Friday, August 28, 2009

What a Book Should Look Like

First year I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I did most of my Christmas shopping at Powell's Books, which is one of the largest bookstores in the country, if not the world. A city block these days, though it was a bit smaller then. If you are ever in Portland, Oregon, you owe it to yourself to go to Powell's. You can get a map at the door. You'll need it. You can wander -- and wonder -- around for days in a psychedelic book-fog ...

One of the presents I bought on general principles -- then decided to keep for myself -- was an illustrated version of Shakespeare's comedies. Two volumes in one, this was Knight's Pictorial Edition, The Works of William Shakespeare: Comedies, from P.F. Collier, New York, 1889.

This is what a book should look like. Seven-and-a-half, by ten-and-three-quarters, by two inches thick. The boards are leather-bound and scuffed after a hundred and twenty years. The edges of the pages are finished in what looks like gold leaf, and the title is impressed with something gold-colored that hasn't tarnished in all that time. 446 pp, lavishly illustrated with rich, grayscale engravings. The pictures on the play headings are small, and there are stand-alone illustrations throughout, each of which is covered by a sheet of onionskin to protect it. The print is biblically-small, but readable, and it contains fourteen plays, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, to The Tempest.

Thirty years ago, it wasn't a collector's item, and I paid five dollars for it. (It's been three decades, and gasoline that cost ninety-five cents is now going for three bucks, but selling PDFs for the same as I paid for this book seems almost like robbery, comparatively-speaking.)

Another aside: At a rummage/book sale ten years or so ago, I came across a leather-bound edition of The Glorious Koran, with side-by-side text in English and Arabic. Beautiful book, and another steal -- I think they wanted three dollars for it. I snatched it up and headed for the check-out. The man behind me in line looked at the book. Are you a follower of Islam? he asked. No, I said. He was Muslim, he said, and the way he looked at the book I held was so reverent that I knew he wanted it. I had a paperback version of the Koran at home, and this one wouldn't mean nearly as much to me as it would him, so I gave it to him. You should have seen his face light up. My good deed for that day.

Content and presentation are different things, of course, but in this Shakespeare book, you get both.

When somebody develops an e-reader that sails within a parsec of the experience of holding and reading this volume by ole Bill, then they will, by gawd, have made something really special.


James said...

I'll probably eventually have to go digital. I accept that. But the library was my home-away-from-home as I grew up. I loved wandering the aisles just to see what I might discover around the next corner. From the age of 12 on, my parents just took me to Haslam's Bookstore in St. Petersburg, FL and gave me $100 for my birthday. I don't think they quite understood why I would want to wander the cavernous, book-strewn store with $100 burning a hole in my pocket but they at least supported their somewhat strange son.
On finding neat things in garage sales - I was walking for exercise having injured my back kicking down a gate (long story) and a piece of framed calligraphy caught my eye. It looked old and a little dusty as I approached it and when I picked it up I found that it was a piece of original brushwork by Gogen "The Cat" Yamaguchi. They wanted $5 for it and I argued them down to $3. Lucky day.

J.D. Ray said...

Just spotted this. It's at least getting there:

J.D. Ray said...

Just spotted this. It's at least getting there.

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