Sunday, June 01, 2008

Stray opuscules

At the WSJ, Luc Sante on culling his library:
I still possess a great many books. I'm not a book collector, though, not at all -- and much less a bibliophile. The discreet charms of the first edition have always eluded me, although I can appreciate a nicely bound volume -- as a consequence I own many second and third printings, which generally cost about 95% less. When I have a choice I go for interesting jackets, elegant typefaces, acid-free paper, but above all I prize compactness. Whenever possible I go for omnibus editions. The more books can fit in a single volume, the happier I am. And I mourn the passing of the pocket-sized paperback, which was once allowed to contain all sorts of material and is now strictly reserved for the kinds of books that inspire gold-embossed titles and peekaboo die-cuts. I like to carry books in my pockets, and trade paperbacks are an awkward fit, except in the dead of winter.

Anyway, I like the entire variety of books: thin little plaquettes, 16-volume histories, drugstore potboilers, privately printed crank pamphlets, ancient volumes in unknown languages, sleek new art editions with lots of white on the pages, forgotten doctoral dissertations from German universities in the 1880s, pornography bought by sailors in Tijuana, technical publications with wildly recondite diagrams... I remember a cartoon I saw as a child in which the books jumped off the shelves and had themselves a party in the bookstore in the middle of the night. Bookcases that hold the greatest diversity seem to present that as a real possibility. By contrast, I recall with a shudder the decorator who came to my store one day to buy 40 feet of books with blue covers. I was not much less disturbed when I once visited a home where the shelves held only hardcovers, all stripped of their jackets, presumably to make for a more subdued surface.

I'm not a snob about books, but I'm probably a show-off -- as who isn't? My showing-off is of a pretty low-key if not completely abstruse sort, though. No one has ever noticed -- much less commented upon -- my collections of minor German Romantics, accounts by UFO abductees, books by and about hoboes, or memoirs by former employees of the New York Evening Graphic. It's rather a closed circle; I impress myself. I once felt a certain anxiety about my book-lined living room -- it was too much, no? It seemed to belong in the same category as the display of framed degrees in prominent places. Books do furnish a room -- in Anthony Powell's titular phrase -- but that room would be the library, equipped with 14-foot built-ins with a rolling ladder, and I've never had one of those. I had to consider which impulse was the stronger: the wish to let the world admire my complete collection of the works of Raymond Roussel, or the wish not to appear a bore. Having books crowd every inch of wall space in the room in which I entertained imposed a certain burden on the conversation, as if dead authors were leaning in, contributing dry, derisive chuckles.
(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

1 comment:

  1. My pet peeve is that paperbacks don't fit in my pocket anymore. Part of it must be that people are getting older and need bigger typefaces, but I assume that the big reason is that books cost more, and so there's an assumption that they have to be physically big to be worth the money. The same thing that motivates aspirin manufacturers to put 50 pills in a bottle that would hold 200, etc.

    Ahh, the good old days . . . my copy of From Here to Eternity is something like 900 thin pages; the whole thing fits into my pocket. And those old 200-page suspense novels--so thin and compact, you can carry them anywhere. I shudder to think of how large they must be printing Graham Greene's books nowadays.