“My mind was blown, and so it began.” New curator of early books and manuscripts is former network and systems engineer
By Marissa Kessenich
Aaron T. Pratt has joined the Ransom Center as our new Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts.
Aaron Pratt was previously an assistant professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio. He received a PhD in English Literature from Yale University and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from The Ohio State University.
At Yale, Aaron worked closely with David Scott Kastan, the celebrated expert in Shakespeare and the history of the book. “Aaron knows seemingly everything about early modern books and book production,” Kastan told us, “but in addition to how much he knows and how smart he is, he is generous, kind, curious, and flat out fun.”
That much is obvious when speaking to Aaron, who shared with us the unusual route that led him to his true passion.
Prior to beginning graduate school, you worked as a systems engineer. What prompted you to (re)turn to English literature and early books and manuscripts?
This feels weird to admit now, but I was not really a fan of the humanities in high school. As a child I was a voracious reader, but I had largely traded the codex for movies and the internet by the time I hit my teens; a commitment to consuming media never went away, but I was increasingly drawn to screens rather than pages. Looking back, I think I had caught a variety of the nasty bug that is technological utopianism, and this is probably what led me into IT. Right as the dot-com bubble was bursting in 2001, however, I became disillusioned and decided to quit a position as a Senior Systems Engineer and enroll at The Ohio State University, where I began pursuing biochemistry. This seemed like a great idea to me, but I quickly realized that my interest in science was rather bookish and that I did not have the temperament for lab work. I then switched over to a double major in philosophy and English, with a minor in women’s studies. As with most stories of personal development, this one is labyrinthine, but what I will emphasize here is that an experience in special collections is what ultimately spurred me to give up a long-term career in IT and pursue graduate studies in Renaissance Literature. My English degree at Ohio State was essentially a degree in film studies, but a half-baked plan to teach high school found me taking a required Shakespeare course taught by a young visiting professor, Alice Dailey. In a follow-up survey of sixteenth-century literature that I took with her, she introduced me to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, a work of the English Reformation that had the cultural impact it did in part because of its imposing size and the force of its gruesome woodcuts depicting Protestant martyrs. It is a work that has taken its place in modern history books as a book, as a printing event and physical monument. The early editions I pored over in facsimile and at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Ohio State were beautiful, of course, but I was struck by—and have stuck with—the recognition that the physical form of books is central to their ability to convey meaning. My mind was blown, and so it began.
Tell me a little bit about your scholarly side-interest in home video. What about home video fascinates you, and how did you come to study it?
A kid of the 1980s and ’90s, I grew up renting movies from local video stores. As I mentioned before, I studied film in college, but it was with the VHS tapes of my childhood that I began my education. No less importantly, these same tapes also served as important agents of social contact for me, as objects that enabled me to build and solidify relationships with family and friends, on Friday pizza nights and at slumber parties. There had been formats before VHS that enabled home viewing, but it was VHS that caught on with consumers, creating new forms of spectatorship and facilitating new kinds of social interaction. I do not think it is hyperbole to say that VHS made for a media revolution, and I now take it as something of a calling to remind people that it is a revolution that cannot be studied properly without preservation. Libraries have been deaccessioning tapes for decades now, opting for DVDs and streaming services, but the history of home video is a history of artifacts, not only of titles. Happily, a community of VHS collectors focused on horror has grown in recent years, but it is still critical that institutions step up and collect the tapes, boxes, marketing materials, and distributor archives that document the technology and industry that have made today’s streaming services possible. I worked with my friend and colleague David J. Gary to bring a substantial collection of horror on VHS to Yale a couple of years ago, but there is much more to be done. My personal experiences have done a lot to convince me that VHS played an important role in American culture, and my background studying the media of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has given me frameworks and tools for studying that role and pushing for the preservation of its material record.
What was your first encounter with the Ransom Center? What’s your favorite collection item?
When I was offered a job as Assistant Professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, I was thrilled, not only to have a tenure-track job at a wonderful university, but also because I would be only a short Megabus ride away from the Ransom Center. I had long known about the Pforzheimer collection from the landmark bibliography that details the books in it, but I had never been able to scrape together the time or money to make it to Austin. I needed to, though, because I am more than a bit obsessed with early modern bookbinding practices, and the Ransom Center has a very important example. To the best of my knowledge, the Pforzheimer collection has the distinction of preserving the only early Shakespeare quarto that remains on its own in the kind of stab-stitched structure that playbooks were usually sold in, a copy of Richard II from 1634. (Stab-stitching is the relatively simple practice of using an awl to poke holes down through the stack of folded sheets that make up a book and sewing them together with a single length of thread.) Annoyingly, I wrote an entire article on the cultural status of stab-stitched books without having seen—or even knowing about—this copy, and an immediate goal of mine upon arriving in Texas was to right this wrong. To both my frustration and delight, I was unable to examine the book during my first visit, because it was on display in the 2015–2016 exhibition, Shakespeare in Print and Performance, but I made my way to the reading room to examine it as soon as it made its way back to the stacks. Having worked with it, I am now even more convinced that the volume is an amazing survivor, not only because it serves as a witness to the conditions in which Shakespeare’s plays first circulated among readers, but also because it was owned and signed by an important collector of English literature from the seventeenth century, Frances Wolfreston (1607–1677). It is to her and her preservation effort that the world also owes the only surviving copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s erotic poem, Venus and Adonis.
Tell me about a favorite teaching experience with an early original text or manuscript.
When I teach early modern drama, I believe that it is important to emphasize that the plays we study have been made available to us by the men and women of the book trade who invested in and undertook the labor of printing them. Their earliest publishers decided what to put on title pages in order to market editions, and the first printers were given the often difficult task of taking dramatic manuscripts and transforming them into books that readers could understand and engage. Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote what they wrote, but with few exceptions we wouldn’t have it without the printed editions that found their way into English bookshops in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I regularly show students how to analyze title pages and grapple with the textual variants and uncertainties introduced by print—these bear directly on how to interpret the plays—but I also want them to have a sense of the very physical processes that have enabled us to undertake this analysis in the first place. It can be impractical to do hands-on work with type and printing presses in class, but it has proven relatively easy for me to help students learn for themselves how booksellers turned the printed sheets they had into books. After showing them a few photos of playbooks including the Ransom Center’s Richard II, I like to give students a stack of unfolded sheets containing a quarto facsimile of Titus Andronicus, an awl, a needle, and some thread. I then set them loose with the instruction only to end up with a functional play quarto by the end of class. In what is often a trial-and-error process, they learn much about the conventions of early modern printing and come away with a genuine appreciation of skills required to assemble even a relatively simple book.
What do you look forward to the most in entering your new position as Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Ransom Center?
It is hard to know where to start. It is certainly an honor to be in a position to study and build the rich collections already at the Ransom Center—I’ve already been able to make an acquisition that documents a woman’s founding donation to a seventeenth-century parish library—and it is especially exciting to be able to communicate the opportunities that our books and manuscripts present to researchers, students, and the broader public. Many of the Ransom Center’s early holdings are well known and well-studied, but I can promise here that there are countless new stories waiting in the stacks, and I want more than anything to help them get told. And, perhaps above all else, I am thrilled to be joining such a great group of colleagues. The Ransom Center is known for its collections, but the depth of knowledge and experience that the staff bring to the table are equally staggering.
I’ve heard you are interested in teaching even young children about libraries and archives. What are your thoughts on institutions like the Ransom Center as places of discovery and learning for everybody?
The other day, a friend posted a video to Facebook in which her toddler toys with one of those thick board books designed to survive manipulation by eager hands. While watching, it occurred to me that we learn to navigate the codex form well before we can read the content it contains, often before we can even really follow an illustrated narrative. Once early experiences teach us how to operate them, books become second-nature, and the basic features of the technology recede into the background of our attention. Until that point, however, the materiality of books is immediate and consuming. I don’t have any great ideas about how to bring special collections to infants and toddlers—I suspect they just need to be playing with those board books—but I do think that young readers are in a strong position to appreciate many of the same aspects of books and manuscripts that I routinely point out to university audiences. To be sure, there are challenges with engaging children in the space of a special collections library, but there are also real possibilities, including some that push the Ransom Center beyond its walls and into school classrooms. In general, I am always on the lookout for ways that special collections might impact lives, and I hope to work with Ransom Center colleagues and other educators to develop strategies for reaching new demographics.