John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, first American edition, published by John W. Luce & Company, Boston (1911). A beautiful little book of under 100 pages, printed in large type on thick acid-free paper with a soft, quilted texture. Early performances of the play in both Ireland and the U.S. ended in rioting.
A week ago my son asked to see something “a hundred years old” and I handed him this. The Latin grammarian Terentianus Maurus wrote that books have their own destinies. I’ve owned this one for nearly twenty years but never guessed its destiny would include serving as an example of antiquity for a six-year-old boy.
In the final track of the classic Smiths’ album, The Queen is Dead, Morrissey croons his tardy discovery that “some girls are bigger than others.” The same is true of paperbacks. And size, as they say, matters. There’s a power of attraction in gratuitous endowment. By force of its own mass, and regardless of subject matter, a large paperback generates a kind of gravitational pull. Do laws of physics place any ultimate constraints on size? At what point will glue binding simply fail? And is that fail-point determined by the total number of pages or the total weight of pages? Such are the mysteries of love. But while oversized hardbounds revolve in our eyes like solemn Jupiters of desire, absurdly thick paperbacks draw us in like insatiable black holes, concentrating acquisitional lust in objects deliciously balanced between virginal modesty and button-bursting extravagance.
Note how careful I am not to crease their spines in the act of love. Clarel, Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press): 893 pages; The Bible with Apocrypha (Oxford World’s Classics): 1824 pages; Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (New York Review of Books): 1382 pages; Tales and Sketches, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Library of America): 1200 pages.
Bicentennial facsimile edition of the original Encyclopedia Britannica (1771), 3 vols. These are big heavy books bound in chocolate leatherette with gilt lettering on the spine and paper foxing retained. A winning combination of superannuated data and authoritative heft. I picked them up for a tenth their value at a Seattle Public Library book sale a number of years ago. Includes fold-out charts and tables and over 150 copperplates by Andrew Bell, who at four-foot-six rode the tallest horse in Edinburgh (with a ladder to reach the saddle) and got in bad odor with George III for his anatomically correct illustrations in the Midwifery article.
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.
It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you are or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe that you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.
~ Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
Cheap thrills. Jules Renard said that “it is when faced with death that we are most bookish.” If that’s so, it’s not because we hope to find between the pages of our novel the universal cure to all pathologies. It might be that the morbidly bookish are looking for some kind of philosophical-aesthetic perspective on what it is they’re about to lose. But more likely, I think, it’s because staring down the Grim Reaper for any length of time can leave us particularly keen for distraction. We want a little joyride before Dad takes away the keys. And a book, as a vehicle for hopeful distraction, tends to get better gas mileage than most.
The number of books is infinite.
~ Joseph Joubert
Not long ago my wife caught me reading a book she couldn’t recall me buying. She accused me of making purchases on the sly and gestured to the double-stacked shelves to emphasize her point. How do these things keep filling up otherwise? I denied it. Books beget books, I said. They’re like rabbits. You start with two or three and they multiply quietly without your much noticing. Before long your little hutch has become a village, a city, a metropolis, a nation.
His library annoyed him with its look
Of calm belief in being really there
~ W.H. Auden, The Quest
The trouble with personal libraries is that sooner or later they tend not only to be there but practically everywhere. The litter of books throughout the house has recently become a “problem” at home, a point of some unpleasantness between me and my wife. (Really, it’s not just me. The kids are as bad, with their library finds stacked in a corner and their bookshelf always a shambles.) But my lust for new acquisitions never ends. If I’m ever annoyed at my library’s pretensions, it’s precisely because I know it’s not really there yet – not in any proper sense. There are always a few choice volumes missing, some necessary portion of it as yet undiscovered…