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Virtual Conversation in the Library of Bishop Richard Hurd

August 3, 2012

A guest post by Stephen Gregg

My work discusses reading experiences and scholarly practices as revealed in the commonplace books and the annotations in the printed books held in the library of Bishop Richard Hurd (1720-1808). Hurd was an important contributor to eighteenth-century English literary history. His library, located in the old Bishopric of Worcester palace, Hartlebury Castle, still exists almost unchanged today. The collection, which was built up in his own lifetime, consists of over 3,000 titles and includes gifts from George III as well as substantial portions of the libraries of Alexander Pope and scholar William Warburton. Both Hurd and his library are very under researched (see only Cartwright, unpublished thesis, 1980; Penney, 2011).

Importantly, Hurd’s interaction with his library was not as a lone scholar, for he was engaged in a form of dialogue with those books and particularly with the other users of those books. The eighteenth century prized conversation as medium by which contention and social cohesion was negotiated within a variety of cultural networks (see for example, Goldgar, 1995; Mee, 2011); moreover, reading was often compared to conversation, as Robert Bolton noted ‘We may be said, with equal propriety, to converse with books, and to converse with men’ (1761). Hurd’s commonplace books held at the library are a lifetime’s observations on literature, religion and politics: but they are also an active and reflective dialogue with books. In addition, Hurd owned books previously owned and annotated by Pope and Warburton – books that are then annotated by Hurd; and his nephew, Richard Hurd (Jnr.) acted as secretary, copying out Hurd’s notes, the annotations by Warburton and even making his own notes. I argue that, taken together, they amount to a virtual conversation. It is a conversation that spans different lifetimes and that reflects a variety of reading experiences, cultural affiliations and political positions and is all the more remarkable for taking place within the space of a single collection of books.

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