Compared to my mother, who taught literature for forty years, and many of my friends and colleagues, who are avid readers and writers, my collection of books is rather paltry. It cannot even be called a proper collection, having neither theme nor organizing principle. Nor do the books on my shelves adequately represent my reading life, as many of my favorite titles are missing, and some of the books I own I do not care to read.
I have lately begun choosing books mostly by their covers. I limit myself to the new acquisitions shelf at the public library, either nonfiction or fiction, and I choose books that feel right in my hands, books that have simple, well designed covers, and elegant typography; books of just the right size, with pages that fall open in a pleasing way without cracking the spine.
I usually read the blurbs on the back cover and the first paragraph of the book, but those tend to sway me less than the overall look and feel of a book. I have rejected books on interesting topics or by authors I enjoy when the type was too cramped or the inside margins too tight or when the book was too heavy to hold while reading in bed or in the bath. But I have also discovered wonderful books this way that I might not have found otherwise, including an inspiring book called The Zookeeper’s Wife, about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from the Nazis; an extraordinary novel called Let the Great World Spin, which opens with a breathtaking image of a tightrope walker stepping out onto a cable stretched between the World Trade Center towers; and an exhilarating book called Every Living Thing, which presents portraits of individual scientists in their obsessive quest to catalog life.
In my own quest to catalog life, I have decided to start a database of the books I own, and I am finding it surprisingly satisfying to pull each book off the shelf and open it up to locate the pertinent information. Some of these books I have not opened in many years; some of them exhale a musty breath that reminds me of my grandfather’s books that lined the back hallway of the house near the small college where he taught. Some books I remember well; others I have no memory of having read. A few have personalized autographs from the authors, encouraging me to continue with my writing. So far, I have only entered data on about half the books from a single shelf, mostly poetry books accumulated while I was in graduate school. I had not thought of my books as being in any particular order, certainly not by library school standards. What a surprise, then, to find that at least some of them are arranged chronologically, like the record collection in High Fidelity.
As I examine each book (front and back covers, title page, copyright page, CIP information, colophon), I recall many pleasant days spent in the stacks during library school when I studied rare books and bibliography, history of books and printing, and special collections. I especially loved going into the rare books room at the University, where I would sign in and then put on a pair of white gloves to keep the oils from my hands away from the pages, and the curator would bring out a single precious book at a time. In the quiet reading room, I would marvel at the hand-tooled leather or gold-leafed cloth cover, the deckled pages sometimes gilded with gold, the marbled endpapers, the hand-sewn bindings, the thick creamy watermarked paper, the decorated letters; I wondered how many hands had held this same book over the years. I would run my fingers lightly over the pages, like a blind woman reading Braille, and feel the impressions of each letter where it had been pressed into the damp paper.
One of the happiest times in my life was during an eight-week course in letterpress printing at the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky. I loved the weight of the composing stick in my hand and the soft click as I set each letter upside down and backwards in the stick, line by line. For my individual project, I printed Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October. The class printed a commemorative chapbook for an upcoming program scheduled at the King Library Press, with each of us setting the type for a single page. We then gathered our individual pages together and laid them in the sewing frame, and the instructor showed us how to sew the signature. The page I set was about oranges at Christmas.
After the course was over, I bought a small printing press somewhere, fully intending to print broadsides and chapbooks and poetry books. I wanted to learn more about the art of bookbinding, printing, calligraphy, papermaking, woodblock prints, engraving. I wanted to try my hand at gold leaf. I wanted to collect beautiful books. I did not want to read mass-produced books like the “yellows” and “bloods” that were printed so cheaply during the nineteenth century, books intended for a new mass reading public, books that people destroyed as they read, by tearing off each page and throwing it away. My advisor, Dr. Robert Cazden, had referred to that period as the “nadir” of printing. If he were still alive today, I wonder what he would have to say about E-books and all they represent. I’m thinking he would not be impressed.