Column Editor: John D. Riley (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books) https://www.facebook.com/Gabriel-Books-121098841238921/
The Book: An Homage author Burkhard Spinnen; illustrated by Line Hoven. (ISBN: 978-1-56792-607-1, David R. Godine, Publisher, 2018. $19.95 Hardcover, 140 pgs.)
This short book reads both like a diary and a checklist of every aspect of a bibliophile’s career. Running a mere one hundred and forty pages it still manages to contain forty-two separate essays under five headings. If you are a book collector you will find a kindred spirit here who explores such topics as “The Beautiful Book,” “The Signed Book” and “The Annotated Book,” among many others. Bernard Spinnen is a German author and book collector who can tell the history of the book from many different angles. He has been a collector for over forty years and an author for the last twenty years and so he has seen all of the upheaval in publishing, reading, and collecting. Through it all he has remained a lover of the printed word and a champion of all types of book arts. The black and white illustrations by Line Hoven perfectly capture this nostalgic, but impassioned calling.
Bernard Spinnen’s work might be considered a bit idiosyncratic, based on his fixation on printed books, but any of us who collect and love books will find his subjects to be quite familiar. For example, his meditation on “New Books” explores our delight at opening a freshly printed book, however old the text may be. We all enjoy opening a well printed new book and finding that it stays open where we leave off. The smell of new books can be a pleasure as well, but many new books simply give off an industrial strength manufactured aroma, or rather, no smell at all.
Of course his next chapter deals with old books as a counterweight to new books. He first notes that old books have probably had numerous previous readers and that they contain reflections of those readers in signatures, dedications, and other handwriting. At this point a book is no longer a consumer item. Old books have survived because someone wanted to keep them, Old books seem to preserve a secret. And they smell better.
Next Spinnen considers the “Damaged Book” and the “Annotated Book.” He notes how we still enjoy a text even if it is found in a damaged book. Coffee stains, red wine spillage, cigarette burns, even torn pages cannot hinder our enjoyment of a hard to find text. In the case of a Beat writer’s publication it might even add a certain connection with the era. Annotations are generally an annoying if not completely distracting part of reading older books. Some annotations in pencil can be ignored, but the florid ink or highlighter generally ruin a text. There are exceptions, where a particularly astute reader has added useful notes where we can sometimes learn more about the text at hand. Some textual scholars are even exploring marginal annotations as another form of literary history and many academic libraries are having their holdings scoured by diligent scholars looking for valuable marginalia.
Another chapter where the author shares an experience we can all recall is his meditation on his “Favorite Book.” By favorite he distinguishes between text and book, because one might enjoy a work based solely on its content, but a favorite book might require more of an emphasis on the container. The ideal book is when text and container come together in one memorable experience. Spinnen recounts how he treasures some books in spite of their poor bindings or awkward illustrations based solely on the fact that this one particular edition was the first that he encountered and thus became his “favorite.” Such is the influence of early reading on all of us.
In a similar vein the author emphasizes the importance of choosing the “Right Book” over the “Wrong Book.” Spinnen gauges that the upper limit both of a personal library and the number of books one can read in a lifetime is somewhere around five thousand volumes. If you read one book a week for sixty years you will only reach three thousand books read. Thoreau gave sage advice when he counseled us to read only the best books first, since we don’t have time to read everything. Thus we come to the “Wrong Book,” one that was received as a gift or picked quickly before a trip. Spinnen notes that these can actually be valuable additions to our reading regimen, as they take us out of our well-trodden path of chosen experiences. His best advice for ridding oneself of a truly wrong book: give it away.
Another dichotomy that the author explores is that between the “Expensive Book” and the “Cheap Book.” With the rise of the Internet he notes how once expensive books have become commonly available and even cheap. However much this development aids the poor bibliophile, it concerns him that books are thus losing their special aura and that reading itself might become too homogenized.
For the author the “Discovered Book” is the ultimate delight. He spends days on end scouring bookshops and flea markets and is never so happy as when he discovers a book he had no idea existed. He compares that to the simply utilitarian search on the Internet for specific books. In the case of the discovered book he wonders: “Had I chosen these books? Or had they chosen me?”
The “Gifted Book” is next on Spinnen’s list. He notes how books are ideally suited for gifting and that bookshops and maybe even the book trade would cease to exist without people buying books as gifts. Books are the ideal gift, as one can tailor one’s choice specifically to the recipient’s interests. And if things go awry, books are the easiest of gifts to exchange.
“Signed Books” come freighted with a load of metaphysics. An author’s signature gives one immediate contact with their personality. Books nowadays are industrial products and the signature of an author offers the illusion of “uniqueness.” Unfortunately, the Internet has revealed just how many copies of first editions and even signed first editions there are in the world. Prices have plummeted for all except the most rare books.
Spinnen finally explores the many ways of collecting books. He reminisces about his first visits to his town library and how certain books were forbidden to children. Of course he could hardly wait to grow up and see what had been denied him. He also extolls the private library and says that a private library can be of any size. What counts is its value to its owner.
“Collecting means giving order to something, inasmuch as one brings together those things that one feels belong together. And as long as one doesn’t commit theft or murder in the process, that isn’t the worst way to employ one’s mind or money.”
If you are a book lover, collector, or both, this book will be an ideal checklist for comparing your book experiences with another devoted bibliophile. This is a book to keep on the nightstand and relish one little chapter after another.