A new exhibition exploring the importance of giving and receiving books has opened at the Weston Library.
Gifts and Books, an exhibition presented by the Bodleian Libraries, asks what this apparently simple act, practised for centuries, reveals about human relationships and beliefs.
The exhibition will display items from the Bodleian’s rich collections, encompassing everything from ancient myth to contemporary stories, illustrating how gift-giving and writing have always been intertwined.
Curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins, Associate Professor in Medieval English literature at Oxford University, Gifts and Books investigates the power of gifts and the stories we tell about them.
Visitors can explore people’s motivations for giving books across the ages, including as a religious offering, a mark of friendship, or a way to strengthen political alliances.
Of the many intriguing items on display is a stunning book made by a young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I. She wrote out her translation of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul and included a finely embroidered cover framing the initials of Queen Katherine Parr, to whom she gave the book as a New Year’s gift in 1544. The strategic exchange of books was a common practice to cement relationships in the fickle world of the Tudor Court.
A guitar bought by the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley will also be on display, highlighting gift-giving as an act of friendship. Shelley gave the instrument to his friend Jane Williams shortly before his death. It will be displayed alongside his manuscript of the poem ‘With a Guitar.
To Jane’, which reimagines Shelley, Jane and her husband Edward as characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Love tokens are represented further in a First Folio of Shakespeare, opening at a scene from As You Like It, where Orlando writes love poems and pins them to trees and a 1950s program by computer pioneer Christopher Strachey that generates love letters.
The exhibition delves into the relationship between writing, gifts and religion, with pieces highlighting how gift-giving has been used across cultures and faiths. A Buddhist narrative, The Birth Story of the Deer, written on a set of palm-leaf folios, exemplifies the ideal of sacrificing oneself to attain perfection.
A beautiful Qur’an manuscript that later belonged to an Indian ruler will also be on display, as will a spectacular medieval Jewish prayer book and books of Christian devotion that include portraits of the donors who paid for their exquisite craftsmanship.
Books have often been commissioned, adapted and regifted. A beautiful, illuminated page from the Ormesby Psalter will be on display, featuring two different sets of patrons: one from a pair of families whose marriage alliance seems to have faltered, another showing the wealthy churchman Robert Ormesby, after whom the book is now named. Like other medieval precious objects, it was given and re-given at different times due to its value and altered to suit new owners.
The exhibition shows how gifts and books can be bound up in relationships of power, politics and protest. For example, it features the extraordinary Olaudah Equiano, who was treated as property or even ‘given’ as a gift by those who had enslaved him, but who managed to gain his freedom and write his own life story.
The power of the gift to encourage creativity is further explored through books for young readers, many of which show the act of giving as both joyful and powerful. Writers including Oscar Wilde, Patience Agbabi, Shirley Hughes, Philip Pullman and Zetta Elliott are all represented here.
Dr Nicholas Perkins, curator of the Gifts and Books Exhibition, said: “Giving and receiving books and stories is something we all do to make friends and form communities.
“Over the centuries, books have not only been precious gifts but have also spoken to us about giving, receiving and reciprocating. Our exhibition explores and celebrates this power that the gift generates.”
The newest item in the exhibition will be created just days before its opening. On 31 May and 01 June, celebrated book artist Paul Johnson will finish a spectacular pop-up book in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall, which he will donate to the Bodleian after it is featured in the exhibition. Families and members of the public can talk to Paul about his work and have a go at making their own pop-up book.
An exciting programme of talks and events will support the exhibition alongside a new theme for the Space for Reading, which will contain around 60 books co-curated by staff and members of the public, which further explore the joy and complexity of gifts and books.
There is also a public call-out to share some of your own stories of books as gifts today, which will feature on a wall in the exhibition space.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a book published on 16 June 2023 by Bodleian Library Publishing. Gifts and Books, edited by curator Nicholas Perkins, details surprising ways humans have felt the need to give, receive and reciprocate books in a series of illuminating essays.
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom.
It includes The Bodleian Library, the principal University library, which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years and 26 libraries across Oxford, including major research libraries and faculty, department, and institute libraries.
The Libraries hold more than 13 million printed items, over 80,000 e-journals and outstanding special collections, including rare books and manuscripts, classical papyri, maps, music, art, and printed ephemera.
Members of the public can explore the collections via the Bodleian’s online image portal at digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk or by visiting the exhibition galleries in the Bodleian’s Weston Library.