• John Diamond-Nigh

In praise of #books

A book–rare, hard-covered, tip-top shape by an author you love. And signed. Slim, infinitely delicious, and yes, of course, expensive. Or maybe a lucky find, or a gift.

Let’s imagine one–a rare, #Hogarth Press edition of T.S. Eliot’s #Ash Wednesday. Dust jacket as raw as wallpaper. Signed by the old high priest himself. Nearly impossible to find at any price, it glows with that charred aura that old books have.

Lynne and I had a small bookstore in a large back room of our home in New York. Art books, experimental literature and assorted beauties outside those categories but inside the general penumbra of the Humanities. Through our literary journal, we knew quite a few American, French and Spanish writers. Books poured in from them. It was as much our own book treasury as it was a bookstore. One marvel in particular was A Tower for Don Juan, a book sculpture made for us by the renowned French novelist #Michel Butor. That was never for sale.

A book is no less an incarnation of mortal and immortal than we are. A first edition, especially a rare, sometimes tawdry, edition made when no one knew if the book would ever catch fire, stands at that marvelous fusion of a potentially undying text (Faulkner, Verlaine) and its tangible embodiment, so specific to time and place. There is only one edition that takes its place at the birth of any published text. A natal edition. What a treasure!

Folks wandered up the path through our primeval pine forest, knocked and came in. Sat down. Talked for a while. Bought, perhaps, an unusual Robert Frost. Snow fell outside in languid shawls from the boughs of the trees. Lynne came in from the kitchen bearing hot chocolate for all. We talked, hushèdly, about books, passing them around, touching their paper like the burnt skirts of a fragile shroud.

The venture, never more than a weekend avocation, existed in part as a pretext to go hunting. Book-thick Ithaca was not far away. We often went to Toronto. Paris each spring. At the annual book sale of the University of Toronto I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Opening it up I was dumbfounded to discover not just the signature of #Robertson Davies, but his annotations throughout. Two dollars. Lynne had just written a book about Robertson Davies.

Another Toronto prize was a book, cheerfully given to us by a dear friend, that had been half-eaten by her parrot, beak-hacked into an abstract artifact worthy of the company of any artist’s book. Here, take his food before he finishes it completely.

Books need rooms for the obvious reason of their fragile fallibility, but also in the way that holy things need chapels or crypts. We too need sanctuaries, fragile books that we are, our days bound into successive suspense. How sublime when those two needs marry in a library, modern or old, but as beautiful as our own libidinous longing for books (and theirs for us). The Belgian architect, #Vincent Van Duysen, speaking more generally about rooms, praises their capacity to make us think about beauty, strangeness, originality, décor, proportion, furniture, art, and the multivalent connections therein that define all memorable rooms.

For a year I carried two books with me in my backpack all over Europe. One was an anthology of British poets (wish I still had it) and the other was Carl Jung's #Memories, Dreams and Reflections. I do still have that, and in the flyleaf is a hand-drawn map, inscribed there by the kid in Zurich who gave it to me, directing me to a remote cave in Greece where I lived that winter like an anchorite, like Robinson Crusoe, reading my tattering volume over and over again as my fire burned and the Mediterranean lapped below me like the silence of witches.

One accidental book; one cave-encompassed holiness good for a lifetime.

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