The Ultimate Bonefeast

I FIRST set foot in the Houghton Library, where Harvard preserves and shares some half-million rare books and 4 million manuscripts, when both Houghton and I were in our freshmen year. Houghton promptly won a gold medal from the Boston Society of Architects. It was considered not only beautiful but "fireproof, earthquake-proof, and capable of sustaining any enemy action short of a direct hit by a demolition bomb." A year later, on the day I was drafted, Marshal Badoglio promptly announced the surrender o f Italy.

The other evening, 49 more years later, I was present as a spouse at a very Houghton event called the Ultimate Bonefeast - for everyone who works or ever worked at the place. In the Reading Room, cool fluorescent lights had replaced the chandeliers that purportedly could heat the room to 85 degrees despite the state-of-the-art air-conditioning of 1942, which was meant to duplicate the atmosphere that "so perfectly preserved the libraries in English country houses and Tyrolian monasteries." Extra electric al outlets had recently been installed to serve the increasing number of researchers using laptop computers. On my last visit I had heard the gentle rain of the keyboards before noticing the glow of the screens.

The Reading Room was where Richard Wendorf, the librarian of Houghton, made his Bonefeast remarks after wiping crumbs off a circulation desk more accustomed to holographs (documents in the author's handwriting) and incunabula (books printed before 1501). I had been reading his latest book, "The Elements of Life," in which he elegantly compares written biography and portrait-painting in Stuart and Georgian England. I knew he was at no loss for words. But here, surrounded by Bonefeasters of every vintage, he noted that, as Librarian for a mere 2 1/2 years, he could say little more than to thank everybody who had contributed to the festivities, not to mention the handsome chronicle accompanying them (telling me how much I'd missed in half a century).

I could have added a memory or two as a consumer. Soon after I got back to college under the GI Bill, I was trying to find a reference to something William Butler Yeats wrote in the introduction to "Certain Noble Plays of Japan," edited by Ezra Pound and published by the Cuala Press in Ireland in 1916. "Would you like to see it?" asked the Houghton attendant. Within minutes I, a fumbling undergraduate, was holding a book in its original edition from the press started by Yeats's sisters. It's the kind of moment that imprints anyone who loves books. Now Houghton's chronicle tells me that in the past year some 174,000 of its cherished items have been circulated, 10 times as many as in its first year.

But Mr. Wendorf didn't know of my memories. He deferred to William H. Bond, who had been an early member of the staff and then Librarian for many years. Mr. Bond, a broad-shouldered septuagenarian, started right in by declaring that this could not be the Ultimate Bonefeast, because surely there would be more. Mr. Wendorf, also a word man, murmured something about "ultimate" not in the sense of last but of maximum, though he would certainly agree to "penultimate."

It was left to Mr. Bond to explain the origins of the Bonefeast at Houghton's annual staff party. I assumed the hint of leftovers in the name referred to the usual Bonefeast timing after Christmas and before New Year's. But it really refers to the season's skeleton staff. Mr. Bond said that theoretically such a staff would be sufficient, what with students on vacation, but actually everyone was kept busy by scholars who now had extra time to do research. A little fun was in order.

The Ultimate Bonefeast on January 31 was special, a catered dinner, though Houghton folks provided desserts in the Bonefeast tradition. I loved the white cake with black walnuts by James E. Walsh, retired Keeper of Printed Books, who is cataloguing Harvard's incunabula. The evening was one of a number of 50th-anniversary events, including a conference coming in September on what libraries of rare books and manuscripts may be like in the 21st century.

Mr. Bond recalled one of the few times that Harvard's rare books made headlines beyond scholarly publications. He was telephoned at 6 a.m. on August 20, 1969, and asked to come to the library immediately because someone had tried to steal Houghton's Gutenberg Bible from its display space in the adjoining Widener Library. The thief had used a rope to let himself down from the roof, placed the two heavy volumes in a knapsack, and attempted to exit again with the aid of the rope. He fell onto a concrete cou rtyard and injured himself severely. "The Bible was under him," said Bond. "If it had been on top of him he'd have been dead." His eyes glinted behind his glasses. It wasn't so bad to have been phoned at 6 when he discovered there was another William H. Bond on Harvard's large faculty, a professor of dentistry who had been called at 5 a.m. and told, "Come to your office at once, the Bible has been stolen."

Another theft, the bust of Keats caper, did not make headlines, though it was intended to. Houghton has more of Keat's working manuscripts than there are in England, thanks to the late Arthur A. Houghton Jr., who also gave the library. There was consternation when the bust of the poet disappeared from an exhibition. Mr. Bond quickly removed a potato head that had been left in Keats's place and called the Cambridge police. It sounded like a student prank, and the officer thought he could solve it by letti ng it be known in various quarters that grand larceny might be the charge against the perpetrator. Suspicion fell on the Harvard Crimson, whose photographers came to Houghton as if in answer to a tip and seemed crestfallen to find an empty pedestal - no potato head - where Keats had been. Soon the bust reappeared in a paper bag left at the door of Prof. Walter Jackson Bate, the Keats biographer.

It was the kind of anecdotage, I suspected, that had been heard at many a Bonefeast. The serious stuff about Trotsky's long-sealed file, about Robert Gould Shaw's papers as the basis for "Glory" on the screen, about items from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Mata Hari, John Cheever, and the treasures from centuries before - all this is everyday Houghton. Eyes light up here because people know just how rare a rare something is.

"I don't think there's another one of these anywhere, certainly not in this country," said Rodney G. Dennis, just retired Curator of Manuscripts, as we wandered from the merrymaking to the display cases upstairs. "A medieval bookmark!" He pointed to a thin strip with a sliding disk of vellum lying between the pages of a 12th-century Pauline Epistle in a "Bible Exhibition Prepared for English 13." He described how the disk could be moved up and down to mark a line on the page; then it could be turned to e xpose Roman numerals I-IV indicating the number of a column. I marveled. Mr. Dennis marveled just as if he hadn't known all this before. You can't retire from a bibliophile's delight. The Ultimate Bonefeast could never be the last.

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