Posts Tagged ‘books


William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.


Inauguration Book Report

Attending the inauguration was a fantastic experience, and me and my companion were among the fortunate few (or many, rather) who had no ticket and consequently didn’t have to put up with security, lines or purple tunnels of doom. The performance of John Williams “Air and a Simple Gifts” was beautiful, and witnessing the reaction of the crowd as various people walked onto the stage, and seeing and listening to them cheer and jubilate when Obama took the oath of office was wonderful, but the most moving moment for me was a passage from Obama’s inaugural address:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

The speech may have been short on substantial solutions, but that was not what was called for: what we needed was a vision, a vision of a world based on an enlightened, humanist world view, and a sense of urgency that we must unite, pull ourselves together and get to work, as well as a promise that if we find the determination, we will also find the strength and the means to pave the way for a better future. It was the quintessential American speech, hammered down with unmatched rhetorical splendor to a crowd who was not only thirsting for a president capable of inspiring people with his words, but willing to begin a new chapter. Let’s hope the spirit of that speech will carry on to inspire the American people, their president and the global community.

Of course, the inauguration also provided a nice excuse to visit Washington’s monuments and museums  and embark on a book-buying spree in the capital’s bookstore scene. Truth be told, after spending quite some time at bookstores, we managed to visit only one museum — the National Gallery of Art — which featured an astonishing range of paintings and sculptures of readers and books, as for instance Georges de la Tour’s repentant Magdalene:

For Washington book-browsing, we paid a visit to Second Story Books and Capitol Hill Books (highly recommended! On a Saturday, you get 10% off and free wine & cheese!) . At Capitol Hill, I got a manual of reading comprehension in exchange for replacing a light-bulb, and at Second Story I purchased a host of “books on books” , including a copy of This Book Collecting Game by A. Edward Norton and the ABC for Book-Collectors by John Carter.

I am still in two minds about book collecting. I have recently read Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World, which is an easy-to-read narrative introduction to book-collecting, quite informative on occasion,  though at times frustratingly meandering, irrelevant and callow (not to say downright moronic), and I have read several of Nicholas Basbanes’s books on bibliophilia; I even own a couple of rare books myself, and yet I have never pursued book-collecting in earnest. What I would need is a topic for a collection that is specific enough to make the hunt worthwhile and exciting, and at the same time interesting enough to make the collection in some sense “practical”. I abstain from buying books merely for aesthetic or sentimental purposes, even though I am very fond of a book’s physical attributes and immensely enjoy reading about the history of book-making. In order for me to buy a book, there has to be some kind of thematic thread, an intellecual stimulus, an incentive above and beyond mere beauty or scarcity, and until I find a collection topic that satisfies these criteria, I shall contend myself with the hunt of cheap and decent reading copies.


Raised Bands Are Sexy; or, A Primer on Bookbindings

Tomorrow I am going to see the Morgan Library’s exhibit Protecting the Word, which presents the collection’s most noteworthy bookbindings. To familiarize myself with the essential terminology of the bookbinding craft, I read up on the anatomy of the book and took a look at the British Library’s bookbinding brochure. Evidently, a binding’s main purpose is to protect the book’s text block, but since I do not intend to become a book binder any time soon, I skip the bit about sewing and glueing and dive straight into book decoration.

The Morgan exhibit has some magnificent medieval tomes on display, but frankly, medieval decorative binding deserves its own chapter. Suffice it to say that the medieval book was a treasure, and bound accordingly, as in this fine specimen from the Morgan, the Lindau Gospels from St. Gall in Switzerland from the late ninth century:

Lindau Gospels

But bookbinding as a craft and art in its own right begins much later, namely in the 15th century,  after the invention of the printing press. One of the “fathers” of modern decorative bookbinding was a Frenchman by the name of Jean Grolier. Grolier was not a bookbinder himself, but a book collector famous for commissioning the bindings that now carry his name. Grolier’s love for books as well as for sharing them with others have inspired book artists, collectors and readers for centuries. A prominent feature of Grolier bindings is the Latin inscription Io. Grolierii et Amicorvm — (property) of Jean Grolier and his friends. Grolier’s willingness to share his book with his friends is the stuff of legend, and the famous New York Grolier Club donned his name in honour of his friendships (he befriended, among others, book luminaries such as Erasmus and Aldus Manutius). Below is an example of a Grolier binding from the British library. You can see the inscription and the geometrical and arabesque patterns that are typical of a Grolier design.

Grolier Binding

Whoever wants to become well-versed in the art of the binding must be able to recognise names such as Padeloup, Cobden-Sanderson, or Zaehnsdorf — the names of master bookbinders, exquisite craftsmen and brilliant innovators who left an indelible stamp on their craft. Books fortunate enough to be clad in one of their bindings  are keenly sought treasures these days.

The art of bookbinding knows a multitude of decorative styles and methods — mosaic, pointillé, romantic, neo classical, art nouveau, art deco — and a host of technical terms. The technique of gauffed edges, for instance, refers to imprinting indented patterns on the fore- and sige-edges of a book. An onlay produces a mosaic effect in leather by replacing strips of the original leather binding with leather of a different colour. And dentelle decorations consist “of a combination of elliptical scrolls of slightly shaded leafy character joined to clusters and horders of great richness”. Magnificent!

dentelle decoration

And that concludes my primer to bookbinding. More when I return from the Morgan. For readers interested to learn more on the subject, here a paraphernalia of online sources:

– Herb Weitz’s brief history of decorative bookbinding

– Roberts and Etherington’s dictionary of bookbinding terms (excellent)

Virtual Bookbinding

– Comprehensive link list to book arts provided by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild


Remember, Remember

Continuing my series of gloomy and dystopian posts, today’s entry features Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit was an arresting read for me, not only because of the book theme, or Bradbury’s engaging prose, or the touching characterization of the protagonist, the “fireman” (i.e. book burner) Guy Montag, but also because I was expecting something quite different from a novel that up to now I had categorised as the third installment of the classic dystopian trilogy beginning with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Having recently watched a BBC adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, crammed with soma-induced pyjama wearing alphas to gammas, assembly lines for breeding, brainwashing jingles, hypno-cinemas, and all the other various gadgets, I was expecting Bradbury to do exactly the same, namely to spend a good deal of time elaborating on his dystopian society and create a world full of symbol-laden contraptions and quirky  social routines burdened with moral dilemmas. Fahrenheit does that, too, but merely in passing, and uses it not as an end in itself, but as a backdrop for portraying the growing conflict facing the book’s main character, Guy Montag.

The central premise of Fahrenheit, as most of you will know, is that a future society has institutionalized the burning of books (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). Books have become forbidden objects, and although some renegade readers still hide them in their attics, living in constant fear of the fire department showing up at their doorstep, most citizens regard printed matter with fear, suspicion or unsavory ridicule.  A handful of readers have gone into hiding in the forests at the outskirts of the city, and have taken it upon themselves to save the legacy of the great books by memorizing them before they are being obliterated — a “living memory” in every sense of the word:

We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. […] And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, and the people will be called in, one by one, to recall what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damned thing over again.

Bradbury’s decision to centre his dystopia around books must have come naturally to him. Born into a publisher family, he was also a bibliophile. I remember watching an Bradbury interview where he describes his first encounter with books, instantly becoming obsessed with their smell, and when you read Fahrenheit you will soon realise that his writing is very olfactory indeed. Of course it is not books as things that matter to the story, but their capacity to contain thoughts and ideas: books are the memory of humankind, and Bradbury captures the sense of memory loss of a bookless society poignantly in a childhood episode of the novel’s protagonist. While Montag is sitting in the subway, a stolen Bible clasped to his body, trying desperately to remember a line from the sermon of the mount, failing as the train speakers shout their ads at the passengers, he remembers the following scene:

Once as a child he had sat upon a yellow dune by the sea in the middle of the blue and hot summer day, trying to fill a sieve with sand, because some cruel cousin had said, “Fill this sieve and you’ll get a dime!” And the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering. His hands were tired, the sand was boiling, the sieve was empty. Seated there in the midst of July, without a sound, he felt the tears move down his cheeks.

Bradbury’s dystopian world is filled with noise — soap operas, the roaring fighter jet, colour walls, dentistry commercials; and the noise makes it impossible for Montag to hang on even to a single line from what he is reading. In Bradbury’s future, the inability to hold on to what you have read, and the thoughts and ideas you encounter  and perchance the new ideas you create, has eradicated people’s sense of being individuals, and at the same time made it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the history of human thought, or even with their present surroundings and other human beings.

Fahrenheit was written in 1953.  Ten years after publication, Bradbury described a scene he had just witnessed on the street, of a woman walking next to her husband:

The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera-cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down kerbs by a husband who might just as well have not been there. This was not fiction.

I can only surmise what Bradbury has been thinking and feeling for the last couple of decades, but I imagine it must be a rather daunting and unsettling experience as a dystopian writer to witness your vision of the future manifesting itself in the present and realising you might have been all too right in your predictions. We might still keep a lot books around (more than ever, in fact) and most of us, hopefully, consider the burning of books a sacrilege; but as far as the memory of books is concerned, I for one am haunted by the fear of losing the ability to hold on to what I have read, and on a larger social scale this might be as dangerous as losing the books themselves.


On Being Well-Read

Truth be told, I’m not well-read. Though I have hoarded many books, and even read most of them, my reading has often been cursory and superficial. And that, as Mortimer J. Adler points out, has little to do with what “well-read” means:

Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. As Thomas Hobbes said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” (How to Read a Book, 166)

…which reminded me how Albrecht Dürer earned his spurs portraying the book fool aboard Sebastian Brandt’s Narrenschyff, who is “besy bokes assemblynge / […] But what they mene do I nat vnderstonde”:

I am the firste fole of all the hole nauy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure haue I
Of bokes to haue grete plenty and aparayle
I take no wysdome by them […] (The Ship of Fools)

“I pity the fool!” — I hear you, Mr. T, I hear you.


André Kertész: On Reading

Via Classical Bookworm, via Book Patrol: André Kertész‘s On Reading, a photo essay depicting readers.

The man in this picture is browsing in front of a used bookstore on 4th Avenue, the fabled “Book Row” of New York. From Amazon:

Indeed, one of the greatest satisfactions Book Row offered was the joy of the chase. You’d decide you wanted such and such a title, and then spend weeks, or months, or years, searching for it. Every store you entered held out the hope that at last it would be there, and when it wasn’t your disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that right next door, or maybe a couple of storefronts away, was yet another store holding out the same hope, and then another, and then another.

Reading through the reviews, it is fascinating to observe the various reactions book lovers and book browsers exhibit towards the internet and the era of online book trading.


The Shelf and the Spine

Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf explains why shelving books vertically with their spine pointing outward was much less common in the olden days:

The spines of early books had been modest features indeed compared to the front and back covers. […] In many cases, the metal and jewel treatments of the front were nailed or otherwise fastened directly over leather or other binding material, emphasizing the plainness and subservient position of the spine. There was little that could be done otherwise, for the spine was in effect the hinge of the book, something that had to bend and flex if the book were to open properly, and so it was not suitable for heavy ornamentation. Indeed, the spine was to the cover as the downstairs would be to the upstairs in a Victorian mansion. (121)

Petroski illustrates his point with a series of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. They culminate in Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), one of Dürer’s four master cuts.

We see Saint Jerome poring over his translation of the Bible into vulgar Latin (the Vulgate). Conspicuously missing from the book pile next to the sleeping dog is a vertical spine. Books are lying either on their face or are propped against the wall, spine facing upwards. Some seventy years after Dürer, the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli decided to feature vertical shelving in a picture showing his book wheel, one of the most famous contraptions in book gadget history:

The picture dates back to 1588; notice the shelf in the background. According to Petroski, the way the books are shelved — spine out — was a rare sight at the time. We may attest their appearance to Ramelli’s flair for innovative design, but Petroski points out that Ramelli had been an engineer at the French court and might have come across spine-shelving there, the French being pioneers in that respect. Only toward the end of the 16th century, as books became more and more numerous, did book collectors and librarians start spine-shelving and spine-labelling in earnest. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of leather-bindings encouraged spine-decoration. By the 17th century, the spine had conquered the bookshelf.

As far as contemplating a “book thing” such as a shelf is concerned: may the wise men sneer! Yes, perhaps we should be reading our books instead of obsessing over their appearance, or their history, or their shelving. But I believe that the physical realm — a book touched, felt, shelved — is an essential part of the reading experience and too often neglected in its study. Let the wise men therefore be engrossed in their tomes. In the meantime, I shall be happy checking out some delicious book gadgets.

Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.