This is a previously unpublished essay from 1998, presented as-is. / b
Morning Pages, Tuesday Feb. 3, 1998
In the Form of a Rough Draft for an Essay
The column I'd like to respond to, one that ran in my local newspaper recently, was about collecting rare books. Unfortunately I no longer have a copy of it. But I'll try to explain it as I go.
There was nothing particularly striking about the article, at first quick glance, that made me want to read it; it was merely a short frontpiece of a weekend insert on books with the format of the New York Times Book Review.
The author of that article was also the review's editor. What sent me away puzzled, after I read the article, was the contradiction between his disparagement of rare book collecting (“It’s the words that count, not the book!”) and his unequivocal distaste for the lack of warmth of such online behemoths as Amazon. How, I wondered, could someone almost in the same haughty breath dismiss book collectors as missing the point, and then extol the moral supremacy of walking into a store full of books while shuddering in distaste at the cyberworld option of ordering them by mail? Not only did these views present an apparent contradiction, but more significantly, each view in itself was simplistic and incomplete.
The author made some interesting assumptions. The first assumption was that anyone interested in rare books, book collecting, first editions, and the like is not interested in the content, the psychic depth, the romance, the literary quality, the life-enrichment, the “words”, if you will, of books. Although I am sure there are book collectors who deal in books as mere objects, it seems more than likely that a book collector enters that world motivated by the love and respect for those very qualities I mentioned. Perhaps the book collectors of that author’s acquaintance are illiterate hucksters looking for fast cash, but I doubt it.
Words are the thing, then, according to that author. So does it make a difference which edition of a book I buy? Not long ago I picked up a fragile copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not because it was cheap (it wasn’t), and not because it isn’t available in a perfectly decent paperback (it is), but because I am a descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book’s author. First published in 1852, this edition I found was copyright 1894. The intervening forty two years were sufficient to give the editors enough historical perspective to include a fascinating introduction. But even if this introduction was included in a paperback edition, I would still have been delighted to take this small green and silver volume home with me because it was not only beautiful in and of itself, but a piece of history. There are thousands of stories like mine, thousands of diverse yet valid reasons why someone would want this book or that book, and go to some trouble or expense to make it happen.
There is nothing empty and superficial about the love of the object. All around the world, our greatest museums give impressive testimony to this love. Books as objects are part of this cultural achievement; even so, they are more.
My own words fail when I attempt to describe the impact of standing inches away from the handwritten volume given from Professor Dodgsen to Alice Lydell, lying open in a glass case in the British Museum. Chicago Art Institute: little books with notes and scribbles by Jean Cocteau. Handwritten journals of Romanov family members, San Diego Art Museum from the touring Russian exhibit. Books, blank but full of promise, made by hand by artisans, lovingly covered in rough-hewn papers and luxurious velvets. A large coffee-table book with beautiful photographs of New Zealand, presented to us by visiting friends from that country who stayed in our home here in California. The unmistakable aroma of the small storage house, built by my Dutch grandpa, at the end of a gravel walkway; the little building filled to capacity with old books. This Book Nook, as neat lettering on its door proclaimed, during my childhood had an old book scent so distinctive, so alluring, I can remember it to this day.
Medieval monks expressed their love and devotion of the meaning of the words they transcribed when they spent lifetimes taking pen to parchment.
Books can be appreciated trivially and deeply; seriously and with a chuckle; for themselves as lovely, multisensual objects in our world, and for their worlds contained within them.
First draft, to be revised. It is raining, hard. Thunder and lightening this morning.
Notes: I am writing this on a computer, delighted as always that on it I can write nearly as fast as I can think. Later today I may send a notecard of handmade paper, sealed with embossed wax. Last week I ordered a book online by credit card and it arrived, gift-wrapped and with my message, to a faraway friend just a few days later. Tomorrow I may sit in a bookstore cafe sipping an overpriced cappuccino, surrounded by books and the people who love them. I will do this willingly and with great pleasure, in the silent company of people who likely feel the same way I do. This multifaceted appreciation for writing and for books, for form as well as content, marks us as civilized humans who have come a long, long way.
That illogical grump who looked down on book collectors needs to learn a thing or two.
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