Being an extremist, I like to know everything I can about the subjects that interest me. Take books. I’ve worked in used bookstores, learned simple bookbinding and taught college courses on publishing and the book arts. Reading “books about books” is consequently my idea of a good time. How good? Try one of the titles below and you’ll see.
Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich , by Michelle K. Troy (Yale). In the 1930s, the Albatross Press dominated the European market for English-language paperbacks, bringing out bestsellers, classics of modernism and even controversial works such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Initially in competition with the plain (not to say ugly) Tauchnitz Editions, Albatross’s elegant, color-coded softcovers eventually inspired the design of early Penguin Books. Even more remarkably, this British-funded publisher with Jewish ties, operating out of Paris, was allowed to sell its books in Hitler’s Germany. Why? How? Read “Strange Bird” to find out.
Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories From Book History , by J.P. Romney and Rebecca Romney (Harper). The Romneys certainly know their subject — Rebecca has worked for Bauman Rare Books and appeared as a book specialist on the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars”— but they write in a slangy, brash style that some readers may find hard to take. Still, these “irreverent stories” are worth the effort. The first describes, in considerable detail, how Marino Massimo de Caro — former director of the Girolamini Library — recently forged a copy of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” (The Starry Messenger) that almost fooled the experts. Other chapters discuss early mapmaking, Benjamin Franklin’s printing business, William Blake’s visionary art, the advent of copyright law and — my favorite — the history of the Doves Press, which culminated in T.J. Cobden-Sanderson resolutely dumping boxes of his beloved Doves Type into the Thames.
Fungi from Yuggoth, by H.P. Lovecraft: An Annotated Edition , edited by David E. Schultz; illustrated by Jason C. Eckhardt (Hippocampus). Sonnets? By H.P. Lovecraft? Don’t immediately dismiss the idea. I first read these poems as a teenager and can testify to their evocative power. The first, titled “The Book,” describes a strange bookshop, a “congeries/ Of crumbling elder lore.” The narrator flees with a stolen tome and then his visions and nightmarish adventures begin. Later sonnets carry distinctly Lovecraftian titles: “Night-Gaunts,” “Nyarlathotep,” “Azathoth.” This splendid scholarly edition reproduces Lovecraft’s handwritten pages, provides a history of the sonnet cycle’s gestation and includes extensive explanatory notes.
Walks With Walser , by Carl Seelig, translated by Anne Posten (New Directions). Robert Walser, who spent much of his adult life in Swiss mental hospitals, is now revered for his prose miniatures and his bizarre and haunting novel, “Jakob von Gunten,” set in a training school for servants. These reminiscences, by his literary executor, preserve Walser’s conversation, especially about writers and writing, as well as Seelig’s memories of his friend trudging along like “a weary Sherpa” or suddenly calling for “beer and twilight.”
Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life , by Navtej Sarna (HarperCollins/India). Appointed last fall as India’s ambassador to the United States, Navtej Sarna carries on the noble tradition of the writer-diplomat, like Nobel Prize-winning poets Pablo Neruda and Saint-John Perse before him. Besides being the author of novels and short stories, Sarna is also an easygoing brief essayist, often linking his bookish “second thoughts” to his official sojourns in Britain, Russia and Afghanistan. Here one can read his take on James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon ” and Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” enjoy reflections on humorist Jerome K. Jerome and humanist Anna Akhmatova, and be introduced to the Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the cricket journalism of Neville Cardus and even the motorcycle diaries of Che Guevara.
Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking , by Sylvia Rodgers Albro (Oak Knoll/Library of Congress); Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture , by Patricia Mainardi (Yale); Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien , translated and annotated by Hiroka Yoda and Matt Alt (Dover). Each of these three books opens up an area of history unfamiliar to most of us. For centuries Fabriano has been Italy’s most famous papermaking center and Albro, a conservator at the Library of Congress, relates its early history with unrivaled knowledge. In “Another World” Mainardi examines 19th-century newspapers, illustrated books, prints, comics and much else to track the foundations of our now image-saturated culture. In its turn, “Japandemonium” presents a pictorial menagerie of monsters ghosts and demons from Japanese folklore. For this new English edition the 18th-century classic is presented in the traditional Japanese style with the pages arranged right to left.
Ulysses , by James Joyce; edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon; illustrated by John Vernon Lord (The Folio Society). Sumptuous in every respect and expertly edited by Joyce scholars Rose and O’Hanlon, this oversized “Ulysses” is certainly one of the Folio Society’s most dazzling artist’s books. I’ve loved John Vernon Lord’s artwork ever since I first saw his delightful illustrations for Edward Lear’s nonsense poems. Here, he produces multifaceted tableaux for each of the novel’s chapters. Lord even designed the book’s cover and box, eschewing the traditional blue to emphasize “snot-green,” as Joyce memorably described the sea.
On Empson , by Michael Wood (Princeton). William Empson was a major British literary critic, but also a superb poet and memorable eccentric — I once spent an afternoon with him that ended with us in a pub playing Shove Ha’penny. Wood, an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton, rightly regards Empson as a magnificent writer, beyond mere genre, someone for whom language always remained a problem to wrestle with, whether he was dissecting Shakespeare in “Seven Types of Ambiguity ” or composing his own lovelorn villanelles: “My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.” The result is a brilliant introduction to one of the most original and beguiling intellects of the 20th century.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.