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October 14, 2014 | by

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An illustration from Bundesbuch von Magenau (Book of the Covenant of Magenau), 1790.

One of the many things that dates my childhood firmly to the eighties and early nineties is the ubiquity of large reference books in it. Reference books, big ones, figure in most of my memories; I guess they were easy to find at tag sales. At any given moment, you could find me poring over The Great TV Sitcom Book, The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies, Best Movie Quotes, or The Big Broadway Fake Book, which is in fact probably still in use for auditions, since it contains only sheet music. (I read this only in moments of desperation.) However, it should be said that lines were drawn: someone once gave my family one of those dedicated Great American Bathroom Books, and my mother found it disgusting and threw it away immediately.

For a few years, this sort of tome—eighties excess between two covers—must have had imprints in every major publishing house of the era. There was a distinctive look to the volumes, which were probably intended as gifts or coffee-table items, but had their own low shelf at our house. Monumental title adjectives—great, big, ultimate, definitive—were desirable. The font had to be assertive. It was also a good idea to have lots of the content listed on the jacket, a taste of the great knowledge contained therein. Obviously they had to be physically large, as unwieldy as possible—although I carried them from room to room. It wasn’t just me, either. My friends liked them, too, as I remember, but this may be a comment on the quality of entertainment on offer at my playdates. Read More »

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Reunion

October 6, 2014 | by

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From a foreign edition of Reunion.

Glass half full: whatever the travails of the publishing industry, we live in a wonderful era for reissues. Think about it! All of Barbara Pym and Barbara Comyns are in print! Muriel Spark is having a moment! You want A Girl in Winter or Maiden Voyage or Sigrid Undset’s Jenny? You can have any of them within a week. Several of my new favorite books—In Love, Climates, After Claude—were introduced to me in recent editions. And people discuss Stoner and Speedboat as if they’re the latest must-reads.

Much of this is because of the hard work and great curation of publishers such as New York Review Classics, Persephone, Penguin, New Directions, and Lizzie Skurnick Books—to name only a few—but the readership is heartening, too. We want good books, but more than that, we want treasure. And the problem is, without library stacks and used bookstores, it’s increasingly difficult to stumble upon anything on our own. We depend on these publishers, and we depend on friends.

For all its chaos, the Internet does not make random book discovery as easy, I don’t think. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, altogether. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books, but I’m not what I would consider well read; there are too many gaps in my reading, it’s too scattershot, and too much of it has been bad. There were a lot of third-rate Victorian novels in the school library, or midseventies expository feminist novels from dollar carts, or memoirs by C-list celebrities. If I’d been shopping with intention—or, indeed, had had to pay shipping—I don’t think this would be as true. But for every random piece of pulp or strange book I’ve picked up on a stoop or at a thrift shop—okay, for every ten—there has been something worthwhile. I love the shelf of NYRB Classics in my local bookstore, but there’s less an element of discovery involved; you know what you buy will be worth reading.

I was talking online last night with some friends about what the next big new-old book would be; I joked that I had a hundred dollars on May Sarton. (I was only half joking.) I got several great recommendations out of the exchange, and I had the usual good feeling in the knowledge that there are tens of thousands of wonderful books we’ll never get to read, and thousands that could be potentially life changing, or at least life affirming. Read More »

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Cover Art

August 29, 2014 | by

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Looking at this pretty slideshow of circa-1900 book covers, one is struck by a couple of things. First, the beauty and elegance of the design. And, second, the fact that the titles are all unfamiliar. Of course, beautiful, striking covers are produced every day: talented art departments work hard to accommodate an ever-changing market and far more cooks (so to speak) than designers of old ever had to please. One imagines in the old days, the author would take his Art-Nouveau swags and like it; agents rarely figured in the picture, and if you’d envisioned, say, a pine rather than a stylized laurel tree on your novel—well, forget it.

It’s also a change in tastes, or of standards; like so many old buildings, whose standard-issue marble work and penny tiling now seem like models of beauty and lost workmanship, these ornate covers were the rule, not the exception. If comedy equals tragedy plus time, well, that sort of works for beauty, too. Maybe not the tragedy part. As to the titles’ relative obscurity? That's also modern hindsight. And who knows what hopes the publishers had for The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Cave Man? One thing’s for sure: these were not disposable objects.

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Charmed Objects

August 25, 2014 | by

Phantom-Shelf

An example of a Phantom Shelf. Credit: EM Photography

People talk about a “Keeper Shelf” for those books they love more than any others. Those which, I suppose, are worth owning in this time when owning a physical book means something more than it once did. (Or, as much as it once did.) For my money, though, there is no better proof of love for a title than not owning it—that is to say, having given it away. Call it the Phantom Shelf.

When my coffers are in a particularly robust state, I will sometimes indulge in the extravagance of replenishing those favorite books I am most inclined to give away. It is always the same few—titles that I need to share with someone like-minded, right now!—and by the same token, those which I always miss when they are gone. Read More »

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Future Library

June 26, 2014 | by

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© Katie Paterson; commissioned by Bjorvika Utvikling and produced by Situations

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© Katie Paterson

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© Giorgia Polizzi

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© Katie Paterson

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© Katie Paterson

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Photo © MJC

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© Giorgia Polizzi

Right now, one thousand new trees are growing about twenty minutes outside Oslo. In the city’s new library, a window from a quiet room on the fifth floor faces out onto the nascent forest, which you can see across the harbor. These—those trees, this room—are the basic components of the Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library, a century-long project that contemplates the full scale of the publishing process, with its many tangibles and intangibles:

It will be 100 years before the trees are cut down to provide the paper for an anthology of books—a Future Library for the city of Oslo—read for the first time in 2114 … Every year from 2014 to 2114, a writer will be commissioned to contribute a new text to a growing collection of unpublished, unread manuscripts held in trust in a specially designed room in the new Deichmanske Public Library in Bjørvika until their publication in 2114.

That room, intended to be “a space of contemplation,” is lined with wood from the felled forest; once the initial clear-cutting was complete, Paterson and a group of loggers planted the new saplings themselves, as photographed above.

An eight-person trust will guide the project into the future, with a small editorial panel—including the Booker Prize’s Ion Trewin—selecting the writers, the first of whom will be announced in September. Writers have no obligation to say what they’ll write or how long their manuscripts will be; they can produce whatever they want. A particularly ambitious or deranged author could take it upon himself to write an epic, laying waste to a significant percentage of the forest in so doing.

Paterson has also designed a limited run of certificates made from the trees that were cut down to make the new library. The double-sided print features a graphic of a tree trunk and functions as a deed or a share, entitling its owner to receive the anthology of Future Library books in 2114. New York’s James Cohan Gallery is showing the certificate in “The Fifth Season,” a group exhibition whose opening reception is tonight at 6 P.M.

“It grows in the mind,” William Pym, a curator at the gallery, said of the project. “There’s really not much to see.” Given its duration, Future Library is destined to be “forgotten and then remembered again,” he added, noting that attention paid to the project will ebb and flow over the years as new writers are chosen and as printing technologies advance.

The project foregrounds the most easily or willfully forgotten part of bookmaking: the trees. A bound book sits at a far remove from the natural world it came from—Future Library reminds us of the geographical realities of publishing, of the time and resources necessary to make paper. And as, presumably, digital media will continue to proliferate over the next century, Paterson’s art is resolutely, provocatively analog: every part of its process is tethered to the physical world. A visitor in Oslo can stand in the library and point to the source of the paper.

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Rules of Civility

June 24, 2014 | by

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Detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Girls Reading, ca. 1890.

Over the weekend, someone asked me how I’d argue for the survival of the print book. I was taken aback; it felt like being asked to defend food against Soylent Green, or sex against the exclusive domain of artificial insemination. But I considered the question carefully, and aside from the obvious arguments, here’s one way I like to think of it.

When I was younger, I used to think setting people up would be sort of like recommending a book you loved: whether or not it worked out, a friend would know you’d tried in good faith to match her tastes and interests, and not hold it against you if you’d gotten it wrong. At best, her life would be enriched; at worst, she’d still be able to recognize what you saw in the other person. In any event, once you’d made the introduction, the arrangement ceased to have anything to do with you.

Instead, I discovered that setting people up is more like recommending a movie—specifically, a comedy. And if a friend doesn’t enjoy—doesn’t get—a comedy you like, somehow both of you feel betrayed, and some small part of you thinks less of the other. And there is the horrible knowledge that the person who dislikes always has the advantage. Read More »

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