Advanced Studies | Newberry

Advanced Studies

One of the joys of working around this book joint is the fact that one is always learning new things. I recently learned, for example, that the Library of Congress has a subject subheading to indicate that a book about a fictional character is fiction. I UNDERSTAND this—there are nonfiction books, after all, about Miss Marple or other fictional characters—I just like their belief that somewhere, someone will need that level of classification. (We do not do this at the Book Fair, however much people would like us to do so. A philosopher who follows our doings told me this weekend that we really wouldn’t reach his expectations until each book had its own category. Only one?)

I spent part of last week researching the origin of the word Scandihoovian, and part of it trying to find out about an old book, the only word of which I could make out was Opis, a long-gone Babylonian city. I had to give up on the Scandihoovians: the book I had was NOT the first book to use the word. But I intend to keep looking into this book on Opis. If it leads me to the hiding place of ancient treasure, I’ll let you know…from my twenty-two story luxury Bloggery Building.

But I did score a few points by learning about the Vocarium.

Somebody had shoved a loose record into a boxed set. The boxed set was a collection of poets reading their own work, and this record went along with the theme, though it had been produced by an entirely different record company, the Harvard Vocarium. It was a record label I hadn’t seen before, for fairly good reasons.

Frederick C. Packard, Jr., was a professor and poetry fanatic. He was apparently one of those people who will suddenly recite poetry without warning. His wife performed poetry on the radio: it was a poetry family. He grew frustrated because he could NOT find enough good poetry in recorded form. So in 1930, he started making recordings. He was encouraged by his employer, Harvard, and called his record label Harvard Vocarium. The word was his own invention, and signified “a collection of voice recordings for use as a study aid in the appreciation of literature.” The place he made the records was also called the Vocarium, and I understand you can still go to the Vocarium at Harvard and listen to poets.

He stuck with this enterprise well into the LP age, and was able to oversee the transfer of his 78s into long-playing form. His 78s were 12-inchers, a size generally reserved for musical classics, and cost a buck and a half apiece during the Depression. Until Caedmon Records came along, the Harvard Vocarium was the major label for poetry (barring a few labels who specialized in verse of the “There Was a Young Girl from Dubuque” variety.) He did not insist that poets read their own work; he felt that for a poem to be appreciated properly, it had to be read well. Not all poets do an especially good job—they’re poets, not actors—and some actually prefer that their poetry be seen on the page rather than listened to. (Ogden Nash, who recorded pretty widely, spoke in one of his own poems about the elusive nature of “Emily Dickinson read aloud.” On the other hand, Ezra Pound recited one of his works for Vocarium while banging on a drum. Now, THERE’S a poet and performer.)

There were never a LOT of Vocarium recordings, but they now command premium prices and, by gum, I have one for sale. Now, of course, I have to decide what to do with it: sell it at the Book Fair, waiting for a customer to slip and drop it on the marble floor, or sell it online and trust the Post Office to get it to a buyer in one piece.

Maybe I’ll go back to looking up Opis while I think that over. Or even Scandihoovian.

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