The heavily annotated books seen here belonged not to a famous mathematician or physicist but to the English literary critic and poet William Empson (1906-1984), best known for his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of its Effects on English Verse (1930), which established Empson, seemingly overnight, as one of the most important critics of his generation. As a poet Empson combined the staid vocabulary of modern science with classical forms of rhyme and meter, to startling effect. He taught literature in Japan and China in the 1930s, and worked for the BBC during the Second World War before accepting an appointment as professor of English at the University of Sheffield, England, where he taught for over twenty years.
William Empson’s papers and personal library, comprising over 60 boxes of manuscripts and more than 800 books, are now among the collections of Houghton Library. As might be expected, the books are mainly 20th-century literature and criticism, though popular mysteries are well represented too. What is striking about the collection is the profusion of mathematical equations on the flyleaves and endsheets of so many of the books, in particular the more recreational reading. Some further background on Empson gives some context to these markings. As a youth Empson excelled in mathematics, earning scholarships first to Winchester College and later Cambridge University. Clearly Empson viewed his books’ endsheets as a convenient notepad on which to exercise his mathematical mind. He may have begun using his books in this way during the war, when rationing made paper scarce, though the habit evidently persisted for decades after. Whether the equations are in some way intellectually related to the books’ texts is an intriguing possibility.
A frequent visitor to American universities, William Empson twice read at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, in 1960 and in 1973. The recordings, which include his best loved poems, can be heard here.
To browse William Empson’s library in HOLLIS, do a keyword search with the terms William Empson former owner.
Thanks to Bibliographic Assistant Noah Sheola for contributing this post.