The groaning shelf, a case for books

the browsers ecstasy
Last Updated 29 May 2010, 11:40 IST

He gets the title from that Groucho Marx line: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.

Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”). It’s disappointing. I bought it eagerly expecting more tales about rare books but instead it is a straightforward (albeit a warm and witty) memoir about the 12 books that deeply marked him. Not my kind of book about books.

Let me turn instead to the year’s (perhaps the decade’s) most monumental and heavyweight book about books: The Oxford Companion to the Book edited by Michael Suarez and H R Woudhuysen. One thousand three hundred and twenty seven pages in two parts (and costing $ 249.95 even at a used Amazon rate), this is the first reference book about books.

The two volumes are divided into essays and I haven’t been able to afford it, of course, but I was lucky to have access to it at a university library. From previous OUP companion volumes, you can well imagine how wide ranging, definitive and deep (not to forget richly illustrated and diagrammed) this mother of all books about books must be.

Artists’ Books — that is, books designed by artists and printed by fine presses — are usually not widely available commercially in retail bookstores but one lovely exception this year is Richard Minsky’s The Art of American Book Covers, which is a must-own for anyone interested in book design. Over the years there have been several sumptuous book on cover design (Chip Kidd: Work Book One, Front Cover: Great Book Jackets and Cover Design, Penguin By Design) but none that looked only at early cover art, from 1875 to 1930. Here more than 100 colour bookplates showcase all kinds of artists’ book covers in several different styles: Decorative book binding, gold stamping, die work, artists monographs, and women book artists.

Minsky, one of the foremost artists and curators in the Book Arts environment, offers notes rich in bibliographical description. Writing on a early cover designed by Margaret Armstrong (we learn that Sarah Wyman Whitman was probably the first commissioned female book designer) of a Robert Browning book , Minsky notes: “Pink, brown, bright and matte gold stamping on olive green cloth with white cloth onlay. White stamping flaked notoriously before 1901. A cloth onlay enabled bright white to be used in the composition.” Minsky’s own book is sumptuously designed with red cloth and gold stamping.

Perhaps the most discussed book on books this year was Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future. When Darnton, cultural historian and founder of the Gutenberg project, made a case for digital books, it ratcheted up the debate over print and e-books. He wrote: “The Gutenberg galaxy will expand thanks to a new source of energy, the electronic book, which will act as a supplement to, not a substitute for, Gutenberg's great machinei.”

Another recent scholarly entry in the genre was Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West which also juxtaposed the old fashioned book with the ‘dematerialised book’. Grafton, best known as the author of The Footnote: A Curious History, notes in his new book that eBooks “will illuminate rather than eliminate the unique books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you… where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books.”  

For me, personally, the most rewarding book on books this year has been, A Reader on Reading, which collects Alberto Manguel’s most eclectic essays on reading. In a piece here he notes that on his bookshelves “shiny young Penguins sit happily side by side with severe-looking leather-bound patriarchs.” If you haven't read him before, this isn’t the book to begin with. His previous work, The Library at Night, my personal favourite among his books, is an excellent place to start. Manguel observes how the Internet has changed the library that contained everything to the library that contains anything. He values the sense of a library or collection with a defined space, a personal focus. What you exclude from a library is just as important as what you include!

A popular and widely reviewed book about books this year is This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. She sweeps away the stereotype of the grouchy bespectacled librarian and replaces it with vibrant portraits of hip, modern librarians doing cutting edge work. Young librarians who see themselves as guardians of the book — doesn’t matter which format, analog or digital. They are engaged, she writes, “in activist and visionary forms of library work.” Some are extreme virtual librarians, some are street librarians(!), some are blue haired radicals or are tattoed or write obscene and funny blogs. We need librarians now ever more than before, concludes the book, in order to connect us (or find for us) what we are looking for in an expanding labyrinthine of information, knowledge and ideas.   

 As a last minute entry I submit my own humble little book, The Groaning Shelf & Other Instances of Book Love (which should be out from Hachette in a couple of months) as perhaps the first full-fledged Indian book about books.    

(Published 29 May 2010, 11:23 IST)

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