In which I take the #sevendaybookchallenge in one day. Leaflet #5: Prettiness in books.
This hand-drawn and hand-painted bookplate is in a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that I bought last year. Note the preliminary pencilling, still visible beneath the ink, of both the signature and the flower. Extrapolating from an obituary that I found online, it seems that in 1953, when Helen Costello Chase was nineteen, she was dancing with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in London. Later she became a florist and a painter. “Her mode of transportation was not automobile but ballet slipper,” her eulogist declares.
The English writer Elizabeth Taylor drew on her real-life affair with the painter Ray Russell in her 1951 novel A Game of Hide and Seek, and earlier this year, in the introduction that I wrote to the New York Review Books Classics reprint, I mentioned this long-secret fact lying behind her fiction:
Taylor and Russell exchanged hundreds of letters. . . . She burned all the letters in her possession. “Every single loving word you have written to me is gone,” she wrote to him. “I cannot endure the thought of it. No one has ever written to me like that before, or said such wonderful things to me, & now I have nothing left.” She seems to have asked him to destroy hers as well, but he copied her early letters into a notebook before doing so, modestly changing some of the names as he transcribed. Later, apparently repenting of even this much discretion, he resumed saving the letters she sent. Their survival, and the fact of Taylor’s affair with Russell, was disclosed in Nicola Beauman’s 2009 biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Evidently Ray Russell saved Elizabeth Taylor’s books as well, because his collection of her works, including several inscribed by her to him, are now for sale from the London booksellers Bertram Rota Ltd. The inscriptions seem quite formal. “Ray from Elizabeth,” most of them read. The fact that Russell kept twenty-four of her books seems more revealing. Beauman wrote in her biography that Russell “never fully accepted that [Taylor] had broken with him.”
Peter and I have moved! My Earthlink email address is kaput, though my Harvard forwarding email address (the one on my About page) remains intact. Here it is again, should anyone need it:
If anyone has a wish to snail-mail me something, please get in touch by email and I’ll let you know the new address.
Apologies for the blog silence. I have discovered that the reason that there are so many essays about unpacking one’s library and so few about packing it is that the latter process more or less does to you what Dave does to HAL at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it begins to seem prudent, with such a diminished capacity, to remain silent. Today, on day five of a flu of some kind, I seem to have lost my corporeal voice as well, so the silence apparently is to continue. We love our new apartment, thanks for asking, except for the bathtub drain that had to be unclogged by professional “snake,” the two successive leaks under the kitchen sink, the busted lock on the front door, and the fiendishly permanent child guards on the windows, which required five trips to the hardware store in order to collect all the equipment necessary for their uninstallation. (Babies apparently wish to hurl themselves out of apartment windows with all the ingenuity and resourcefulness of inmates at a Supermax prison, and must be correspondingly restrained.) Air conditioner brackets were my Waterloo.
The last count that I made of our book boxes before moving was 146, and we packed for another full day after that, so I think we ended up moving about 200 boxes of books. (We were able to stack them in an empty apartment on the floor below us, thus the weird orderly accumulation of volume in the photo above.) Furious and hasty has been the deaccessioning, but we still haven’t found enough bookshelf space in the new apartment to fit what remains. Some day soon I plan to return to being a writer, instead of just a subpar handyman and occasional haunter of Twitter, but that day is not yet, alas. There are no plans to acquire an e-reading device. Where would it go?
Five years ago, I denounced deckle edges as an abomination. Before books melt away into ether once and for all, I feel compelled to express another strong opinion about the production of physical books: I hate glue bindings.
I have been gently counseled by book designers that my hatred may not be entirely justified. In fact, they say, there are glue bindings and there are glue bindings. “Hot melt” glues are indeed shoddy, I am told, but some “cold melt” glues are thought to be quite durable if they are applied via “double fan binding,” a process so named because it involves fanning the pages in first one direction, then the other. I hasten to say that all this may be true; I’m no expert. But it doesn’t matter. The trouble with glue bindings is that you never know until it’s too late. At the moment you buy a book bound with glue, it may indeed be more rugged than an identical book sewn together with thread. The question is the integrity of the glue ten years later. Thread lasts, if it’s kept dry and dark. In the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see folded sheets of linen from pharaonic days. Glue, however, often doesn’t last. It’s no help to hear that some glue does. Nowhere in or on a book is there a list of the ingredients of its binding’s glue, and even if there were such a list, only astute chemists would be able to predict longevity from that information.
Let me break your heart with some examples. Here is a Northwestern-Newberry paperback of Herman Melville’s Pierre, purchased by your blogger in the mid 1990s, much re-read, and much annotated.
A university press edition! People, they did this to scholars. Not all university presses are so heartless, though. To vindicate them, I include a photo of a University of California Press paperback of Moby-Dick, purchased by your blogger in the late 1980s, also much re-read—though not annotated, because the Barry Moser illustrations made it seem sacrosanct.
I’ve opened the Moby-Dick to the center of a “gathering,” that is, to the center of a set of pages that were folded together, so if you look closely (after clicking on the picture to expand it), you can see a Morse code of thread running vertically along the fold. (Not all sewing is equal, by the way; the best kind is “sewing through the fold,” also known as “Smyth sewing,” after the brand name of one of the sewing machines capable of doing it.) Though the California paperback is at least five years older, it’s in good shape, and the Northwestern-Newberry is a shambles. For comparison, here’s the latter stacked on the former.
You’re probably thinking, Well, I’m not going to trouble my little head with any of this. I buy hardcovers, after all. Surely they’re sewn not glued. Oh ho, and there you would be wrong. The poet Elizabeth Bishop has been so thoroughly and repeatedly canonized that if I am asked to read one more review solemnly scolding her editors for posthumously printing the fragments found in her desk, I will run screaming into the night. But is the latest of the scolded monumental editions, by her longtime publisher FSG, bound with thread? It is not. (As it happens, though, the mid-1980s FSG hardcovers of Bishop’s collected poetry and prose were glue-bound, too, and seem to be holding up, so maybe FSG uses nice glue, at least with Bishop.)
How, those of you whom I have succeeded in making anxious may want to know, can a glued binding be distinguished from a sewn one? On the left, in the photo above, is a glued Philip Roth (Zuckerman Bound, FSG, 1985), and on the right a sewn Henry Roth (Call It Sleep, Pageant, 1960). The little black-and-white skunk-tail-esque ribbon on the Philip Roth is spurious; it’s meant to hearken back to the days when an actual piece of fabric went all the way down the spine interior, and the gatherings were sewn into it, and its presence needn’t imply the existence or absence of any such thing now. What’s indicative is the way the pages meet the spine. In the glued Philip Roth on the left, the pages all run straight into the binding and stop dead. In the sewn Henry Roth on the right, the pages are folded together in gatherings, and they meet the spine in distinct bunches, which look a little like the illustrations of stomach villi from my high school biology textbook.
For further reference, here are the tragic Melville paperbacks again, glue on top, sewing beneath.
So nothing ever goes wrong with a sewn binding? Well, no, sometimes things do go wrong, but when they do, you can fix them yourself. To my dismay, I once discovered that the thread hadn’t passed through a signature or two of pages in my Kent State University Press hardcover of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. I therefore sewed the pages to their neighbors.
More alarmingly, I was three-quarters of the way through marking up a Library of America edition of Howells when I found that a number of pages had been omitted altogether. I found them in a database, printed them out, and sewed them in, too—not as elegantly as I did with Brown, I’m afraid.
If pressed, I suppose I can bring myself to admit that these book repairs could have been done with glue, and that all I’m saying is that I’m more comfortable with needle and thread. In the interest of objectivity, in fact, I will will conclude with one more photo, of a 1922 translation of J. K. Huysmans’s Against the Grain whose previous owner “completed” it by pasting in slips of onionskin typing paper containing the passages omitted from the English translation. The glue he used has for the most part held up. (The book itself of course has a sewn binding.)