I sold all my DS books. I knocked them from my shelves, put them in a box, and then sweated and gallumphed my way from Farnam to the bookstore. This was May of my freshman year. New Haven was already sticky and sunny and I thought to myself — I will never read these books again. I am not some bourgeois brat who wants to build a library. The books would burden me, I knew. They’d remind me of myself, my needs and wants and bad decisions. Already, they hissed in the hot, night air — you’re like us, Jane: You occupy space. And you’re accountable for the space that you occupy. I was 19, ready to be free of freshman year, and so I sold them. 

In the Beinecke this morning, books did indeed remind me of myself and of my body. “Reading English: An Exhibition Celebrating the James Marshall & Marie-Louise Osborn Collection” is an exhibit of tomes and missives and memos that James Marshall Osborn accumulated over the course of his career. The exhibit marks the Osborn Collection’s 80th anniversary.  

It’s a scattered, expansive affair, and it dances around a tricky central question — why do we collect these things? Why did Osborn want Victorian cookbooks and Edwardian contracts? (Also — Why did I sell my DS books?)

On the ground floor, things start off simple. In two large glass display boxes, James Marshall Osborn’s life is laid bare, reduced to some letters and doodles and portraits. An investment advisor from Cleveland, Osborn turned to English Literature at 26, when he enrolled in Columbia’s graduate program. At Columbia (and later, at Oxford and Yale), he befriended a bevy of big-name writers and theorists, from Robert Penn Warren to Maynard Mack. These fragments of Osborn’s life — captioned and neatly arranged — are astounding. They’re shards of a mirror, reflecting the smallest, private slices. (“Dear Jim — Your cheery letters […] arrived just in time the other day to deflect me from a suicide attempt,” in an unsigned letter from a friend) Just a few inches from Robert Penn Warren’s letters, the pamphlet “How to Look at a Cow” is particularly poetic. (When he died in 1976, Osborn was also a respected dairy farmer.) While no exhibit can sum up a life, sure, “Reading English” gets pretty close. 

But on the second floor, where the marble glows orange, Osborn disappears. Instead, his collection stands alone, and it falters a bit. The books and manuscripts on display don’t fit a discernible narrative. They’re not grouped by chronology or geography, materials or acquisition dates. In theory, I suppose, they’re clustered by theme, but the themes range from “annotated books” to “violence” to “Sir Thomas More.” The labels are useless and reductive — hashtags when hashtags weren’t funny. 

Of course, when a collection itself runs the gamut, the curatorial work is especially tricky. Osborn didn’t seem to have had a goal. (I tried a six-degrees-of-separation exercise with the Venerable Bede’s Expositio in Lucae and hunting horn music from the 17th century. I failed.) In other words, the curation is shoddy but necessarily so. The question, then, remains — why did Osborn piece together this amazing collection? Why did he collect vellum folios and journals and prayer books? 

“The books which I happened to buy were simply to read and use, so I was never tempted to collect as an act of acquisition,” Osborn once wrote. I like that distinction. Osborn used books — he did not acquire them. “Acquisition” is ugly and static but “usage” is a lovely word, full of toil and sweat. “Usage” means my hands get dirty and grow calloused.

Of all the glass cases on the second floor, three are somehow distinct, apart from the rest. “New Scientific Technologies” and “Inks and Pigments” and “William Butt’s Dye Book.” In these glass cases, books become objects. They’re not just texts, replicable in a Project Gutenberg Web page, some pixels on a screen. The Dye Book, for one, is a hefty tome, a Pantone color chart of yore. (William Butt glued felt medallions along the margins. They’re bright and small as candies.) And in “New Scientific Technologies,” manuscript photos glow in gold and pink and blue, under various spectra of seen and unseen light. In these few artifacts, “Reading English” reveals textual physicality and imperfection, no matter how antiseptic the library feels.

Still, my favorite is neither the Dye Book nor the horn music nor the short, crumpled letter. My favorite is a book of hours. In it, a bug-sized Saint Erasmus writhes in pain. An ugly, brown machine pulls his intestines from his torso. On the second floor, where the marble glows orange, I look at the little man, squint and press my brow to the glass, and think of my myself and my body. My needs and wants and bad decisions. I think — these books have been used. They’re not acquisitions or burdens. They’re objects to touch and to mark and to rip and to soil. 

I don’t miss my DS books. I know they’re up on some shelf or in someone’s bag. They’re gathering rips and stains and marginalia.