Book Porn, no.1

Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia and Last Essays. Oxford University Press, World’s Classics Series; 1961, UK.  A hard-to-find little book that sits happily in the palm of my hand and which I would very much like to steal from the library.  I am allowed to renew my borrowing period three times before I have to return it.  Then I wait a few days and check it out again, and so even if I don’t own it I have the pleasure of its company almost all the time.  The soft salmon-colored dust jacket with the black and white print on the front cover is exquisite.

I wonder if the robed and bearded scroll-readers of Alexandria wept at the advent of the codex.  “Nothing good can come of this,” they might have said.  “A single, elegantly contiguous manuscript is sliced up into separate leaves and you call that progress?  It’s schizophrenic, that’s what it is.”

I like to think the situation more dire with the present shift from books to so-called e-books.  It’s certainly weirder.  We see that the disembodiment of books is part of a broader cultural retreat toward immateriality.  Books, like musical recordings, photographs and so many other things, will cease to be physical objects at all and will exist only as electronic phantoms, passed from device to device but never from hand to hand.  The notion that this makes an improvement on the old order is laughable.  It smacks of annihilationism: one more milepost on the Manichaean march toward the final ghostification of all things.

I don’t intend to purchase an electronic reading device.  I want to insist on the codex.  It’s not only that I’m a sentimentalist, but I think we owe philosophical allegiance to the materiality of things.  I don’t want a platonic beatitude.  I want a real book in my hand, a hot cup of tea, a ‘friend’ I can physically embrace.  They fool themselves who believe that digitalization better preserves texts (or recordings or images) against the depredations of time.  Some day the dark ages will come again and we’ll see that nothing is saved by being made intangible.  Materiality is the only condition of salvation.

Consider this series a sort of scrapbook monument to the codex.  There’s irony in the bloggish venue, I know.  It can’t be helped.  But I want to honor books as discrete physical objects.  In each case I’ll offer a photograph (or two) and description of a particular book.  It need not contain great literature between its covers.  It need only give pleasure to the reader or possessor of it.


Filed under Book Porn

10 responses to “Book Porn, no.1

  1. May your full-throated celebration of the codex be heard far and wide, Mr Woolcott!

  2. My hearty assent to the former two comments.

    I must confess I own a Kindle (int’l wireless form). Its uses are limited, though it makes for a good concordance to the few hundred texts I have on it, from Willy the Shake (of course) on down though the lyric poetry in the Anglo-American tradition; and of course, all of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, etc. I sit through 5-hour faculty meetings ignoring what’s going on round me, reading a good codex (say) of Hardy, & w/ the Kindle on the side twigging bits from the Bible, Shakespeare, etc., as I hear them coming up in the poetry.

    I concede that I find the Kindle more useful because I constantly have to fly back and forth across the Pacific. If I do not have ready to hand, always, 30,000 feet above the ocean, all of Emerson & Shakespeare–well, a sort of panic sets in. Carry-on bags won’t relieve it, can’t contain it.

    I am a textual scholar by trade. So the appalling way that lyric poetry gets coded in these e-books especially vexes me. There are only a handful of primary scholars now working w/ e-texts in a responsible way, so far as I know.

    But my god! What the digital age has done to libraries! When I was in grad school in the 80s, we still used card catalogs, of course (the wholesale destruction of which has been a nearly capital crime). Those cards were often palimpsests in little: annotations in ink, acquisition data, all sorts of things. And you could pull out one of those wooden trays and see by the accumulated oil from ten thousand thousand fingers which books had most been sought, which had remained weirdly pristine for decades. Digitized collections and catalogs have made life incalculably easier for scholars (esp. int’l peripatetic ones such as me). But I know I am not alone in dearly missing those card catalogs! Do you “feel me,” as the kidz now say? So I herewith register my eulogy not merely to the codex, but to the humble card catalog.

    In my 8 years of grad school, I spent hours a day in the stacks, happy in my transport, sitting on the floor, pulling books off the shelf. All sorts of wonder followed.

    The students I teach now? To them it all seems like a fairy-tale. Many have no idea where the library is even located on my campus. I have to take them there by hand.

    Happy holidays, insofar as they remain!


    • Ian Wolcott

      Sorry for the late reply, Mark. Long holidays.

      Some of my friends own these machines, too. I don’t think any less of them. So goes the world. I just want to stand out of its way for as long as possible. I can understand the appeal of having a whole library of text always at hand.

      I got my BA in 1995. I like to think I was among the last to receive a fully offline education. My first summer I worked for the school’s records department where all the transcripts were hand typed and stored in a fireproof room. Then I worked for the school library for three years and when I graduated we still had a card catalog. The big wooden case with all the skinny drawers. What a piece of furniture! I would love to own one and make my own card catalog for my home library… I also miss the ink-stamped circulation cards (if that’s their name, I can hardly remember now), the ones that were inside the cover of each book. To examine the stamped dates on the circulation card and learn that you were one of only four or five people to check out an obsure title in the past decade – there was a kind of satisfaction in that.

  3. TBM

    Amen. You express very well what I have for myself only intimated, and you nicely balance good reasons and mere preference. Nothing wrong with the latter – I wouldn’t begrudge the scribes at Alexandria their preference for the scroll, and a preference for the book against the e-reader is probably more justified because as you note the change is more radical. At least the codex was largely a rearrangement of the same, physical materials, not a transposition into an essentially different medium.

    I find your library habit with the Lamb amusing but relatable. Those old World’s Classics are wonderful pocket editions. In what is I suppose another irony of the internet age I have actually used online booksellers (ABE, etc.) to seek out specific editions like that, which might never be chanced upon in the used bookstores that I can visit. Perhaps I shouldn’t indulge myself so, but though the glories of first editions and such hold no temptation for me, I do find that a well-made, aesthetically pleasing edition is important, not to say necessary, for my enjoyment of the text itself. And for whatever reason, editions of that sort seem mostly to have been made in the past, therefore are mainly found used.


  4. Ian,

    Yes, those cards at the back of the books! They sometimes had, in addition to what you say (I always had that same curiosity on checking a book out);––they sometimes had a kind of genuine bibliographical value. Librarians would, from time to time, find some reason to make a notation of some kind on them. And now, with the permanent impression into the book of bar-codes & such for purposes of managing circulation the book itself is defaced.

    I remember when, right at the end of my time in grad school, the main library began slowly to ditch its card catalogs, first by moving them physically into a smaller space that inhibited browsing, and then, well, ultimately by annihilation. This was in 1993.

    I well understand what TBM says about seeking out particular editions of books. For me, a good example would be Ransom’s edition of Hardy’s “Selected Poems.” I have two copies of it: one that I have covered in notes & marginalia, and one still pristine, for those occasions when I want to encounter a poem without also encountering my own past encounters with it.

    One anecdote: In about 1990, I found on the shelves of the The Strand bookstore in NYC an old trade edition of Frost’s 1923 volume “New Hampshire.” Being an old trade edition, in something like its 12th printing, the staff had slapped a $4 price sticker on it and shelved it. I bought it, and leafing through it on the train back out to Jersey found that Frost had inscribed several of the poems in it, adding to one the note “Vassar 12/59.” On the front flyleaf were signatures, in a long column, of twenty or so women––obviously Vassar students. And my guess is that one of them simply asked RF to inscribe or initial the poems he had read during one of his lecture/reading performances at the college in December of 1959.

    I’d add that there is no substitute (at least for many purposes) for reading a poem, essay, short story, or novel in its native bibliographic contexts (by which I do not mean first editions: they can be trade editions, 12th printings, serials, or whatever).

    Anthologies like the Ransom one are a rather high form of literary criticism. But most, or anyway many, simply give the anthologized text (whatever it is) a slightly pre-peptonized character (as James would say).

    By the way, have you read those essays Nicolson Baker did for The New Yorker (or was it the NYRB, or both?) on the destruction of card catalogs? They are very fine, sad things. It was Baker, right? Some 5 or 6 years ago or more?

    One more anecdote occurs to me: I actually know of a librarian who, at an elite private college in the North East that shall go unnamed here, refuses to fetch books in from the annex for patrons if said books are “available” on Google Books.

    Now, I find many a use for Google Books––though I rather wish it were nationalized, & not run for profit, but under the umbrella of, say, the L of Congress;––I find many a use for Google Books, and often consult it 20 or 30 times a week. But this business of refusing to call in books from an annex simply because they’ve been digitized is a scandal. I wonder how common that sort of thing is. I only know of the one instance, but I7d be very surprised if it were unique.

    • Ian Wolcott

      A nice story about the Frost edition. And no, I haven’t seen the Baker essays you mention. I’ll see if I can dig them up somewhere.

  5. Dave Lull

    Nicholson Baker, Annals of Scholarship, “DISCARDS,” The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, p. 64

    Read more:

    Reprinted in The size of thoughts: essays and other lumber (Random House, 1996).

    • Ian Wolcott

      Mr Lull to the rescue. Thank you!

    • Yes, thanks, Dave! You twigged it. I remember it as a fine thing. Was it really that long ago? 1994: Just as the card catalogs at my grad school library (at the time) were being warehoused for destruction, and one year after I arrived to work at a university whose card catalogs were already gone.

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