The thing

A dog ear by Samuel Beckett

3 min
Text Lisa Hilte
Image Sarah Van Looy

Some readers like to keep their books in pristine condition, others scribble notes in the margins or dog-ear the pages. The latter group includes Irish author Samuel Beckett, whose personal library is a veritable treasure trove for literary-historical research. Professor of English Literature Dirk Van Hulle tells us what Beckett’s book collection and one specific dog ear teach us about the writer. 


Beckett as a reader 

Professor Dirk Van Hulle is at home on both sides of the English Channel: he works at the University of Oxford and at UAntwerp. We meet him in his office on Stadscampus, where every inch of wall is covered in book cases. And yet, this book collection pales in comparison to that of writer Samuel Beckett. ‘Beckett read anything he could get his hands on,’ Van Hulle begins. ‘After his death in 1989, his collection of books was preserved. His heir gave us 770 of them on loan – a treasure trove! This gives us insight into what Beckett used to read. The variety is unbelievable, ranging from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Dante’s La divina commedia. It’s extra special to be able to look at his own copies, including notes and all. This allows us to discover another side of the writer: Beckett as a reader.’ 

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Appealing to the knowledge he acquired from books was something Sauel Beckett couldn’t resist!

Dirk Van Hulle

That being said, it turns out the reading and writing practices of the author are closely intertwined. The early Beckett had a wide, encyclopaedical interest. He read a lot and incorporated this into his own work. After World War Two, however, he turned away from writing based on knowledge. ‘In theory, that is,’ says Van Hulle. ‘Appealing to the knowledge he acquired from books was something he couldn’t resist!’  

Dog ear 

For one thing, that Beckett’s love for the encyclopaedic remained even after 1945 is evidenced by his copies of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. It is here that Van Hulle discovered a remarkably big dog ear on the page on Manichaeism, a religion centring on the duality between good and evil. It’s certain Beckett made this dog ear himself. ‘He definitely read the entry,’ says Van Hulle, ‘because when he directed the play Krapp’s Last Tape in 1969, he was copying bits of text from it into a notebook. The Manichaean philosophy is also featured and undermined in the play – something Beckett was known to do with philosophical paradigms.’ 


The knowledge that the author made the dog ear himself creates avenues for further research. ‘Now we’ll continue to look for similar strikingly large fold-overs, to find more bits of text that Beckett found interesting. We’ll then try to link those to his own work. Literary-historical research suddenly becomes very tangible thanks to material finds like these. Although the correct interpretation remains a challenge. For example, what does a highlighted text in the collected works of Shakespeare mean for insight into Beckett’s own work?’ 

A wide audience 

Finally, Van Hullen and his colleagues are sharing their passion for Beckett with a wide audience. ‘We’re digitising all of the books we were given on loan from his private collection. We’re putting the scans on our website, together with Beckett’s own manuscripts. His hand-written notes are spread out over the world, but in our archive we bring them together digitally and make them accessible online for researchers and other interested parties.’ In addition, Van Hulle is planning to welcome people at UAntwerp for a conference and exhibition to be organised on the occasion of Beckett’s 120th birthday in 2026. Will the dog ear in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica be on display too? You bet! 

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