Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Stories

A few weeks ago I ordered a book online, not a very unusual happenstance. (The book was Whittaker's two-volume set on Bach's cantatas, if you're curious.) Now your humble blogger is in the habit of embossing his books with a little seal, "From the library of. . ." A particular impetus, I admit, and we will return to it later. Now for the first time, and let me say I've bought and embossed quite a few books, I found it had been embossed by its previous owner. In fact it had been embossed with a nearly identical seal. Of course the first thing I thought was, "Wow, this fellow must really have liked his books." I do not know what suggested my next course of action, though, which was to search for his name on the internet. Why did I think this fellow would show up in a query? Much to my surprise I did find him, and he was a well known teacher, musician, and great music lover from San Francisco. He had recently passed away and I had, as I discovered, bought some of his books from a local organization to which they had been donated. I had come to own this man's books on Bach. Permit me another short story.

Upon receiving another book, "Bach's Orchestra" by C. S. Terry, I found not an embossed seal but a book plate. Neatly glued inside the front cover it read, "Ex libris. . ." with the author's name beautifully calligraphed below. A picture of a globe and an 18th century ship added to the plate's distinguished mien. Then I realized the book plate bore the name of the fellow I had ordered the book from. How curious: would someone in the habit of signing and pasting plates into his books willingly part with one? Perhaps some misfortune or tribulation brought this book to me. I don't suppose I'll find out.

Now those are not the only books of mine with histories unknown to me: some were inscribed as gifts, others were simply quite well-read. They all have stories, though, and frankly even the books which I am the first owner of have stories. Many were gifts, some I had to get for school, many I found by chance rummaging through a book store, some were loaned out and came back a little too. . . well-read. I don't write in my books but I do make little custom indexes for myself, on index cards of all things, and leave them in the book. Quite a few of my books are littered with slips of paper I keep on certain pages I reference often: a favorite story from Herodotus, a particularly poignant ode of Horace, or a bite from Mencken. Which came from the Argossy Book Shop, which from Strand, which from Barnes and Noble. . . the collection is quite a motley assortment. I'm rather sure I remember where I got each one, for the time being. Even the ones, the many, I have ordered online have a special place. One might think them odd out, having arrived at my library seemingly ex nihilo, but the unboxing is a bit of a welcoming ceremony.

Perhaps I've gone too far, waxed animistic, anthropomorphized these bundles of paper. Probably. I'm not quite that attached to them and when I get a new one it's not quite the ritual you might think. (It does get embossed, of course.) My point is that the above stories demonstrate a few reasons why some of us find books pleasurable simply as books. Amidst all of the hubbub and despair over the death of books it does not seem anyone really pinned down why we like them, though despite its faults Nathan Schneider's essay "In Defense of the Memory Theater" [1] danced around the issues.

As I think my above anecdotes suggest, people like stories. We like things with history, hence perhaps the common fondness for antiques. This feature Schneider touched on, that we have our own histories and the books are part of them, reminding us of times, places, events, and people. We like them both as reminder and record, and along with that history we like a sense of continuity. Bacon wrote, "Books are ships which pass through the vast seas of time" and it seems to me we like knowing that a book has been some where, that we are with it now, and that it will go somewhere else in the future. That sense goes a surprisingly long way toward legitimizing reading and buying a book. We like to think the book is important enough to read and that others should too, and that it is important enough to buy: who wouldn't want to read this? Hence also the impossibility for many to throw away a book. Indulge me another story:

In high school our venerable institution was remodeling the library and had decided to throw away many books. The librarian, a most refined and scholarly fellow, refused the task. Of course some dip stepped in to do the dirty and out those books went, though many in the hands of myself and a few friends. One friend, a good one and an outstanding student, beat me to the library the day the music books went but kindly offered me a choosing from his pile. Such is how I got my copy of The Harvard Dictionary of Music, though it would be years until I made good use of it.

Schneider was apt to recall the great loss of the burning of the Royal Library at Alexandra [2], but I think of the loss of a different library. From the Virginia Gazette of February 1770:

We hear from Albermarle that about a fortnight ago the house of Thomas Jefferson, Esq., in that county, was burnt to the ground, together with all his furniture, books, papers, &c., by which the Gentleman sustains a very great loss. He was from home when the Accident occurred. [3]
Of course Jefferson also depended on his books for his legal career, but he expressed the more important loss shortly thereafter, i.e that one's personal writings and "The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only fully and genuine article of his life." [4] As much as we regret the losses of great works, the lacunae in Aristotle and the missing works of Sophocles and Bach, we feel more acutely the loss of what we personally write and what we assemble from nothing and then curate.

Such brings us to the second feature of books and the one which I think is least likely to be brought up: that we like to own books. They are our property. Whether we bought them, making them things we exchanged our life, our finite time, for, or whether they are gifts, items people sacrificed their time to give us and items people thought enough about us and our character to select for us, the books represent extensions of our person. Our books are about what we think is important. They are the stories that touch us most, the ideas that inspire, what fascinates, confuses, and draws us.

We don't mind personalizing them in various ways, dog-earing the corners and adding notes. Even our reading habits mark the books in different ways. Some people bend the cover back, some break the spine, some wrinkle the corners, some scrupulously try to keep them in good condition. How many of our possessions do we actually put our name on? Yet we readily add our name to our books, even adding book plates, or embossing our names into them. How surprisingly strong is that feeling of constraint when reading a library book? Aristotle was quite right to say, "How immeasurably greater is the pleasure when a man feels a thing to be his own." [Politics, II.v. 1263a.] They reflect our character, our values, why shouldn't we want them? For the same reasons we take no small pleasure in being surrounded by our books for that reason.

We of course surround ourselves with books for their aesthetic pleasure too. Some people like the look of a series on the shelf, like the old Britannica "Great Books" series or the Easton Press editions. Others enjoy having each book be its own quirky self, differently printed and illustrated. I'm quite fond of the Folio Society's editions, with their beautifully illustrated covers, sometimes subtle (the figs on Graves' I, Claudius) and sometimes grand (their editions of Shelley and The Arabian Nights.) Some like the deckled edge, others the smooth cut. (Actually, does anyone actually like the deckled edge?) Some series are curiously irregular, take the Cambridge Greek and Latin series, the so-called "green and yellow" or "green and greens." The coloring is intended to be uniform but there are quite a few variations on green and yellow. They're also all different heights, thus the series looks odd on the shelf. At any rate the Loeb and Oxford editions make for a pleasing continuity on a shelf. Now who hasn't fought with oversize books and, far worse, books just slightly too large to fit on the shelf? We go through considerable effort sorting, arranging, and cleaning our books. (Some people with particularly good taste accent them with busts and other sundry items.)

It's no wonder people wax nostalgic, grow despondent, furious even, at the thought of books disappearing and being replaced by digital devices. Who would give up printed books, with all their shapes, textures, printings, bindings, translations, editions, even smells? (Pleasing, some smells, don't you think?) They're quite literally bound up with what's important to us, and I doubt they're going anywhere.

One of my motley shelves.
click to enlarge

[1] Schneider, Nathan. In Defense of the Memory Theater. Open Letters Monthly. July 2010. http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/in-defense-of-the-memory-theater/
[2] An appropriate loss to regret, the loss of 40,000 scrolls, though the library seems to have endured several losses until its final destruction. See http://www.crystalinks.com/libraryofalexandria.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria
[3]  Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the Virginian. Little, Brown and Company. Boston. 1948. p. 125-126 {For the excerpt from the Virgina Gazette see Purdie & Dixon: http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/VirginiaGazette/VGImagePopup.cfm?ID=2682&Res=HI}
[4] The Account Book of Thomas Jefferson. 1770, c. June 1.

No comments:

Post a Comment