Art Review

At the Boston Athenaeum, a 17th-century book collection makes you think: Which titles matter most today?

Selections from King’s Chapel Library (above and top right) were stored at the Athenaeum in a bookcase built in 1883.
A selection from King’s Chapel Library that was stored at the Athenaeum in a bookcase built in 1883.

In a world where the printed word is as abundant as air (starting with the review you’re reading), it’s a very useful corrective to be reminded of a time when books were not only almost the sole source of printed words but severely limited in number. More than that, if you lived in the New World in the late 17th century, nearly every book had to travel thousands of miles and cross an ocean before it could be read. With books so limited in number — so precious — which ones were worth sending? Which ones mattered the most? And how weird do those questions seem in this age of the World Wide Web?

These are some of the issues raised, addressed, and, perhaps, overlooked in “Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library.” The exhibition runs through March 14 at the Boston Athenaeum.

The library in question belonged to King’s Chapel, the first Anglican church in Boston. The current building, at the corner of School and Tremont streets, dates to 1754. The preceding structure was built in 1688.


An Anglican clergyman and author named Thomas Bray (1658-1730) took upon himself the task of gathering books to send as libraries for Anglican churches in the British colonies in North America. The shipment to Boston consisted of 221 volumes, received here in 1698. The wardens of the church pledged to “take care that no abuse or imbecilment be made of the books.” How is it that so useful a word as “imbecilment” has gone out of use?

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The books were mostly, but not entirely, religious in nature. In addition to such works as a biblical concordance and nine-language Bible (the “London Polyglot”), there were also volumes by three classical authors — Cicero, Plutarch, and Epictetus — an atlas and mathematics textbook. Bray was surprisingly open-minded for a 17th-century Anglican divine. One of the books on display is a copy of John Calvin’s “Opera Omnia Theologica.” Might this have been a conscious concession to Boston’s Puritan origins?

More than a dozen of these books are in the exhibition, along with several 17th-century volumes not in the Bray collection: a 1695 copy of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” and others. Their presence calls attention to what we would now see as the limitations of Bray’s selections.

King’s Chapel was a very Tory institution, so it’s something of a miracle that the library survived the Revolutionary War intact. The books were placed in the Athenaeum in 1823 and in 1911 donated to the collection. In 1883, a handsome cabinet was built to house the library. It sits on the third floor. A replica was commissioned for the exhibition, which is on the first floor.

The King’s Chapel Library was a selection of titles thought to matter most at that time, the choices informed by an awareness that few if any other books would be in Boston. The Athenaeum has solicited current-day selections — smaller in size, ranging from 10 to two dozen titles — from City Council President Andrea Campbell and nine partner institutions, including the Chinese Historical Society of New England, Hebrew College, and, happily enough, King’s Chapel. Those books are displayed in the replica cabinet.


The proposed contemporary libraries face a very different situation from that of Bray. Few if any books stand out now, when countless titles are available. Where Bray, rightly, strove for universality, it’s precisely the best-known of the contemporary selections that are superfluous. All honor to Anne Frank and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rachel Carson, but anyone interested in social and environmental justice is going to be aware of them — and anyone not interested isn’t going to care.

No, in this reversed situation, it is the particular and local that matter as the universal does not — or, rather, it’s in being particular and local that the universal most clearly emerges. So it’s gratifying to see that the University of Massachusetts at Boston includes “Death at an Early Age,” Jonathan Kozol’s classic, and truly harrowing, account of teaching in the Boston public schools in the mid-1960s. Or, even better, that Campbell chose Mel King’s “Chain of Change” (1981). That may be the most obscure title of any of the contemporary books — except it’s not obscure, certainly Mel King isn’t, if you lived around here in the 1970s and ’80s. On Oct. 20, King turns 91. His book’s presence in that cabinet is a welcome reminder that, important as required reading is, acting on that reading is even more so.

REQUIRED READING: Reimagining a Colonial Library

At Boston Athenaeum, 10½ Beacon St, through March 14. 617-227-0270,

Mark Feeney can be reached at