Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bibliophilia and Its Merits

Dickens' David Copperfield:
aesthetically pleasing for more reasons than one.

* * *
"Books are like a mirror.
If an ass looks in,
you can't expect an angel to look out."

Arthur Schopenhauer
* * *

I can almost always remember where and why I bought a book I love.

In the case of H.G. Wells' The History of Mr. Polly, for example, I was at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in London for an antenatal appointment last November. I can't remember what charity organization it was, but they had set up a used book sale in the middle of the hospital's atrium, and
while I waited I perused the titles, hoping to find something exciting to give Matt as a Christmas gift. I left that day with several good books - many of them old, worn copies of European Classics. I knew Matt would enjoy them for their aesthetic value just as much as their content, a bibliophile to the end.

The books I purchased included:

1. The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells; hardcover, green canvas binding with the original light blue dust cover in perfect condition. Published: 1940

2. Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (English translation); hardcover, navy blue canvas binding with
the original ocean blue dust cover and a plastic sleeve over that. Published: 1963.

3. Death in Venice & Other Stories by Thomas Mann (English translation); soft cover, Penguin Modern Classics edition with attractive browning of pages. Published: 1971

4. David Copperfield (our 2nd copy; I couldn't resist the color) by Charles Dickens; hardcover, lime green canvas binding with no dust cover but a hand-written dedication from a headmaster to a school boy in 1948 on the inside cover. Published: No date indicated.

* * *
"The pleasure of reading is doubled when
one lives with another who shares the same books."

Katherine Mansfield
* * *

Matt and I love to read. Granted, Matt takes it to a whole new level. He spends almost every single available non-working, waking moment with his nose stuck in a book: on the tube, on vacation, on the weekend, after dinner, before dinner, when I'm asleep, while I'm distracted doing laundry. As a child, he was the kid whose parents threatened to "take his books away" because he wouldn't go to sleep. I am an occasion-binge reader. I read very randomly and for very random reasons. I find the oddest of books in piles at the Salvation Army and make them my own. My choices are based on whim rather than planned, academic order (like Matt's), and sometimes I go for weeks without picking up a book. Yes, I like to read - no, actually, I love to read - but Matt and his books have a relationship even I can only admire from afar.

For this particular reason, I debated purchasing these four books for Matt that November day at Chelsea & Westminster. Not because I doubted he'd read or like them, but because we came to this country with about 10 books we couldn't live without or hadn't yet read (the other several hundred being holed up in boxes in a Connecticut barn with the rest of our adult possessions) and now, two years later, have nearly 100. Matt and his insatiable habit coupled with my love for old
books and random book sales are going to make moving back to the US a pretty interesting and expensive prospect.

Non-book people don't get it. I had a friend come over the other day and say: "Wow you have so many books. I just go to the library so we don't have to keep them around the house." Somehow, I
think she missed the point behind why we have books we have. They are not a burden, but rather a physical manifestation of the experiences and self-taught lessons we've shared over the past two years. It always shocks me when people don't share or understand that passion. Then again, sometimes I think Matt would rather give up a vital organ than get rid of his book collection, which is a little extreme.

But, I have to admit, when it comes to certain books, I'm right there with him. :)

* * *

Bibliophilia and its Merits
thoughts on collecting and admiring books

one of our bookshelves in London

4. The Aesthetics of Book Collecting
We love to keep books around the house for many reasons - some practical, some emotional, and some purely aesthetic. I see nothing wrong in feeling that having a book collection gives a room or even a home a certain je ne sais quoi (ok fine, an air of "refined intellectualism" - but I say that in the least pretentious way possible!).

When Matt and I first began sharing an apartment in NYC, one of the things I loved the most was his book shelf and the way he'd organized it. It's not done alphabetically or by color, as some would prefer, but rather by subject and genre, depending on what we have more of. For example, back in NYC we had an entire section devoted to my Greek Philosophy and Architecture books and Matt's Latin Classics from our college days. Here in London, Matt has a section just for his collection of books on Political Theory and dictators and I have my section for romantically-ratty used but classic British novels.

I love to look at the way they are organized - different heights, widths and sizes mish-mashed together. Some upright, some stacked horizontally to break up the monotony. Plus you can usually tell what we've been reading based on the dust covers hovering at the tops of book piles or the occasional empty space.

On the whole, I would dare say our bookshelves are some of the most aesthetically pleasing sections of our apartment. And that's a lot to say for someone obsessed with aesthetics.

3. They All Tell a Story. Pun Intended.
In addition to being nice to look at, smelling good, and offering a wide variety of interesting textures based on binding, books we keep at home all tell a story. Not the one they have inside, but the one about where they were bought, for whom, by whom and for what purpose. Some books remind me of my time in Italy, of my days at University, of a random train ride or a cloudy day at home when I was sick. Some books are gifts I treasure dearly and some I actually even consider pieces of crap I'd rather never touch again (but I keep them anyway because what's life without a little crap to appreciate the good times by?).

Some books take me back to wonderful, enlightening lectures, to intellectual or emotional epiphanies, to rites of passages and days spent reading outloud for no other reason than wanting to be together. Some books have voices, faces, even hands that I can remember vividly. And some are simply books with lives and stories waiting to unfold in a future filled with continued curiosity and new experiences. Promises waiting to be made and days waiting to be lived. I find it delicious to be able to see and feel all this simply by walking into the living room.

2. Wooing with Books: Unorthodox but Effective.
Wooing with books is something Matt and I openly indulge in. Or maybe it's something I indulge in with Matt. Whenever I need to buy him a gift I can't help but feel compelled to buy a book that imparts a thought, a philosophy or a funny passage I know he would like or I'd like to share with him. There has been many a time that I have vicariously lived through my favorite characters and their stories as Matt read a book I gave him. I can think of nothing more romantic (well, maybe not nothing) than sitting down and having a really good, interesting, in depth discussion about a book with my husband. It's one of the reasons I found him attractive when we met, and I find that even now, past our school days, it's one of the more intense glues that holds our relationship together.

We read very different books, but through our distinct tastes and interests, we educate each other. I don't think I'd ever want to spend my time (much less my life) with someone who wasn't interested in constantly learning new things and thinking new thoughts.

It's an unorthodox but highly effective way to woo, IMHO.

1. A Good Book really is like an Old Friend.
One of the final reasons we love books is that they unconditionally and unconfinedly (is that a word?!) offer an entrance or an exit. Whether it's reading the content of the book itself or simply flipping through inner-covers to read heartfelt dedications, books are a way to transport without transporting.

Whenever I buy a book for someone, I make it a point to write when, where and why I've bought it in my dedication. If the book is for myself, I write my name the date and where I read and bought it. It always shocks and delights me to look through these tidbits of information and recall where I was and with whom when I read the gory details of American Psycho or fell in love with Rilke's prose-poetry.

And the best part is, opening a good old book is like coming home. All dog-ears, underlined passages and random bookmarks (business cards, restaurant receipts, flower petals and even bits of packaging) bring an old friendship back to life. That's something I never get tired of. And it makes me happy to dream of the pretty library we'll have one day (when our possessions aren't littered around the globe) where I can sit and meander through a crowd of familiar authors, characters, and locales - my life's journey all in one room.

The nerdy but awesome Classical /
Medieval book labels I got for Matt

* * *
"Until I feared I would lose it,
I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing."

Harper Lee

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  1. ah so much fun - I loved the opening quote regarding asses and angles - too true! When I was in the UK, I'd find the random old book sale and stock pile in my suitcase as many as would fit to take back and share.

    Randy and I do our fair share of reading and Randy sounds much like Matt, except his focus is on non-fiction. However. after reading George MacDonald Frazer's obituary in the Economist, I got him hooked on the Flashman series - an antihero fast read (Harry Potter for grown-ups) I got my brother hooked on him too, my to my sister-in-law's dismay. Frazer also wrote the screenplay for Octopussy so you have a sense of his characters (=^)

    We've gotten in the habit of reading and discussing passages of Shakespeare together before we go to bed (how's that for wooing) Its a great way to get refreshed with with the classics and we both have uncovered aspects of the plays that we did not previously see.

    To me books are meant to be shared - what a great post. Much appreciated by a fellow book lover.

  2. This is such a lovely tribute to books! At one time, I could honestly say that I loved to read more than anything else but in the past few years, I feel as if I have not (or can not) spare more than 30 minutes for reading, which is then given over to magazine or newspapers instead of books. More than likely, I am reading a textbook or some journal paper - worthwhile but hardly preferred.

    Having worked in public and academic libraries for close to 14 years, I'm all about Dewy and LC call number systems but I can't get Mr. Noodle to let me arrange his bookshelves in this manner. At one point, his preferred style of organization was by height, in descending order. But he always knows where to find what he's looking for. I think he and Matt would get along great!.

    You've conveyed beautifully that books are not just repositories for their own information and stories but are imbued with your personal memories. May your library continue to flourish well after you've welcomed the family's newest bibliophile!

  3. and a total random note: I had this in my in box - I can't go so I thought you may be interested:

    Chocolate Festival
    What: Enjoy three days of workshops, demos and dozens of stalls focusing on making, eating, shaping and drinking the sweet stuff.
    Why: This weekend’s choc-a-bloc.
    When: Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
    Where: Southbank Centre, Southbank Centre Sq., Belvedere Rd., SE1 8XX (08716 632500).

  4. Agreed. Nothing breathes more life into a room than a stack of tattered, worn books.

    For me, it's the same as hanging photos with good memories (A Room with a View = family vacation in Italy)... or bad (American Psycho = horrible summer job at a blueprinting shop and some nightmares associated with the shop and book).