If reading books is fun, and it certainly is, shouldn’t reading books about books be twice as much fun? While that logic may seem a bit sketchy, it’s still true that anyone who loves books is likely to enjoy learning about other people’s libraries and collections. Consider, for instance, these six recent titles.
“The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred Year Odyssey,” by Margaret Leslie Davis (Tarcher)
You don’t need to be a bibliophile to relish this history of how one particular copy of the Gutenberg Bible — known as No. 45 — passed from owner to owner in the 19th and 20th centuries before being acquired by Estelle Doheny, the widow of an oil tycoon (who nearly lost his fortune and his freedom during the Teapot Dome scandal, and probably should have). Margaret Leslie Davis not only explains how Gutenberg printed his Bible but also details its afterlife in various private libraries and sale rooms. Among the key figures in her story are that sociable littérateur Sydney Cockerell and the high-rolling book dealers A.S.W. Rosenbach and David Randall.
Though one of America’s preeminent collectors, Doheny still needed three chances before she was able to acquire her own Gutenberg. When she finally did in 1950, she was virtually blind. Being a devout Catholic, Doheny eventually willed her fabulous library to St. John’s Seminary, where it was to be kept intact for 25 years. In 1987, though, the seminary — wanting money to train priests — sold No. 45 at auction to Maruzen Co. Ltd, of Tokyo, for $5.4 million. The new owners eventually digitized every page and then either gave — or quietly sold — the Bible to Keio University, where today it remains locked away in a vault and never exhibited.
“The Role of the Scroll: An Illustrated Introduction to Scrolls in the Middle Ages,” by Thomas Forrest Kelly (Norton)
Scrolls may seem an antiquated system of information preservation and retrieval — until we remember that we scroll up and down all day on our computers. In this exceptionally elegant study, Kelly — a professor of music at Harvard — explores why people in the Middle Ages still created scrolls when the codex book was already in use. He gives several reasons. For instance, if you’re making a list, scrolls can be easily lengthened to accommodate additional items. They also remain unrivaled for imbuing gravitas to ceremonies of pomp and circumstance: What would graduation be without a diploma? Beautifully illustrated, “The Role of the Scroll” arrives with the enthusiastic recommendation of Christopher de Hamel, author of the prizewinning “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts.”
“Indispensable Reading: 1,001 Books from ‘The Arabian Nights’ to Zola,” by Wm. Roger Louis (I.B. Tauris)
In his introduction, Wm. Roger Louis — Kerr Professor of English History and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin — explains that “Indispensable Books” got its start from a UT faculty-generated list of “150 books for students to read or at least be aware of before they graduate.” That phrase “at least be aware of” strikes a rather pathetic note, as if the good professors recognized the hopelessness of their task. Sigh. In any event, to that 150-book core Louis has added 851 others to create this humanistic canon. Though understandably heavy with late-20th-century titles, the result is an intelligent, reliable guide, and you won’t go wrong in following its annotated recommendations.
Organization is by category (history, literature, philosophy, etc.), then by author, alphabetically. With a kind of false economy, Louis restricts each entry to a single title, no matter how voluminous or varied the author’s oeuvre. Thus the entry on J.G. Ballard points only to “Empire of the Sun,” his marvelous, semi-autobiographical novel (which should have won the Booker). Yet Ballard’s lasting importance really lies in his extraordinary short stories, about which Louis says nothing. It also seems perverse to recommend Beatrix Potter’s “The Tailor of Gloucester,” which is admittedly her most ambitious work, while passing over that immortal lullaby-in-prose, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” And why does the Saul Bellow entry, which briefly discusses “Herzog,” reproduce the paperback cover of the unmentioned “Seize the Day”?
Picky, picky, as my mother would say. Still, lists of recommended reading should provoke reaction and feedback. So let me reemphasize that “Indispensable Books” is well worth owning and arguing with.
“Hermann Zapf and the World He Designed,” by Jerry Kelly (Grolier Club); “A Matter of Size: Miniature Bindings and Texts From the Collection of Patricia J. Pistner,” curated by Patricia J. Pistner and Jan Storm van Leeuwe (Grolier Club)
If you stop by New York’s Morgan Library this spring for the Tolkien exhibition, be sure to swing by the Grolier Club as well. Both the above books are linked to concurrent exhibitions there, the Hermann Zapf running through April 27 and the Pfister miniatures through May 18. Jerry Kelly’s biography of Zapf tracks the career of this great 20th-century type designer, who was also — to quote calligrapher Julian Waters — “the major influence in letter form design and calligraphy since World War II.” Showing a nicely judged sense of humor, the annotated catalogue of Pistner’s collection of Lilliputian-sized books is a gorgeous, Brobdingnagian tome — and sure to become a standard reference for connoisseurs of miniature bindings and texts.
“Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image” (The Caxton Club)
Like the Grolier, Chicago’s bibliophilic Caxton Club occasionally issues titles of it own, such as this collection of essays — by Neil Harris, Rosanna Warren, Sara Paretsky, Alex Kotlowitz and others — honoring printed works closely identified with the Windy City. So, besides Carl Sandburg’s poetry and James T. Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan,” one finds discussions here of such Chicago-based enterprises as Weird Tales, Esquire and Playboy magazines, as well as the famous Lakeside Press, Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Mortimer J. Adler’s iconic set, “The Great Books of the Western World.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.