Associate Editor Nadine Zimmerli lays bare a usually private OI ritual, in the process asking what’s the thing about things?
by Nadine Zimmerli
Last Thursday was an exciting day for the Books program. Shortly before noon, our managing editor, Ginny Chew, and senior project editor, Kathy Burdette, came down to my office to hand me the very first copy of Jennifer Van Horn’s The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, fresh from the printer’s.
Holding the very first copy of an Institute book is always a joyous occasion, for the acquisitions team and our colleagues in editorial alike. As with many a book before, Ginny, Kathy, and I gathered around the new tome and ceremonially unwrapped it. Then we feasted our eyes on the cover design. We had seen the illustration before, of course, but beholding the actual cover instead of an image on a screen accompanying online catalog copy is something else altogether. The image just pops when wrapped around a three-dimensional object. We spent quite a few minutes oohing and aahing over Jennifer Van Horn’s cover design since it is more dramatic than most. Then we cracked open the book and… well… sniffed it. Nothing beats that new book smell! Granted, it’s not a type of smell that lends itself to perfume or cologne, per se, but there is just something about it. Fresh, and clean, and enticing. Then each of us leafed through the book, held it, weighed it in our hands, admired the images within.
We love this ritual, and none of us can quite explain why. Perhaps it’s because the smell is objectively a great one to the human brain. Or perhaps it’s because the very first copy of a book is labor made manifest. The moment we unwrap a new book, we are holding the fruit of abstract intellectual labor in our hands for the first time. It represents the culmination of years of work and collaboration between the author, peer reviewers, the Institute team, and our partners at the University of North Carolina Press. Either way, new books make for great days at the office. The best days, actually.
We’ve had a number of such days recently. Back in December, right before the holidays, we received the first copy of Gideon Mailer’s John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, followed by Douglas L. Winiarski’s Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England in mid-January. (I had the pleasure of delivering the latter to the author in Richmond in person that afternoon. Pints might have been involved in the handover. Oh, the arduous life of an editor…)
We are thrilled to have released these new publications into the wider world. All three make important arguments that enrich our understanding of the religious and the social lives of eighteenth-century early Americans. Mailer provides a rigorous intellectual history of John Witherspoon’s religious, philosophical, and political thought to show that Witherspoon remained a committed evangelical even after his move from the Scottish Kirk to the American Congress. Winiarski examines thousands of hitherto untapped church admission relations to place the actions of ordinary men and women at the center of the religious awakenings’ ferment in New England. Van Horn’s engaging narrative weaves together analyses of such divergent objects as John Wollaston’s portraits of Philadelphia’s elite families, Boston-manufactured portrait gravestones in Charleston, and founding father Gouverneur Morris’s wooden leg to highlight the ways in which these objects helped Americans fashion a civil self-image and communal bonds in colonial and Revolutionary America.
Aside from these books’ intellectual contributions to our field, they are beautifully designed objects. As editors whose work is normally so textually focused, we gravitate toward the design elements that make these books shine when we receive the first copy. A reproduction of John Witherspoon’s signature on the Declaration of Independence adorns the title page of Mailer’s book. The dingbat marking the opening of every part of Winiarski’s tome—a church taken from the frontispiece, John Godsoe’s 1739 map “Division of the Lands of Mr. John Hole”— is striking. Van Horn’s book is a joy to leaf through especially because of its coated paper, which has a luxurious feel and brings out every detail and contrast in the monograph’s 130 images.
To me, examining the first copy of any of our titles also resonates emotionally. When I provided substantive input on Jennifer Van Horn’s book, I strongly connected with her sixth chapter on Gouverneur Morris’s wooden leg, the only artificial limb known to have survived from early America. My grandfather was an upholsterer, and I deeply appreciated Van Horn’s complex reading of this prosthesis as an expression of that art. Upon receiving the book, I immediately flipped to the last page of the insert of color images, which renders the wooden limb in astonishing detail, upholstery nails and all. It might seem odd, but this full-color image is my favorite page in the whole book, not only because of its intrinsic aesthetic value but also because it calls to mind the days I spent with chapter 6 and the interesting conversations it prompted with my grandfather.
So last Thursday was an exciting day indeed, filled with admiration for this beautifully designed book. It is not lost on me that I am waxing poetic about an object that discusses The Power of Objects, but it truly looked (and yes, smelled) fantastic to us, and—if it is not too corny to say—I invite you to get a whiff of it and our other new titles as well!
P.S.: Paperback releases are not quite as powerful sensory and emotional experiences, but we are always very excited to see our books make the jump to paper. This spring, we are proud to announce the publication in paperback of a slew of Institute titles, from classics such as Bernard Herman’s Town House to recent prizewinners such as Mark Hanna’s Pirate Nests:
Kevin Joel Berland, ed., The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover
Mark G. Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740