We're Still in Love With Books

Brian Taylor

December 04, 2011

I spend a lot of time working with computers now, but much of my life is still defined by the long relationship I've maintained with books.

It's surprising how many academics who identify with the digital humanities also have ties to "the History of the Book," a field that has long been nurtured by seminars in great libraries. On the shelves of such scholars you may find the five magisterial volumes on The History of the Book in America, placed near Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. New media emerge, but they do not immediately replace old media.

Contrary to many futuristic projections—even from bibliophiles who, as a group, enjoy melancholy reveries—the recent technological revolution has only deepened the affection that many scholars have for books and libraries, and highlighted the need for the preservation, study, and cherishing of both.

I've been gathering books for as long as I can remember. But I became a self-conscious book collector only in graduate school, when I lived amid dozens of secondhand shops in Cambridge, Boston, and the wider orbit of New England. Some of those shops survive, but many were closing toward the end of the 90s, with the rise of the Internet. Like many book lovers, I lamented that change.

Nevertheless, the 90s were an exciting time to be a bibliophile. The appearance of online dealers and services such as and eBay suddenly made millions of books available. Instead of searching through obscure book barns on the back roads of New Hampshire, you could locate exactly the book you wanted and receive it in the mail within a week. Even while hundreds of classic texts were becoming available online, free of charge, I found that I was buying more books than ever before. Instead of randomly acquiring volumes that I happened to find, I was building comprehensive collections in multiple subject areas: No bookish desire went unfulfilled for long.

Many of the recent changes in scholarly life brought by technology are improvements, but I still miss the Dickensian atmosphere of those secondhand bookshops: crowded shelves, dim light, curmudgeonly owners, tobacco smells, sleeping cats, serendipitous finds, and rarities at astonishingly low prices. I'd carry them to the counter, warily, trying to look innocent.

I was in Boston last month and pleased to find that Brattle Books is still there on West Street just off the Common. It still has outdoor discount racks where you can find almost anything that isn't valuable enough to put on the inside shelves. I picked up a dozen beautifully-bound adventure stories for boys published in the era of Jack London and Theodore Roosevelt, including The Call of the Wild—bound in emerald-green cloth—and a star-spangled copy of With Dewey in Manila that looked like the printed counterpart to a march by John Philip Sousa. They were $5 each, and I can see them on a shelf right now with their literary companions from that peculiar historical moment.

Back in west Michigan, some opportunities do arise for discoveries of that kind. Last week I was among the first to arrive—in near darkness—at a college library's annual book sale. While the dealers electronically scanned the bar codes of newer books to see if any money remained to be wrung from them, I found The Works of Hogarth (1810) in two volumes—with dozens of fine engravings, including Gin Lane and The Rake's Progress—along with a nearly perfect copy of The History of Harvard College (1848), by Samuel Eliot, bound in rich, red leather, with a perfect map folded neatly in the back. I found several other books that I didn't know I wanted, including a battered copy of The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres (1773), containing numerous marginal drawings, annotations, and owner's signatures, including one from a former chair of my department who died decades ago.

One thick, gilded, and marbled book of sermons contained an inscription: "To my dear friend on his departure from Eton. Easter, 1847." Who were they, I wondered? What happened to them? How had that book traveled to this destination? All books are memento mori, but this was like an epitaph from Spoon River Anthology.

A librarian straightened the emptying shelves; I gestured to my stack of books and asked, "Are you sure?" She nodded gravely. I gave $24 in cash to a student working at the circulation desk.

Motivations for collecting and preserving books go beyond their easily digitized, printed contents. Books are valued for their physical qualities as works of art, their binding and typography. Every old book has a unique provenance and association. And then there is the look on the shelf of books from the same era brought together again, like a long-awaited family reunion in the afterlife. For collectors there are also the memories of great discoveries: Using one's expertise (not a handheld device) to recognize and appreciate treasures that others have neglected.

Even though I am embracing technology more and more each year, like many of my colleagues, I still try to cultivate those bookish sensibilities in my students. If I happen to be teaching Mosses From an Old Manse, I want them to handle the books as they first appeared in 1846, in chocolate brown with cream-colored pages, wide margins, and typography that transports us to Hawthorne's era much as the groovy fonts of psychedelic posters from the 60s send us to Woodstock.

So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means.

As I've written about before, the last decade has seen a steady flow of new beautifully illustrated and well-written volumes about the material pleasures of books and their continuing role in global history. I often learn about such volumes from the displays in bookstores, particularly one in a lovely little bookshop in the Newberry Library that I visit every November. Typically, those books about books are, most of all, a pleasure to look at; they are an affective experience, rather than a purely intellectual one. And that is how I am responding to them here.

In previous years, I somehow managed to overlook Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures (Abrams, 2007), by Anne C. Bromer and Julian I. Edison. It is, to my knowledge, the best illustrated work on the subject, with hundreds of photographs of books that are no taller than three inches. It begins with an image of the "Midget Library," containing 12 volumes in a little, glass-fronted gothic bookcase; it can be held in the palm of your hand. Hundreds of examples of miniature books follow, from medieval psalters to contemporary micro-masterpieces of the bookmaker's art from many cultures, culminating in a silicon chip imprinted with 180,000 words. It reminds me of the sculptures made from single strands of human hair on display at California's Museum of Jurassic Technology.

A more recent publication, Books: A Living History (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), by Martyn Lyons, provides an engaging, expert overview of its subject from cuneiform to the Kindle in a series of chronologically ordered and sometimes surprising topics such as "Books of Hours," "Forbidden Books," "The Rise of the Bookstore," "Japanese Manga," and "Enemies of the Book." The illustrations are beautiful, if often familiar, and the author maintains a global perspective, making the case for the continuing value of printed matter in the developing world.

Several recent publications focus on the place of books in interior design. My favorite of that sort remains At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries (Carol Southern Books, 1995), by Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes.

Still, three new entries have become indispensable companions if not rivals. Books Make a Home: Elegant Ideas for Storing and Displaying Books (Ryland Peters & Small, 2011), by Damian Thompson, considers books as decoration in various kinds of interior spaces. Books Do Furnish a Room (Merrell Holberton, 2009), by Leslie Geddes-Brown—my personal favorite of the three—includes both innovative and traditional methods for storing book collections. Some methods are minimalist; others belong in mansions; and a few are entirely achievable by the moderately skilled do-it-yourselfer. The books themselves—ancient rarities and the working libraries of scholars—are nicely featured rather than made into mere filler for shelves or color accents to go with the draperies. Only one image struck me as absurd: an inefficient stairway shelving system with a bosun's chair that you hoist with a chain. And Living With Books (Thames & Hudson, 2010), by Roland Beaufre and Dominique Dupuich, includes many gorgeous photographs of the libraries of designers, writers, journalists, and artists.

Cultivating such ruminations is an emerging series called Unpacking My Library (Yale), from which I examined Architects and Their Books (2009), edited by Jo Steffens. It includes the libraries of Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, and Toshiko Mori, among others. Not being an architect, the book did not appeal to me as much as the others I've mentioned, but I am nevertheless looking forward to the next installment, Writers and Their Books, which was scheduled for release in late November.

Two of the best books on that subject are Writers' Houses (Vendome, 2002), by Francesca Premoli-Droulers and Erica Lennard, and American Writers at Home (The Library of America and Vendome, 2004), by J.D. McClatchy and Lennard. For a more jaundiced view of the subject—without photographs—see A Skeptic's Guide to Writer's Houses (University of Pennsylvania, 2010), by Anne Trubek.

Many of these books suggest a powerful element of voyeurism in our interest in other people's libraries, particularly those of the famous and those who share our professions. I remember standing for a long time a few weeks ago in the recreated writing parlor of Marianne Moore in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, in Philadelphia. And I've never forgotten how, 12 years ago, as part of a job interview, I was a guest of a professor whose 19th-century farmhouse included an enormous addition, filled with sofas and chairs, lined with bookshelves, and accented by brightly painted Oaxacan carvings of animals. Such rooms are fascinatingly intimate and formal, like diaries written for posterity.

Sitting before my beloved iMac, watching the news online, responding to e-mail, surrounded by books—a stack of them near to hand—I can't help but wonder: How might my own library constitute a kind of intellectual and emotional autobiography, potentially open to the public gaze?

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. Many of his previous columns were published under a pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton. For other essays by Pannapacker on books and libraries, see "Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor," "Shelf Life," "Red Hot Library Lust," "Stacks' Appeal," and "My Own Private Library." The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.