BOOK COLLECTING AS A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
By Fred White
“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel. . . . Every book, every volume you see
here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and
dreamed with it.”
–Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
Because of the way they illuminate the human condition, books must continue to have a physical presence in our culture. Just as cathedrals and mosques and synagogues deepen our spiritual experiences, speaking of cathedrals, let me show you what it means to be a cathedral architect in the twelfth century, brutalized by rivals, struggling against hunger and homelessness because of unemployment, yet eventually succeeding in becoming a master builder. What have I shown you? Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Even a paperback edition is worthy of display; but a pristine first edition, signed by Follett in his characteristic calligraphic script, becomes an object of veneration.
Still, most people find it hard to understand why anyone would dish out hard-earned cash for books they would find too venerable or valuable to read. In most cases, they do read them, but very gently (I’ll say more about that in a moment), or they’ll purchase inexpensive “reading copies.” Why collect books, they ask, when one can have a spiritual experience just from reading them?
Here’s why: owning fine copies of the books that have stirred your emotions, and that may have changed your understanding of the world, amplifies their spiritual presence They are permanent aesthetic reminders of that reading experience. They beckon you to reread them (in whole or in part) and extract even more spiritual manna from them. Collectors invest in pricey editions of the books they love as a way of enshrining them.
And then there is provenance. Many people enjoy collecting books with a notable history of ownership. Even a common book that is not a first printing, even a book that is in less than fine condition, will prove valuable if it had once belonged to a famous or notorious person—or if your copy of the book was inscribed to you by the author. Books, like baseballs can have a memorable association. No one has a problem understanding why a baseball slammed into the stadium (and into your clutches) by Mickey Mantle would be far more valuable (if subsequently signed and dated by Mantle) than the same regulation baseball you purchased at the sporting goods store. Likewise, my copy of Lust for Life: A Novel of Vincent Van Gogh, inscribed to me in 1971 by Irving Stone, who shook my hand and scribbled on the front endpaper . . .
My fellow writer—
Good luck with the stories!
. . . is a precious possession even though it is a later printing and the dust jacket is chipped and faded. “My fellow writer!”—such a gracious thing for a distinguished historical novelist to say to a rookie. That makes it my Mickey Mantle baseball.
My wife Terry and I own several other books of such caliber—like our inscribed copy of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Three Tall Women, and Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America. Here’s the story—and the fact that we can tell stories about our association copies is what makes them fun to collect: In July 2004 we traveled to Valdez, Alaska to participate in the Twelfth Annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference, sponsored by Prince Edward Sound Community College and hosted by Edward Albee, the conference’s co-founder. I had submitted a short play that had been accepted for a workshop there. Each year several all-star playwrights and actors joined Albee at that Alaska conference to conduct master classes. Terry, who acted in a few plays during her undergraduate years at Augustana College, signed up for a class with Marian Seldes, a Tony Award winning actress (in Albee’s A Delicate Balance). I signed up for a playwriting class with Romulus Linney (whose daughter, Laura, may be better known than he, but who had written a powerful drama about Hermann Goering, titled simply “2” (i.e., the #2 Nazi after Hitler)—a copy of which Mr. Linney signed for me. You see my point: A single book can evoke such fond memories in an instant.
As for Mr. Albee, Terry and I were delighted to discover that the legendary playwright was staying at our B & B. For an entire week, we enjoyed breakfast together. All I need to do is read Albee’s inscription in my copy of Three Tall Women, and it all comes back.
For Terry and Fred
With good thoughts
Paradoxical as it seems, we can enhance our spiritual experiences by enhancing our material ones. The objects we treasure heighten our connectedness not only to the world but to our emotional involvement with the world. I tend not to distinguish between the material, the aesthetic, and the spiritual. A beautiful work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, novel, poem, musical composition, or Grecian urn, stirs our emotions; but it does more than that. It enlarges our capacity for emotion, which for me is another way of describing a spiritual experience. Most of the books I own perform this minor miracle in their own ways. The books that mean the most to me inspire me to pick up a pen and start writing, or awaken a capacity for perception or feeling I never realized I possessed, and suddenly need to share with the world. I want to own such books—to admire them, of course; but also to dip into them on the spur of the moment or simply marvel at the way a particular book’s assemblage of words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters magically transforms reality.
On a more pragmatic level, book collecting is a fascinating way to acquire in-depth knowledge about a specialized area of literature. While there’s nothing wrong with collecting indiscriminately—maybe one just enjoys owning books that strike one’s fancy for inexplicable reasons—it’s even more satisfying to specialize, to build around a single author, literary movement, historical period, or theme. Do you enjoy reading about favorite cities you’ve visited or lived in? You may enjoy collecting books about the history and lore of that city; or books by writers who have lived in your home town or region.* Are you fond of butterflies? You can assemble a fascinating collection of books about butterflies and moths (or we can use the fancier term Lepidoptera). My reference to this theme is not exactly out of the blue—pun intended, as you’ll see. While working on this essay I received a publicity e-mail from my favorite
antiquarian book website, Abebooks.com: “25 Beautiful Butterfly Books,” the heading announced. “This time around we’re highlighting the majesty of the butterfly. And not forgetting moths and silkworms and their kin, we’ve expanded to include the whole order of Lepidoptera.”
Among the books linked to the message were W.S. Colman’s British Butterflies (1897); W.F. Kirby’s European Butterflies and Moths; Floyd Burton Bralliar’s Knowing Insects through Stories (1918)—books with gorgeous cover art, books I’d never heard of before. I suddenly feel inspired to collect butterfly books—in fact, Terry and I already own a copy of Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates’s story of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s passion for lepidoptery, Nabokov’s Blues:
The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius (1999). Before he wrote Lolita, Nabokov served as curator at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1945 while at Harvard, published his study of “Blues”—diverse butterfly species inhabiting South America. In a poem that prefaces our edition of the book, Nabokov explains that he “became / godfather to an insect and its first / describer—and I want no other fame.”
One of my specialized collections is that of vintage works of astronomy; another includes books by and about Albert Einstein and John Muir. My crème de la crème collection, however, is my Dickinsonania, which includes most of the scholarly monographs (several of them signed); biographies, bibliographies (descriptive and analytic), including a bibliography of the textbooks Emily Dickinson used at Amherst Academy and at Mt. Holyoke Seminary for Women; selections of her poems for children; both variorum editions of her complete poems (Thomas Johnson’s in 1955; R. W. Franklin’s in 1998); the 3-volume Letters, edited by Johnson and Ward; Franklin’s two-volume Manuscript Books (holograph copies of her fascicle poems, restored to their original fascicle arrangements); and even novels and plays about the poet.
My most prized possession in this collection is The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson, a 1924 biography by the poet’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi and inscribed by her. Every time I retrieve this book I realize that it was held by the woman who, as a child, used to visit her Aunt Emily and share secrets with the woman who would become the greatest woman poet in American literature.Once, Emily brought her up to her room, shut the door, locked it, showed her the key, and said, “This, Mattie, is freedom.”
My Dickinson collection exemplifies the inseparability of the pragmatic with the spiritual (and, yes, the irrational). Without these books at my fingertips, it would have taken me five times longer than it did to complete my bibliographic study of the poet’s critical reception during the past half century, Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960 (Camden House, 2008), or for that matter my several other shorter studies of Dickinson.
If you’re not already a scholar, building a specialized collection can turn you into one. As you acquire, say, all the biographies of Albert Einstein, you will be both delighted and disturbed by the different lenses through which a life can be viewed . . . and interpreted. Like history itself, biography (including autobiography) is creatively shaped out of the extant primary-source documents (letters, diaries, and such), which can be interpreted countless numbers of ways. One biographer will consider a fact of major significance while another biographer will ignore it altogether. There simply cannot ever be a “definitive” biography as some of the blurbs promise—and that’s a good thing, once you realize that biography, history, nonfiction, no less than fiction, is subjective, a feat of creative imagining.
Many book lovers (I among them) enjoy collecting special-edition fine-quality editions such as those produced by the Folio Society, Easton Press, Oak Knoll Press, the Heritage Press, and the like. They’re usually slipcased, which collectors relish because they offer optimal protection for the book. At least that is the rational reason. It might also have something to do with the swishing sound the book will make when it is slid out. . . .or the solidity of the casing, which assures me that it will keep the book secure. Give me a moment while I fetch Angie Debo’s A History of the Indians of the United States, originally published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1970, reissued in 2003 by the Folio Society. I slip it from its slate-gray case: what a stunning image on the full-buckram front cover: an Edward Curtis sepia-toned photograph of a warrior on horseback, circa 1909, comprising the middle panel. The Palatino text is printed on Buhl Wove paper . . . maroon pastedowns front and back. And here is my Heritage Press edition of Sonnets of Petrarch, with illustrations by Aldo Salvatori. This great fourteenth century poet’s sonnets to his beloved Laura are presented in both the original Italian and English translation. It was Terry who presented me with this lovely gift (she’d found it at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon) on the day I proposed to her during our excursion along the Columbia River Gorge.
Yes, these books are costly, but the aesthetic and spiritual rewards are ongoing. I am hoping soon to afford the Chester River Press twin folio edition, in black Dutch cloth with dust jackets and slipcases, of Alexander Pope’s monumental verse translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey—a translation that Samuel Johnson hailed as “A performance which no age or nation could hope to equal.” At $350 per set, it may be a while before I can add it to my collection, but once I have it, I will undoubtedly experience the dual vibrato of creative power transcending the ages of both Homer and Pope.
For book collectors “collecting” books means to care for them. As with living creatures, books need to be cared for in different ways. Terry and I keep our “blue chip books,” as we like to call them, in separate bookcases as far removed from light as possible. If you’re serious about collecting, this is rule number one: keep books out of sunlight. Even indirect sunlight can be harmful over an extended period. First to fade, of course, is the dust-jacket’s spine, especially if it’s yellow or orange. Some colors will turn a different color. Blue may turn greenish, for example. I have caused many a pristine dust jacket to fade by not shielding it from sunlight. Long exposure to light also causes the pages to become brittle—“tanned”—around the edges. Now it’s easy to become obsessive about this. No sense building a library and having to keep it in complete darkness. Use common sense: books you expect to keep as collectibles keep out of sunlight. If a book wins a major prize and your copy is a first edition in fine condition, add it to the collectibles. If the spine is of a light-sensitive color, turn the book around so that the spine faces the back of the bookcase.
Preventing the soiling or marring of valuable books is the biggest challenge. Books, even collectibles, are meant to be read! It takes a little practice, but it is not difficult to read a book without damaging or smudging it in any way. First, make sure your hands are clean and dry. If you own rare or fragile books, it would be wise to wear cotton gloves, as skin oils can damage very old book paper. When removing a book from the shelf, clasp the middle of the spine, not the top. While reading, cradle the book in the cusp of one hand. Keep the opened book a few degrees above horizontal or else the spine may split or become distended (“cocked” is how booksellers describe it). As for the dust jacket, protect it with a mylar cover, known in the trade as a “Brodart,” named for the company that manufactures them. Terry and I purchase them in institutional quantities. The clear plastic will prevent not only soiling but creasing and tearing, especially along the jacket flaps. They won’t protect the books from sunlight, however.
Another concern, especially in high-humidity climates, is moisture damage. If you’re a collector who lives in the South, you’ll want to invest in a dehumidifier. And obviously, you’re not going read your signed first printing of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See in the bathtub.
Serious collectors also think carefully about the way they arrange their books on the shelves. No matter how much space you have for your library, it is not enough. That’s a law of the universe. But don’t despair. I’ve discovered several creative ways of optimizing shelf space: First, don’t overstuff a shelf so that the books can’t easily be slipped out (and if they’re Brodarted, they’ll stick like glue). Better to stack some of them horizontally, especially if they’re paperbacks. Once again, consider the undignified closet shelves. Hey, it’s better to put your sweatshirts and jeans on the floor than your books! If your bookcases are deep enough, try double-shelving. Refrain from over-stacking the top shelf, especially if you live in places where terra isn’t so firma, like the San Francisco Bay Area, where Terry and I lived until recently.
One more suggestion: take loving care of your books but don’t treat them like Laura’s glass menagerie in Tennessee Williams’s play. Coddle your books. Care for them. Show them off to friends and family (an opportunity here to share fascinating stories about a book or two, such as its provenance, the reasons for its scarcity, its importance it has had in your own life—enough, mind you, to stir up enough fascination to propagate the collecting bug). But most importantly, read these books, don’t just flaunt them or use them for decorative purposes.
We must do all we can to keep the culture of the book alive and healthy. If, like me, you are troubled by the disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores, by the proliferation of e-books, by the growing number of young people—even college students; even English majors, for heaven’s sake—who seldom read books aside from their assigned texts, let alone treasure books, then we must all become crusaders for the physical book, reminding people of their spiritual and aesthetic richness, and of course their cultural legacy—the power of the written word to embrace and enhance the human condition.
* See B.J. Welborn, Traveling Literary America: A Complete Guide to Literary Landmarks (Jefferson
Press, 2005), for information about writers and the geographical regions they are associated with.
About the Author:
Fred White’s essays have appeared most recently in Gemini, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Southwest Review. He lives near Sacramento, CA.