In which books are protagonists

In which books are protagonists

A round-up of the less-noticed books about book titles this year has to begin with The Last Book. This is award-winning Amsterdam photographer Reinier Gerritsen’s book of black and white photographs of people reading in subway trains on their daily commute to work. He captures a variety of passengers completely absorbed in the act of reading their book. “The world — and the word — is in the process of becoming less and less dependent on paper,” observes the text of the book.

“Our reading habits, especially as they occur in public spaces, are subtly shifting each day. Gerritsen has taken up the current plethora of books and their readers on New York City’s subways as the proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine, an indicator of the still-robust nature of public readership, in the face of its ostensible decline. The work began for Gerritsen as a series of modest observations, and has turned into a series of unexpected, documentary portraits, set against a visual landscape of bestsellers, classics, romance novels, detective thrillers, bibles, biographies, and other printed books. Gerritsen depicts groups of individuals engrossed in the worlds they hold in their hands, bringing together a social portrait of readers. From the subtle interactions of passengers and facial expressions to the sociological clues of book titles, a complexly-layered narrative is informed by the mélange of New York City’s subway riders as they are transported both literally and figuratively, by the books in their hands.”

Roger Grenier was publisher and editor to many of France’s best modern authors, and in Palace of Books he offers aphoristic essays on his seasoned and old love for books. Translated from the French, it offers a multitude of accurate and wise observations on writing, reading and loving. Even relationships that we consider over or dead are not really gone from our lives, Grenier notes. Our feelings for those we care for don’t actually end.

“We continue in our imaginations to live with the dead and with those who have left us — loving them, hating them, breaking up and reconciling with them. We take up the story the day it ended.” Grenier cautions us against giving little thought to all the waiting we do in our lives — they are how most days are made up, he quips, and we should never “refuse to acknowledge the days without event.”

The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky is the story of Chimen Abramsky, “an extraordinary polymath and bibliophile who amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. For more than 50 years, Chimen and his wife, Miriam, hosted epic gatherings in their house of books that brought together many of the age’s greatest thinkers.”

Born in 1916 near Minsk, Chimen spent his early years in Moscow, immigrated to London, discovered the writings of Karl Marx, became involved in left-wing politics, and remained in England until his death in 2010. The world of Chimen Abramsky is the vanished world of the Jewish Leftist intellectual: scholar, activist, bibliophile, collector, and above all, a committed Marxist. His world, shared by so many activist-intellectuals of his time, continues to be so attractive and compelling also because it is the world of the complete idealist, another vanishing type.

Abramsky notes, “One after another, Chimen’s utopias were breaking down: Forced to abandon Communism, he had put his faith in a socialist form of Zionism. Watching Israel swing politically to the right, he feared losing that anchor too. His ‘Eretz Israel’, he was starting to see, would never be realised in a political community. It was, truly, a utopia, a nowhere land.” His family and his books — they sustained him until the end.

The last book here is perhaps the most intriguing one: Bibliotheca Fictiva by book dealer and scholar Arthur Freeman. This is an annotated collection of books and manuscripts related to literary forgery. William Butts, who reviewed it, wrote, “Bibliotheca Fictiva brings home that old epigram that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The same fastbuck criminals, twisted hoaxsters, disgruntled academics, deviant malcontents and other forgery perpetrators at work today were even harder at work in ancient times, the medieval era, the reformation, the renaissance, the age of enlightenment, the industrial era, and of course, into modern times. Only the motivation for forgery seems to have altered.”

This inventory of books and manuscripts of forgeries spans 24 centuries — from antiquity to the beginning of the 21st century. With 1,676 entries arranged by time period and region, including specific commentary on the forgers, their work, and the scholars who exposed them. An entertaining prefatory overview by Freeman surveys the entire field of literary forgery.

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