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Rare Edition of "Utopia" Donated


Work that Launched Science Fiction Donated to UC Riverside Library

Anonymous Donors Give Rare Edition of Thomas More’s “Utopia” to Special Collections

(March 25, 2003)

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The 1517 edition of Utopia recently donated to the library surrounded by works that trace their origins to it.

The 1517 edition of Utopia recently donated to the library surrounded by works that trace their origins to it.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The donation of a rare edition of Thomas More’s “Utopia,” to the Special Collections at the University of California, Riverside libraries is seen as a testament to the strength of their holdings.

The donors, who wish to remain anonymous, have no connection to UC Riverside but decided to donate a copy of the second edition of More’s work, published in 1517, to the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Utopian Literature after a series of conversations with the head of Special Collections, Melissa Conway.

The book’s scholarly value holds literary, language and political importance. For historians of science fiction and utopian literature, the edition is a rare and exciting find.

Science fiction historian Dr. Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor called the text’s title an example of More’s use of linguistic ambiguity. Although written in Latin, the title, which is derived from Greek, can have two seemingly divergent meanings, depending on which of the two spellings is used: “Uo-topos,” which means “no place” or “eu-topos,” which means “good place,” hinting at the impossibility of the existence of the good place.

“To the extent that this crystallizing function rests on More’s complex use of languages, including the spoken language of his nearest audience, any copy of the text that allows scholars to study the formation of that language is important,” Rabkin said. “One way or another, then, as literary text, language artifact, political commentary, and biographical raw material, this book is one of the key documents of Western Civilization.”

There are only seven other U.S. repositories with copies of the 1517 edition of “Utopia,” according to standard reference sources. It is found in the university libraries of Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, University of San Francisco and Yale; as well as the Newberry Library, an independent research repository in Chicago.

Scholars may now compare changes in the first two editions by comparing the latest addition with a facsimile of the first edition, published in 1516 and already in the Special Collections at UC Riverside.

The donation came to UC Riverside through the strength of the Eaton Collection, according to Conway. The Eaton Collection is the world’s largest catalogued collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian literature, containing about 80,000 books, 10,000 pulp magazines, 30,000 comic books and more than 200,000 science fiction fanzines (newsletters privately printed by amateur science fiction enthusiasts). The collection also contains the literary papers of some of the most influential writers in the science fiction field.

“I think that 20 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have attracted a donation of this magnitude,” said George Slusser, curator of the Eaton Collection, professor of comparative literature at UC Riverside and editor of the 1999 book “Transformations of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society.” “This is one of the primary books that lead us to the genre of science fiction with such conventions as the traveler to an exotic place who returns to tell the story of strange and wondrous customs.”

More’s “Utopia” owes many of its ideas to Plato’s “Republic” but expands its scope, building a social, legal, governmental and religious system in a place called Utopia, Slusser said. The book serves as an inspiration for such works as “Gulliver’s Travels,” and H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “Modern Utopia.”

The book is about the size of a modern paperback. It is in a contemporary 16th Century binding that is in excellent condition, according to Conway, whose Ph.D. in Medieval studies from Yale University focused on book arts. The cover, known as “vellum wrapper,” is made out of a late 15th Century French document, with fragments of a 14th Century theological document used to reinforce the binding.

“It is a fine example of how manuscripts were re-used in the production of books in the age of printing,” said Conway, calling the edition a representative example of Parisian printing of the 16th Century.

“It gives our students a rare chance to see for themselves what the books that Thomas More himself and his 16th Century contemporaries would have held in their hands and read,” Conway said.

The book’s age and condition underscore the enduring validity of the historical technology behind the book, according to University Librarian Ruth Jackson. She commented that the edition incorporates, essentially, the same technology found in the production of many of today’s books.

However, its most significant impact may be in its worth as a tool and source document for scholars.

“The work is important in all areas of the humanities, including comparative literature, history, political science, early modern Latin studies, English literature and religious studies,” said Patricia O’Brien, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts & Social Science at UC Riverside.

“'Utopia’ is an obvious example of the type of exploration literature that is a standard part of science fiction,” added Dr. Lyman Tower Sargent, a political science professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis and editor of “Utopian Studies” magazine. “I argue that historically, science fiction grew out of utopian literature, but today it is the dominant genre within which utopias are written.”

“Utopia” could have easily made its way into a political science, theology or law collection, Conway added. Thomas More, canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, is the patron saint of lawyers.

The book paved the way for science fiction as social commentary. More commented extensively on the shortcomings of the aristocracy and the concept of private property in “Utopia,” painting a portrait of a relatively egalitarian and communal society without need for private property or ruling classes. More made veiled criticisms of the contemporary society and the Tudor monarchy, all safely placed in the mouth of the book’s fictional narrator, Portuguese sailor Raphael Hythlodaye.

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