Three more days before heading up to Portland, Oregon for Christmas, and gifts are already carefully packed unwrapped–security will know what my son is getting before he does. It was my heartfelt intention to bake decorated sugar cookies and biscotti to bring as extra gifts. I ruined the biscotti, left it too long in the oven for its first bake and then when cooled the serrated knife took to it like a chain saw……..there was biscotti sawdust everywhere. Bagged what was left (all decidedly looking not at all like the biscotti I’d baked with great success some years ago.) What the hell, I said to myself, let’s do the sugar cookies. I prepared the dough and popped it in the frig. to be rolled out the next day. I then swept up the sawdust, poured myself a brandy and headed to bed.
So here we are this morning, the 23rd of December, and the cookie dough is trashed. Who cannot make sugar cookies? Why I’ve been baking sugar cookies for years! Well, okay, maybe it’s been some time. Maybe years. It’s still morning and too early for brandy, although I did think of going back to bed. But as Jeannette Wall’s Mother Albertina said to Lily in Half Broke Horses, “When God closes a window, he opens a door.” If not brandy, then what? How about books; books collected, books read and books shelved. I hope the essay turns out better than the cookies.
Eventually I’ll obtain a device to download e-books, but in the interim, books will be read and then, if deemed to be worthy of rereading, shelved. Books about books, about libraries, personal and public, about bookshelves (thank you Henry Petroski) and about collecting and reading have provided some of the most pleasurable hours spent reading.
It’s not too late to buy that Petroski classic, The Book on the Bookshelf for that carpenter or engineer on your list. If you’ve not read Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, give it a try for yourself or that spouse or partner who doesn’t know when it’s time to turn out that reading light. And sticking with Manguel, The Library at Night is a treasure trove of information both personal and historical and filled with such facts as the following: “A dictionary from the seventh century B.C. carries this prayer: ‘May Ishtar bless the reader who will not alter this tablet nor place it elsewhere in the library, and may She denounce in anger he who dares withdraw it from this library.’” OMG, library items have gone missing since 700 years B.C.? If public libraries and their future interest you, take a look at Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold Libraries and the Assault on Paper.
There are some wonderful coffee table books about personal libraries, all grander than most of our home libraries, but regardless, they are magical things. Only one of this type of book should suffice, any more and it’d be time to throw in the towel. My own such book is At Home with Books How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries, by Ellis, Seebohm and Sykes. Not one glossy looks even remotely related to my humble shelves, but hey, should the economy turn around, who knows?
Lest you take the subject of books too seriously, John Maxwell Hamilton’s Casanova Was a Book Lover and Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities about the Writing, Selling and Reading of Books will leave general readers wondering why nobody ever told them that nonfiction could be so much fun. It’s also a blast to hit the used bookstores and browse through some of the older books about books. From an 1888 copy of Books and Men by Agnes Repplier, she remarks thus on the modern quality of books available for girls: “…while, if we pursue a modern school-girl along the track of her self-chosen reading, we shall be astonished that so much printed matter can yield so little mental nourishment.”
Book collecting (the legal kind) used to be an activity of the very wealthy, but the Internet has leveled the playing field, at least so it would seem. Pre-Internet, bargains could be had for modest collectors who sought their treasures in used bookstores and not from auction house catalogs. Even in the early days of the Internet, those well-known used bookstores were easily recognized and a buyer could purchase with confidence by snail mail or on-line from that seller’s recent catalog. That was some twenty years ago, before everybody became a seller of collectible books. Now when buying on-line, when any individual with an old copy of whatever can post it for sale, often with questionable stats, such purchasing can be a sort of crap shoot. If e-Books take over the publishing world, my own small library may become my greatest asset. If that’s the case, my children should pay close attention to those books leading the novice through the art of book collecting and determining what is valuable, books like the 1912 2nd Edition (pocket) of Lang’s Books and Bookmen; Robert A. Wilson’s Modern Book Collecting; and Bill McBride’s A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions and Points of Issue.
As my twilight years approach, the books in my humble library (including the thirty or so banker’s boxes of books stacked in my closets) stand at the ready, welcoming and just waiting to be opened one more time.
– S. Solomon