A year in books about books

Second Take

The year in books about books has been rich, throwing up a variety of titles with bookish themes. 

Since this is ‘Shakespeare season’, I’ll start with Collecting Shakespeare, the story of how a millionaire couple put together a formidable Shakespeare collection. Stephen H Grant narrates the story of the Folgers, Henry and Emily, a rich couple bitten by the collection bug. They were married in 1885 and right from the start began acquiring a range of Shakespeare material; while other rich couples bought art or antiques, Henry and Emily put all their money into buying Shakespeare folios. 

When they had finished collecting everything they wanted to, they decided it was time to offer them to the public. At once several universities came forward to house them but the Folgers had a different plan — The Folger Shakespeare Library. They quietly acquired some property near the Library of Congress and began building an elegant library to display their celebrated collection. The library now houses, notes the book, “82 First Folios, 275,000 books, and 60,000 manuscripts.” 

Two other recent literary books on books feature Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. Sylvia Plath: Drawings is obviously an unusual title for a book about a poet and yet it is only now, through this book, that we learn how much of her time Plath devoted to drawing and sketching. Her time at Cambridge was often spent making drawings of everything she saw around her. The book displays her pen and ink illustrations, drawings of churches, scenes from countries she visited in Europe, several of Cambridge and even a portrait of Ted Hughes. The drawings are coupled with what she noted down in her diaries and letters. And there’s a wonderfully illuminating introduction by Frieda Hughes, her daughter. 

The Gorgeous Nothings is a fetchingly designed book: a full-colour facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts. But manuscripts in her case turn out to be envelopes on which she often scribbled her poems. Artist Jen Bervin and Dickinson scholar Marta L Werner present here for the first time all 52 of those scribbled covers, front and back, allowing us a passage into her process of writing.

In considering the book as object, we have Book Art Object 2, the follow up to Book Art Object. What is Book Art Object? It is “a record of the proceedings and exhibitors attending the first biennial CODEX International Book Fair and Symposium titled The Fate of the Art.” 

The events showcased contemporary fine press artist books and fine art editions produced by many of the world’s most esteemed printers, book artists and artisans. Book Art Object 2, recording the third biennial of the Codex Fair, continues this ambitious and diverse survey of the book arts in this sequel. It showcases “300 projects by 140 artists/printers” and includes some of the papers presented at the conference.

The secret history of something or the other has become a popular series and the newest in that busy genre is Type: The Secret History of Letters by Simon Loxley. The jacket blurb asks, “if you’ve ever wondered exactly what a Zapf is, or if Baskerville has anything to do with Sherlock Holmes, ‘Type’ is the answer to these questions and more. This is the story of the passions and obsessions of the creators of type... the stories behind the letters, giving readers a cultural history unlike any other.” In a similar vein is Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, which takes you deep into the secret history of punctuation! (You didn’t think there was one, did you?) 

The author, Keith Houston, investigates “the asterisk (*) and dagger (†) — which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible — or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet.” The author of the bestselling Just My Type, Simon Garfield, has a new book out: To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. 

Of course, you can guess what this one’s going to be about: an ode to pen and paper letter writing. The jacket blurb notes, “The recent decline in letter writing marks a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between BC and AD, but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not.” 

There have been books prior to this on the lost art of letter writing etc, and so Garfield explores the history of epistolary novels and how letters between characters have become a genre on their own. From 84, Charing Cross Road to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 

There have also been several books about the history of libraries but here is one again with a small difference: The Library: A World History looks at the architecture of the world’s famous libraries. Well, not just the most well known, but those whose very buildings seems to have an interesting character, made vivid here by an array of photographs.

Notes the jacket blurb: “architectural historian James Campbell and photographer Will Pryce traveled the globe together, visiting and documenting over eighty libraries that exemplify the many different approaches to thinking about and designing libraries.
 The result of their travels is one of the first books to tell the story of library architecture around the world... Campbell’s authoritative yet readable text recounts the history of these libraries, while Pryce’s stunning photographs vividly capture each building’s structure and atmosphere.”

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