“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” — Neil Gaiman
The Sac & Fox people inducted our old friend Seamus Tierney into their number, but I can’t recall his new name. If I were admitted to the tribe — probably with purification rites involving sweatlodges, smoldering herbs, and eagle feathers — and allowed to choose my name, it would be Sleeps-with-Books. My bed is peppered with them, at least two or three at a time; mysteries, histories, sudoku; rarely best-sellers. But always within easy reach for the insomniac and early-awakener that I am.
In an HDTV home renovation episode last season, the single parent and her daughter dismissed each candidate house: “There just aren’t enough shelves. I’ve got nearly a hundred books, you know!” Really? I have twice that number stacked where the nightstand used to be; actually I got rid of extraneous furniture to accommodate more books. Truth be told, there isn’t a room in the house without them. We’re at the point of adding an official exclusive Library Wing or using the Holtzman Effect to fold space. It’s premature to invoke Borges’s “Library of Babel” but you get the point.
In a recent New Republic article, William Giraldi makes a case for the physicality of books, so well that my thoughts are hardly worth note. Yesterday afternoon, for example, a book surfaced that I hadn’t read in forty years. Indeed, it’s from the core of my collection, the very heart of my hoard; one of the first twenty or thirty books I owned: Lewis Garrard’s rite-of-passage narrative Wah-to-Yah and the Taos Trail, the experience of a seventeen-year-old, published in 1850 when he was twenty-one. It came to me from Hamish Brookes, proprietor of Shelf Life, Agincourt’s own antiquarian bookstore until his death in 1959.
I had met Mr Brookes when I was fourteen and became a frequent visitor to his second-floor shop above Vandervort’s Bakery; but the baked goods below held no fascination, compared to what there was above. Too young for the familiarity of “Hamish,” Mr Brookes was my mentor and guide to the empire of print on paper. From him I learned the rudiments of type fonts, em- and en-dashes, majuscules and ligatures; of letterpress printing on good paper; of signatures and spines. Libraries and archives across the Midwest sent their damaged volumes to him for repair. I observed some of those projects and was allowed to help with humbler pieces, but all were treated worthily. When he died in 1959, Wah-to-Yah was bequeathed to me with a handwritten note still folded between its pages. It remains there today.
Lewis Garrard printed so few copies of Wah-to-Yah in 1850 that bookmen Edwin and Robert Grabhorn reprinted it in 1935, a handsome limited edition with three- and four-color woodcuts by Mallette Dean on the title page and above each chapter head — twenty-six of them. The simple cloth-and-paper binding yesterday morning was comfortably balanced in my right hand, while I turned the pages with my left, enjoying the paper’s texture, tooth and weight. Flecked with something like Japanese mulberry, but thicker, the paper held letterpress and woodblock impressions these eighty years. The font may be Cheltenham — memory has faded since the 1950s — but it just encourages me to find a specimen book and reacquaint myself with the simple majesty of type; the coming and going of serifs, like the changing height of ladies’ hem lines. [Could there be a kinky correlation?]
How much of this, I wonder, translates to the screen of a Kindle, a Nook, or their ilk?
PS: Thanks to French printmaker Erik Desmazières for his conception of Borges’ Babel.