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.)
"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."
I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.
Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"
As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.
The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.
A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online, constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.
Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.
To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)
My review of “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson,” a photo exhibit with a catalog, is in the 1 May 2008 issue of New York Review of Books (online subscription required). Since the article does have footnotes, I don’t need to annotate my sources here, so I thought instead I would post a few snapshots from my own collection, and then throw in a few motley links.
The snaps of “Belle” (left), a child with a French bulldog (right), and an Edwardian picnic (below) are anonymous. I purchased them in Brooklyn sometime in the last half dozen years. I’m afraid I don’t remember where. I find it very calming to imagine attending a picnic with fruit and thermoses anchoring the tablecloth. In white tie, of course.
The medical student dancing with the skeleton (below) is my maternal grandfather. As you can see, a complicated man.
And this fellow (left) grew up to be my boyfriend. Note the placid, almost beatific smile. Contrast it with the eerie human eye just barely visible, in a shadowy way, inside the fake eye of the bunny creature. Note, too, the fluffy, imprisoning hands of the bunny creature.
Now, as to links. Snapshots—or, to call them by their fancy mass-noun, vernacular photography—are very well suited to the Internet. You can lose yourself for days looking through all the virtual shoeboxes. Luc Sante’s great blog, Pinakothek, often features found photos. Another blog, Swapatorium, has photos retrieved from flea markets and junk shops. A number of collectors have put their finds online, including Nicholas Osborn at Square America and John and Teenuh Foster at Accidental Mysteries. If you decide to start collecting yourself, there are images for sale at the Found Photo and at Project B.
A number of people have sent scans of their old photos to NYU’s Collective Visions, along with prose-poetical annotations (it doesn’t look as if it’s been updated recently, though). When the Getty ran a snapshot exhibit several years ago, they hosted a similar volunteer, communal snapshot gallery on their website. Polanoid pools the Polaroids made and collected by the dying company’s aficionados, though not all the images are snapshots. And then of course there’s Flickr. Almost every historical archive with images has some vernacular photography in it, but at the risk of seeming arbitrary I’ll single out the Charles Van Schaick collection in Wisconsin Historical Society, which has such treasures as this cake, and the Charles Weever Cushman photograph collection at Indiana University, the bequest of an amateur whose snaps sometimes call to mind the great color photos of the FSA/OWI held by the Library of Congress (which aren’t snapshots, properly speaking, at all).