On the pleasures of reprints (2009.4.1[Wed])


As I write this the CDB Symposium 2008 "Turning neurons into a nervous system" is in full swing, kids are graduating from college and the cherry blossoms are almost ready to bloom (note: due to the lag between writing and publishing, it's taken a year for this to see print). Springtime always gives me the itch to drop what I'm doing and go hunting for old books. I suppose it's how butterfly collectors feel about chasing the elusive Gifu (Luehdorfia japonica). Recently, I've unearthed a number of classics from various sources. I suppose it goes without saying that the Internet has played a role, but I wouldn't say that it was the sole reason. Since the start of the new century, a passionate network of people who in earlier ages would have worked in museums or zoos, or compiled encyclopedias or pictorial atlases are now engaged in collecting and organizing data into databases of unprecedented scale and scope. And that dedicated pursuits stands to usher in a great new age in biological research. Spring, it seems, is the season for such endeavors.

    I think the same is true of the hunt for classics. Thanks to recent developments in systematized publishing, books that were once difficult to acquire at any price have been reissued in affordable paperback editions, and searching itself has also become much simpler. There are many websites, both within and outside of Japan, and occasionally within that enormous trove of data you might find a reprint of an important paper or a book you'd given up hope of ever acquiring. The same is true for a site run by a certain famous company, which lists both new and used editions of a title on the same page. I'm not on commission for them, but I have to admit that their site is itself a tremendous database of a sort, with new and used works in the full gamut of media, not only books. Freed from the space constraints that bricks-and-mortar retailers must face when stocking the inventories, these online sellers can develop catalogs that of enormous breadth and depth. And it would be a shame to limit oneself just to searching the Japanese site. (Register with the US site, for example, and you are automatically able to customize your searches on the UK, German and French sites as well.) Looking at the catalogs and search functions, you can feel the expanded possibilities. And with that new plenitude, I can't help but suffer a relapse of that old sickness whose primary symptom is bookshelves crowded with a collection of reprints and cloth-bound books.

    There is another worthy project underway, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which seeks to archive all the great works of zoology and natural history. I get goose bumps just thinking about the implications of it. It's like being able to search the stacks of the world's libraries from your own computer, maybe even better than that. You can actually view and download copies of works that are long out of print. The files are heavy and perhaps difficult to print, but I'm much happier being able to download a scanned PDF than a text-only version. What interests me is that not only can you experience the original typography, paper and book design, you can even see foxing, fading, creases, margin notes and stains that stand in testimony to the book's age and history of use. I don't know how many books I've acquired through this site, not a few of which were real finds...

    For starters, there's Part IX of "A Treatise on Zoology" (ed., Ray Lankester; 1909) "Vertebrata Craniata (First Fascicle: Cyclostomes and Fishes)" by E. S. Goodrich, the predecessor to "Studies on the Structure and Development of Vertebrates" by the same author two decades later (1930). Although it uses many of the same plates as the later work, the content is more detailed in its focus on primitive vertebrates, and its discussion of how cyclostome development features structural differences from that in other taxa makes this a rare and valuable find indeed. It may serve as the basis for my next research article. I don't know how many works were in the full collection, but it is possible to retrieve morphological treatises on various animal groups from the same series on this site. What a wonderful age we live in!

    "Thomas Henry Huxley - A Sketch of his Life and Work" (P. Charles Mitchell; 1900) provides insights into how he came to the study of vertebrates. The book shows how Huxley's Croonian Lectures dismantled the German school morphology from the 18th to mid 19th century, which had proved so influential across Europe. Other biographies include "Selections from Huxley" by A. C. Smith (1912), J. McCabe's translation of Wilhelm Bouml;lsche's "Haeckel Ehis Life and Work" (which features a somewhat eerie color image of the scientist on its first page). There is also a series of works on Francis Balfour, whom I introduced previously in these pages. The work relating to Balfour is comprehensive, actually, with an extensive collection of his books and papers. Recently, I finished reading "Amphioxus and the Ancestry of the Vertebrates" (1894; MacMillan & Co.) by Arthur Willey, which I previously hadn't even known existed. And as if that were not enough, they have Hatschek's "The Amphioxus and its Development" (1893; Swan Sonnenschein Co.; transl. by James Tuckey) for those who want to read further.

    And last, I'd like to recommend a book that's something of a curiosity, Patten's "The Evolution of the Vertebrates and Their Kin" (1894; MacMillan & Co.), which expounds, as the title promises, on the origin of vertebrates. There have been a great number of theories on this subject in the long history of evolutionary speculations; in this work, the author proposes that the arthropod taxon Chelicerata (spiders, scorpions, trilobites) as the vertebrate source. In this view, we vertebrates are phylogenetic members of the arthropods, as a crown group of arachnids. Despite its outlandishness, the book is frequently cited in histories of the field. And with all the changes in our understanding following recent work in the study of annelids and hemichordates, it is no longer possible to dismiss such conceptual extravagances out of hand. I had thought for some time that I wanted to get a copy of this book, which seems so far removed from our reality that it might sweep the reader away with it, and now here I have found it via the most decidedly mundane of routes. We live in a wondrous age. Page 400 even features an extremely detailed anatomic comparison (see fig.). Despite the wrong-headedness of its theories, the book is not at all bad as an intellectual flight of fancy. There is so much to learn. We may not have the luxury of time in this day and age to develop such leisurely and elegant theories, but we can still enjoy browsing through the stained and worn plates of an old pictorial atlas. That too, is one of the pleasures of old books.