New Director of Rare Book School Doesn't Judge a Book by its Cover – Or Its Text

September 01, 2009

September 1, 2009 — Michael F. Suarez, a leading scholar of the history of the book and 18th-century literature, begins a new chapter for the Rare Book School as director of the bibliographical institute, based at the University of Virginia.

Suarez, who starts his job this week, holds a joint appointment as University Professor and professor of English. He also is honorary curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Suarez, 49, succeeds Terry Belanger, who recently retired. A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Belanger founded the Rare Book School at Columbia University in 1983 and brought it to U.Va. in 1992.

Each year, 250 to 400 students are selected to take courses at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville and in New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Students include curators, rare book librarians, academics, antiquarian booksellers, book conservators and binders and book collectors. About 6,000 students from more than 25 countries have taken courses since the school's founding.

A book is much more than the text between its covers, Suarez said. He studies the book as an artifact – how, as editions are produced differently each time, meanings are multiplied and enriched.

"Every book has its own life history … full of human stories about the people who made them, who saved them," he said.

Suarez, a Jesuit priest, formerly held a joint appointment as J.A. Kavanaugh Professor of English at Fordham University and as fellow and tutor in English at Campion Hall, Oxford University.

Having grown up in New York City and received his academic training at Oxford, very few jobs could entice him, he said.

"This is the only job I wanted to pursue, because of the opportunity of being at the Rare Book School and in the English department, which are both so distinguished," he said.

"He brings to the department and the University the promise of a world-renowned scholar, a dynamic and demanding teacher and an inventive and passionately engaged citizen," said Jahan Ramazani, who just finished a three-year term as English department chairman.

The Rare Book School currently offers short non-credit courses for professionals on subjects ranging from medieval bookbinding structures to modern fine printing. One of Suarez's chief aims, he said, is to integrate the school more directly with the life of U.Va.'s scholarly community, offering resources and expertise.

Suarez has co-edited "The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 5, 1695-1830," being published this month, and "The Oxford Companion to the Book," a million-word reference work due out in January 2010. He also is general co-editor of the Oxford University Press edition of the "Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins," which is being published in eight volumes and projected to be completed in 2013.

A former president and long-time board member of the Northeast American Society for 18th-Century Studies, Suarez has published an edition of Robert Dodsley's "Collection of Poems by Several Hands (1748-58)," the best-selling poetry anthology in 18th-century Britain, and the selected essays of D.F. McKenzie, "Making Meaning: 'Printers of the Mind' and Other Essays." He has written many articles on various aspects of 18th-century English literature, satirical prints, religion, politics, bibliography and book history.

Suarez has held research fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A former Marshall Scholar, he has won several awards for his poetry, including Oxford's Sir Roger Newdigate Prize, as well as for bibliography and literary criticism. He holds two bachelor's degrees (with majors in biology, English and sociology), four master's degrees in English and theology, and a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford.

"He will fit right in here," Belanger said. "I'm honored that a person of Michael Suarez's distinction has agreed to take over the directorship of the school."