Book of the Week ~ Note no. 13

Desiderata: The books I long to acquire.

Today’s note is about a book that was unknown to me a week ago. Now, once I complete the transaction it will be en route from a bookstore in Alton, UK. No, I don’t mean UT, or AK; that’s United Kingdom.

The Internet makes desiderata very short-lived phenomena.

I was in Chicago for Easter weekend. On Saturday the family group strolled the University of Chicago campus, heading more or less directly to the Oriental Institute, a few stone throws from the F. L. Wright Robie House. Fortunately, no stones were thrown, but with two under-16, over-10 brothers along, the possibility was there.


Inside the Oriental Institute

The history of artifacts on display was deeply satisfying on both scholarly and esthetic levels. We all gained new appreciation for the roots of civilization and for the socio-cultural Levantine landscape that is nowadays so contentious. There were didactic panels throughout that referenced imperiled and destroyed sites and artifacts.

As I lingered in the galleries, two of our party ventured upstairs to the Institute’s reading room. At their urging, I went to check it out. What a space! Like some of the great collegiate reading rooms, with vaulted, highly-decorated ceiling, ancient wood tables, heavy, semi-cushioned chairs that no matter how hard you try  still squeak and complain when you pull them back, and walls lined with reference books.


At a table in the Oriental Institute library. Scholars’ reserved books, looking like ruins in a Frith photograph


Well, maybe not.

Entering this temple, I nearly genuflected. Out of habit in such spaces, and speaking of endangered objects, I turned to see if there was a card catalogue. (I’m struck, just now, by the religious parallel of reaching out for a dab of holy water for self-anointing.) In the Internet age, card catalogues are increasingly rare. This one still had cards in it. What should I look for in its well-thumbed contents? Hmm…Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Ethiopia, pyramids…Frith! Francis Frith, 1822–1898, from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England. If the library had a copy of one of his original 1862 albums, featuring his albumen prints from negatives made in those regions in the late 1850s, I’d happily spend an extra hour inside, even on such a gorgeous, late March Saturday.

Mirabile dictu! There was Frith’s name and description of an 1862 album—I was so excited I didn’t note just which of the 1862 albums it was—typed, by hand, no OCLC record for this bit of antiquity, on a manila, 3×5 card. So, weather be damned, I had to ask.

Firth album cover

The book that wasn’t there.

As I approached the librarian’s office, the younger son bounded down the hallway in search of me. He got caught up in the bibliographic chase, and we were soon following the young librarian into the compact shelving area. (He, by the way, caught the library bug; while I contemplated Frith, he discovered the pleasures of second floor balcony periodical shelves and random perusal of the German journal of Assyriology, which he brought downstairs and “read” across the table from me.) Apparently, the card I found no longer served to locate material, but like all good librarians she was very eager to help anyway, poking around the Internet book realm to orient herself to the Frith domain.

The album was not forthcoming. Which made sense to me; such an object deserves to be under very close scrutiny and conservation. The librarian was diligent, though, and brought me a handful of related material. A Dover publication, another survey, and then this volume:


L’Egypte à la chambre noire : Francis Frith le photographe de l’Egypte retrouvée (Egypt to the Darkroom: Photographer Francis Frith on the Recovered Egypt, according to Google Translate), Gallimard 1992

It was not composed of albumen prints, wasn’t even published in the same century, not even within a hundred years of Frith’s death. I had not known of it before screeching my chair up to that massive scholarly plateau. I don’t read French. Nonetheless, it was full of lovely reproductions of Frith’s prints, the finest publication laid out in front of me, and I knew I had to have a copy if it was reasonably priced.


A quick ABEBooks search and voila, there it (virtually) was, sitting on an English bookseller’s shelf. In the Internet age, desiderata just aren’t what they used to be. Or are they? The possibilities for longing, and its fulfillment, have merely expanded.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to PayPal my British vendor some pounds.


Link to LibraryThing record for this Book of the Week

Link to Oriental Institute web site

Link to Egyptian photographs on

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