Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Meddlers. Or, Folks Who Fiddle With Books

Bowdler's Day occurs annually on the 11th of July - the anniversary of the birthdate of one Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), an Englishman who became famous for his expurgation of Shakespeare.

In other words, he changed the words. And then he published them.

Image from:
Why would someone meddle with such classic literature? To bring the works of Shakespeare more in line with what was generally deemed appropriate reading/listening material for women and children in the 19th century. He called his first edition The Family Shakespeare (1807), and in 1818 published The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes. And he didn't stop with rewording the Bard. He also published what came to be known as "bowdlerized" versions of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and even the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. 

Thomas Bowdler was, in general, criticized and ridiculed for meddling with the classics. However, his edited editions made it possible for Shakespeare's works to be appropriate enough for 19th century women, children, and families to enjoy them, and affordable enough for the 19th century middle class to buy them.

Yet, whether he be literary demon or protector of decency, surely we can forgive the good doctor some of his zeal. One could argue that his actions were a natural extension of his own childhood: When Dr. Bowdler was young, his father would nightly read Shakespeare aloud to the family. When he came to a word or passage he deemed unsuitable for women or children, he would either: a) not read it aloud, or b) alter it on the spot. And who among us, in the 21st century, hasn't committed similar extemporaneous omissions or edits, in order to (at least for the time being) shield the littlest ears among us from fare deemed not-yet-suitable for their tender ages?

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Well. Every yin has its yang, does it not? And so this discussion of book meddling would not be complete without consideration of the Reverend James Granger (1723-1776) - Dr. Bowdler's countryman, yet literary polar opposite. Reverend Granger didn't take things out of books. He pasted extra stuff in: words, lithographs, portraits, engravings, letters, maps - anything that even remotely related to the text, the author, the illustrator, or the illustrations.

From Google Books
In fact, he didn't stop at stuffing other authors' books with additional, post-publication information: in 1769, he published the Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution. His book was noted for its intentionally blank pages, left there for the reader to fill with portraits and other illustrations and information complementary to the text. And yes, revised editions came later.

The practice came to be known as "grangerizing," (1769) or "extra-illustration" (1878), and became quite a popular hobby. A grangerizing enthusiast was known as a "Grangerite," or, as W.L. Andrews describes such an individual in Of the Extra-Illustration of Books, a "knight of the shears and paste jar." (Though intended to be derisive, "knight of the shears and paste jar" does sound quite poetic, doesn't it?)

Grangerites didn't limit their literary additions to the Rev. Granger's title. The practice spread to other books of biography and history throughout most of the 19th century. Some of this extra information was purchased expressly for this purpose, then cut and pasted into their Granger, as the Reverend's book became known. And sometimes, people cut information directly out of other published books, then pasted those items into a different book, Granger or otherwise.

As one might imagine, not everyone was so enamored with the practice. John Hill Burton in The Book Hunter, for example, viewed the hobby as "a sort of literary Attila, or Genghis Khan, who spreads terror and ruin around him." But others, such as Daniel Treadmill in A Plea for Bibliomania, had a far more complimentary opinion: "There are no general rules, no formulas, no beaten paths in this department of art - taste and genius are its only guides."

When we in the 21st century read about grangerizing, does the practice sound vaguely familiar? If so, Philip Kennicott (writing for The Washington Post) has an explanation: he asserts in his article on extra-illustration that grangerizing is in fact a direct precursor to our modern scrapbooking, except for that pesky mucking-up-someone-else's-book bit.

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So. Whether one bowdlerizes or grangerizes, one thing is certain: Each practice is an exercise in readers taking a story and making it their own - one way or another. Many have argued vociferously (and still do) for or against each practice. And each practice has its own virtues and vices, its own shades and nuances of bibliophilia, as its practitioners see it. 

When Bowdler's Day comes about on July 11th, spend some time reading about what others (my sources) have said about bowdlerizing and grangerizing:

Goatview Farm: The Saint Report
Thomas Bowdler (Wikipedia)
Shakespeare's Editors: Thomas Bowdler 
Bowdler, Dr. Thomas ( 
The Granger Collection: About Us
With Deft Knife and Paste: The Extra-Illustrated books of John M. Wing 
Library of Congress: 'Voices from Afghanistan'; Folger: 'Extending the Book' (The Washington Post - Philip Kennicott

Then come back and tell me, what say you


  1. Good post! I had heard of Bowdler but Granger is new to me. It's an interesting topic. Thanks!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, LJ. Thanks for visiting!


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