Do you read in bed just before turning off the nightstand light? I like to spend a quarter hour dipping into nearly anything — a memoir, a collection of author interviews, even a sales catalogue — that might be bracketed under the beguiling rubric of “Books About Books,” a wide-ranging category that could easily be relabeled “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Here are just a few recent titles I’ve read and enjoyed.
Let’s begin with a major work of biblio-scholarship from Oak Knoll Press: “The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishings of the Domestic Bookroom,” by Reid Byers, a devotee of the printed word but also a former master IT architect with IBM. As Byers writes, “a personal library creates a whole constellation of good feelings: ease when tired, retreat when harassed, peace when overwhelmed, comfort when distressed, a connection when lonely.” He adds that it also provides “the sovereign cure for boredom.”
Beautifully designed, Byers’s 500-page masterwork lays out how cultures from antiquity to the present, from East to West, created welcoming, comfortable spaces to house books. We’re not talking public or academic institutions, but what any impecunious collector vainly covets — an English country-house library or what Byers calls a “bookwrapt” study like that of Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.”
Byers discusses and illustrates, with photographs and diagrams, every element of library design — wall systems, free-standing cases, bays, stacks, shelving styles, reading chairs, library tables, lighting, and even such luxurious amenities as globes, book trucks and literary objets d’art. Did I add that he’s also witty and wise: “A book is a physical as well as a spiritual object, and any activity that makes us handle our books is a moral good.”
One such activity is the quest for used books, a pursuit — obsession? — wonderfully celebrated in Nicholas Royle’s “White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector” (Salt Publishers); Kurt Zimmerman’s “Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades” (The Book Hunters Club of Houston); and Gary Goodman’s “The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade” (University of Minnesota Press).
Royle, an English writer and the series editor of “Best British Short Stories,” ardently seeks Picador paperbacks published between 1972 and 2000; these have white spines, hence his title. As of March 2021, his main collection totaled 959 different Picadors. Occasionally he homes in on a single title: He once assembled 36 copies of the same Picador edition of Graham Swift’s “Last Orders” and currently owns 35 copies — and counting — of D.M. Thomas’s “The White Hotel.” He also acquires all sorts of used books just for their “inclusions”— clippings, photographs, love letters. A low-keyed but irresistibly engaging stylist, Royle casually mentions that one of his own novels was awarded the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
Zimmerman was once the director of the rare books department of Butterfield & Butterfield Auction House (now Bonham’s) in San Francisco. He himself only collects “books about books” inscribed by their authors to fellow dealers or scholars. For example, his copy of John Carter’s delightful “ABC for Book Collectors” bears an inscription to Graham Pollard, Carter’s collaborator in exposing the notorious forgeries of Thomas J. Wise. In several pieces Zimmerman recalls his encounters with such giants of the trade as Peter Howard (the cranky owner of Berkeley’s legendary, much-missed Serendipity Books), William Reese (beloved specialist in Americana), and Larry McMurtry, who over-optimistically transformed Archer City, Tex., where the novelist grew up, into what he hoped would become a mecca for book hunters.
Gary Goodman helped establish Stillwater, Minn., as another “book town,” one deliberately modeled on the celebrated Welsh original, Hay-on-Wye. In Goodman’s witty, self-deprecating account of impulsively buying a crummy used bookstore, gradually improving its stock, and eventually meeting notable fellow dealers here and abroad (including McMurtry and Hay’s “King” Richard Booth), his tone periodically grows elegiac. In Goodman’s view, the Internet has pretty much destroyed the old-time used book business. Even more glumly, he affirms McMurtry’s dire observation, “I don’t think we have a reading culture anymore.” I was sent an advanced proof of “The Last Bookseller” — due out in November — and highly recommend it, partly for Goodman’s portrait of a lost world, but also for its colorful dramatis personae. Goodman once knew a book scout — the biblio-equivalent of an antiques picker — who “was so far off the grid he lived in the woods under a tarp.”
At the close of a recent visit to John Windle, Antiquarian Bookseller in San Francisco, I left with a gift copy of “A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Picture Books,” compiled by Windle’s wife, the eminent collector Chris Loker (Godine). I was pleased to see that I’d read most of her selections — each illustrated and accompanied by an insightful short essay — and even reviewed several, including such personal favorites as Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson’s suspense-filled “Owl Babies” and Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s immortal “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.”
Written and compiled by Rebecca Romney, “The Romance Novel in English” is a sumptuously illustrated, historically important sale catalogue, available from Washington booksellers Type Punch Matrix. The books themselves have already gone to Indiana University’s Lilly Library, but this hardcover volume — which features essays on key authors, illustrators and imprints — remains a pioneering overview of a somewhat neglected collecting field, one that embraces “Pride and Prejudice,” nurse stories, Harlequin and Heartline titles, lesbian-themed paperback originals and paranormal adventures, among much else.
I want to close by mentioning “Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing” (Polity), by John B. Thompson, an emeritus professor of sociology at Cambridge University. I’ve only begun to read its 500 pages, but as others have noted — including my former Post colleague Jennifer Howard in a deeply considered essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books — this is a highly detailed, data-driven account of how e-readers, self-publishing, crowdfunding and online booksellers have affected how books are written, sold and read. I suppose the gains exceed the losses, but it’s a hard call.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
Books on books
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