ok – not side-splitting, I grant you. But it’s hard to get much of an idea about how the takers thought about exams (classical or not) in the early nineteenth century. This kind of stuff is one way into their “exam culture”.
The other was a satiric Lancashire dialect account of a visit to the Great Exhibition…O Full True un Pertikler Okeawnt o wat me un maw mistris un yerd wi’ gooin to th’Greyte Eggshibishun e’ Lundun. Satiric it may have been, but still a way of thinking differently about that extraordinary mid-Victorian spectacular
Now if you’ve clicked on the links, you’ll have seen another joke here. Both these rare books are available on Google books, which is why I’ve been able to share them with you. So I could have got them on my screen all along, without bothering to arm myself with a pencil (no pens in the Rare Books Room) and hoof off to the University Library.
But the fact is that I wouldn’t have know about this if I hadn’t ordered up the Comic History and flipped through the rest of the volume. That’s where the UL and its funny nineteenth-century habits is always likely to score over Google books.