Summer Reads: which books do Oxford librarians want to dip into by the pool?

Bodleian scholars give their top tips for The Art Newspaper Book Club

 © Andy Abelein

© Andy Abelein

We want to find out which art books culture buffs are devouring during the summer months, from exhibition catalogues and monographs to historical books and art-themed novels. The Bodley's librarian Richard Ovenden and the rare books assistant Francesca Galligan, both from Oxford's Bodleian Libraries, tell us what they are dipping into over the next few weeks.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian

“Next year I have the pleasure of interviewing the great biographer Robert Caro for a Bodleian event in new York. He has written few books, but they are all major works of scholarship. To prepare for the interview, I am reading his incredible biography of the developer Robert Moses, the man who made New York look the way it does today, but who destroyed entire neighbourhoods in the process: The Power Broker (Bodley Head, 2015).

I am a real devotee of the photobook, and have had the pleasure of writing the foreword to Dafydd Jones’s latest book: Oxford: The Last Hurrah (Acc Art Books, 2020). Dafydd used to work in the Bodleian, before he took up the camera. These images are from 1980s Oxford, documenting a certain kind of student social life (featuring the current prime minister, and many other prominent politicians and actors), with an immediacy which has not been replicated since.

At the other end of England, but at roughly the same time, the great Chris Killip was documenting working class communities in the north east. Some of the images in The Station featured in his hugely influential book In flagrante but in this new volume, we get to see much more of his hard-hitting work inside this punk club. The images are incredibly strong, but Steidl’s printing and design really gives the imagery the best possible setting (Steidl, 2020)

Mack books continue to produce some of the most compelling photobooks available. Stephen Shore’s Transparencies: Small Camera Work 1971-1979 sees the American master in smaller format than we are used to, but no less compelling, and superbly designed and printed.”

Francesca Galligan, rare books assistant librarian

“Lara Maiklem makes discoveries relating to rare books in unusual circumstances in Mudlarking (Bloomsbury, 2019). Her account of the things she has found in the mud of the Thames, broken objects from everyday life spanning millennia, and the way in which she identifies them, is utterly fascinating. Her finds include pieces of type from the Doves Press established by Emery Walker and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in 1900.

I came across a book in our collections this year that intrigued me, with its note suggesting it had once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. On discovering that it had also been in the hands of Guglielmo Libri, I turned again to Jeremy M. Norman’s Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel. A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri, Mathematician, Journalist, Patriot, Historian of Science, Paleographer, Book Collector, Bibliographer, Antiquarian Bookseller, Forger and Book Thief (The Grolier Club, 2013). Norman provides a gripping account of the full extent of Libri’s extraordinary book crimes.

The new edition of David Pearson’s classic reference work, Provenance Research in Book History (Bodleian Library, 2019), updated and bursting with colour photographs of bindings, inscriptions, book plates, and shelfmarks, is essential reading for anyone interesting in pursuing the history of a book’s ownership.

The book that has made the greatest impression on me this year is David Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here (Oxford University Press, 2018). It shows how recent analysis of ancient human DNA has shifted assumptions about our past, and revealed more of our complex and interwoven human origins.

Julia C. Walworth’s Merton College Library (Bodleian Library, 2020) offers a history of one of Oxford’s treasures, a library with a claim to being the oldest academic library in Europe. The book is beautifully illustrated with library furnishings and highlights from the collections. The old library is one of the most atmospheric places in the city, and even has its own ghost story. Sitting there alone, years ago, cataloguing antiquarian books in the quiet stillness of the long summer months, I jumped once or twice at the sound of a creaking floor.

On the subject of Oxford and the supernatural, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Headline, 2011) provides fiction that is perfect for summer reading. With an intoxicating blend of Oxford scenery, Bodleian manuscripts, medieval France, Elizabethan England, and romance—not to mention vampires and witches—this will liven up any summer holiday.”

• Richard Ovenden's Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack to be published by John Murray Press in September