Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some Thoughts About Books as Objects

In this day of eBooks and iBooks and digital publishing; in this day when electronic displays are so sophisticated that one can actually turn pages on the screen and highlight passages and leave yellow sticky notes on the electronic page; in this day when one can carry an entire library of books in a convenient electronic case weighing no more than a pound or two; one is left to wonder about the future of books as physical, printed objects.

I sell books.  Not eBooks, but real books with pages made of paper.  Books rare and old.   My books smell of paper and ink.  The pages are browned by age, and sometimes smudged with use. 

Some are inscribed to a friend, with an explanation of why the book was chosen and given; some are inscribed by the author to an admirer, or colleague.  Some are signed by an owner in childish lettering or in adult script.  Some have the signatures of notable figures.  (These “association” copies are among my favorites.)  Each of these adds to the pleasure of the book, to the understanding of it.  And you are linked to the people who’d owned it before you.

Some are “extra illustrated,” with original sketches or paintings by an artist; or with pertinent extras bound into the book.

I once had an “extra illustrated” copy of Morley’s LIFE OF GLADSTONE which was a 3 volume set that had been stretched into 10 volumes as a result of the inclusion of so many pertinent extras:  engraved portraits of Gladstone and members of his political English circle, hand-written letters from John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli and many others.  In the hands of its owner, this modest book had become a treasure-trove of information, a document and history of the period.

Some of my books have traveled to me from across continents and generations.  How did a lovely illustrated book on palmistry (with beautiful endpapers made from old velum scrolls) make its way from 16th century Italy to 21st century Massachusetts?  How many people touched it, carried it, cared for it?  How did they protect it as it crossed oceans and time?

For me, there is a kind of magic to this; there’s tremendous intimacy shared with those who came before you; and there are innumerable tactile pleasures as well – all of which imbue the words with meanings that cannot be conveyed by the words alone. 

You must hold a real book in your hand, smell the pages, examine the type face, the spacing between letters; must note the shape and size of the book, the weight of it.  Only then can you experience the book’s full import.  And its magic.

A book as an object is a piece of history.

If you care to learn it, you can know a book’s age and place of publication just by recognizing the font used; or by how much spacing (leading) there is between lines of text; or by the amount of linen or acid in the paper; or whether the page edges were individually “cut” for reading as one went along, or machine cut as is common for newer books; or by the garish and graphic covers of pulp paperbacks from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s; or by seeing whether the engravings are copper or steel; or by noting the use of the letter “f” for the letter “s” and the like.  You can gage the tastes of the period through the bindings most common to it.

You can spot a smuggled copy of the banned James Joyce book, ULYSSES, even though it has no title on it – or has a fake title, all the better for smuggling! – because the book’s shape is that of an almost perfect square.

I have friends who have a set of Homer that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Imagine!

Rusty Mott, a bookseller in Sheffield Massachusetts, once had Melville’s copy of William Davenant’s WORKS, London: 1673.  He catalogued it [in part] as follows:
“Signed by Melville on the flyleaf:  ‘Herman Melville / London, December, 1849 / New Year’s Day, at sea).’

With pencil notations by Melville…comprising check marks, x’s, sidelines, question marks, underlining, plus comments…all illustrating passages Melville felt important, such as whales, religion, monarchs and subjects, nature, knowledge, punishment of sin, etc.  In one place he has written ‘Cogent;’ in another, ‘This is admirable,’ and in a third, he compliments Davenant....

The existence of this example of Melville’s reading has been known for some time but has been ‘lost’ since 1952.”

What a remarkable book!  There’s so much to learn about both authors as a result of Melville’s notations.  How wonderful it was to have held that book in my hands:  Melville’s own book!  And now, some other lucky person can hold and study it.  And care for it.

I once had the prayer book belonging to Carlota, wife of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.  Placed on the throne by Napoleon III, Maximilian was eventually captured and executed by Mexican Republican forces.  At the time, Carlota was in Europe trying to get support for her husband.  After learning of his death, she had an emotional collapse and lived in seclusion for the rest of her life. 

What were those light round spots and ripples on some of the pages of her prayer book?  Were they tears?  And which passages of the book brought about those tears?  Of course, I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions, but I’m free to imagine and relate to the scene in a way that is not possible without having the book – the object and not just the words – in my hands. As I held the book, Carlota and I were linked across space and time.  This is magic.

Shakespeare folios also feel quite magical.  All but a few of them are in libraries, but many years ago, we managed to buy a 2nd and 4th folio for a client; and we had them at home for a while.  Bound in  well-cared-for contemporary (of the period) leather, they sat on a table in our living room.  Whenever our 4 children were near the table, they became hushed, almost tip-toeing as they walked by:  the books were so beautiful, so old, so...expensive!

Adam, the youngest, was only 4 at the time.  He and his older siblings would sometimes stand and look at the folios from a respectful distance.  Adam would put his hands behind his back and lean forward so far that he was in danger of falling. 

One day he asked, “Can we touch them?”  This broke the “spell,” and the big girls were quick to say, “Of course we can; they’re books; they’re meant to be touched and read!  They’ve been touched and read for centuries!”  And then they touched them.  Carefully.  Very carefully.

First they caressed the bindings, stroking the leather.  Then the two “big” girls – Sarah,12 and Johanna,14 – opened the books and slowly turned the pages, allowing Abigail and Adam, the two little ones, to see and carefully touch the pages.  The paper was rippled, and the pages crackled when turned.

Except for that crackle, there was silence, almost a holy silence….  They treated the books with reverence and awe.  Even at their young ages, they knew that they were in the presence of something important and wondrous. They felt the magic, and remember it still....

 Of course, new books are not quite the same, but you can be a book's “first” owner, the first to hold, read and study it.  You can learn from its binding and paper and weight and lettering and smell.  You can hold a new book in trust for its future owners.  You can become part of its history.

Give your eReader a rest, grab a real, printed book:  and feel the magic.


P. J. Grath said...

Helen, thank you for these beautifully evocative thoughts on books as objects. I once owned (and subsequently gave as a gift) a book on the Arctic that had belonged to a soldier stationed there during the war. The front-facing endpaper featured a beautiful ink drawing he had made of his time there, complete with place and date and inscription to the person to whom he'd given the book as a gift. A simple book, nothing like a Shakespeare folio, it still held the magic of personal history and travel.

We will have to think a bit on the magic of new books as objects. I do think the magic is there, too....

Anonymous said...

Ester said...

How beautiful, like always I love
Your writing, but tis one is special. Keep on writing and
sharing. said...

All books are magic to a degree. I tried to address new books at the end -- the idea of becoming it's first caretaker and part of its history. Perhaps you, Pamela, can come up with more that we can include in a future post?

Peter said...

Thanks Helen, for your reflections, beautifully told.

Curious how timely for me, for I have recently joined a book club for the first time in my life (to cure my laziness about exploring the vast wealth of writing out there).

To pick up on PJGrath's point: a new book is like an unknown country to me. A good book is a challenging country at times, also beautiful in unexpected ways but sometimes challenging and a bit irritating (that's when I pause, mark my progress with a bookmark and turn out the light - reflecting on my reactions before sleep).

With the bookclub books I take my pen with me on the expedition, marking my reactions in the margins and more thoughtful reflections on those lovely blank pages in the front and back that I can review at future times to evoke the memory of the trip and what it taught me at that moment. So the books, all marked up, become a journal of a dimension of my life, in the recognizable hand that is mine own - can't do that in an ibook, yet ... said...

Thanks, Peter, for this note -- and especially for addressing the question of how new books fit into all of this. I like the notion of a new book being an unknown, a challenge.

As for marking up books: I do that, too (only to my own books, of course) and I love doing it, and I love reading books that have annotations in them. It's enriching.

P. J. Grath said...

Marking up books. I can't bear to do that to new books! For one thing, most of my personal library consists of old, used volumes, so the addition of a new book means it is really something special, and I treasure its crisp, clean pages and pristine dust jacket. I'll mark up paperback books (and even dog-ear their pages), but when I want to make notes in books that are precious to me, whether new or old, I do it with Post-It notes. Some of my books come out looking like porcupines, there are so many tags bristling from the edges of their pages!

Interesting how differently we all approach these objects we love.

Daniel W said...

great post, I agree...books are love objects, every volume with its own personality, no identical twins...I also love those used books that were given as gifts and signed by complete strangers... said...

WE are precious to books, too: they'll cease to exist without readers who love to hold and interact with them. I think putting your mark in a book -- essentially making it a one-of-a-kind book -- is a gift to yourself and to the book -- and even, perhaps, to a future reader. said...

Yes, Danny: I love even those signed by strangers. After all, they chose the same book as I, and wanted to leave their mark in it, so they must be somewhat like me. I like to scrutinize the handwriting and see what I can glean from it.

Alan Mattlage said...

Thanks to Pamela for directing me to this conversation via her blog. I hope no minds my intrusion. Coincidentally, I just finished reading a book entitled Slow Reading. It's about how reading print books is importantly different from reading on the internet. I won't belabor the points here, but my review of it is at There's nothing like getting lost in a beautiful book. said...

Welcome, Alan. Your comment was not an intrusion but a welcome addition to the conversation and I thank you (and Pamela) for it.

I read your blog post on SLOW READING which was very interesting. But I think readers can have the skim mentality with a book as well as a with a post, and vice versa. And it's hard for a reader not to read him/herself into any text, digital or print. 

I hope you will come -- and comment -- again.


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Beautiful post. I love old books, those in stores where they are often piled up to the ceiling along narrow aisles, those my parents inscribed to me or to each other, those in the darker sections of libraries that haven't been touched for years--all treasures of an age that may soon be gone with the wind as readers flock to their Kindles and Nooks like lemmings to a cliff and/or children to a stack of Christmas presents beneath a spruce in the corner of the livingroom.


Kate @ Candlemark said...

This is simply wonderful.

I publish books, and I publish in all forms - electronic and paper. However, I also publish limited handbound copies of all our books, because books are magical and they really do make a difference when they're something treasured, something tangible, something you can pass along or mark up or...just do whatever with. I sincerely doubt the printed book will be going anywhere any time soon, and having that tangible book as part of our lives makes our lives that much better.

Janet P. Mullaney said...

Read a redaction of this column on Shelf Awareness ... and had to come here. Couldn't agree more. Thank you for such a cogent and beautifully argued piece. We at Daedalus Books & Music support you wholeheartedly. (I write their daily blog called, appropriately enough, The Daily Glean—