Not just this Christmas. Any Christmas.
Not just a Kindle either. I have nothing against Amazon, been buying books from them for decades.
They’re the reason I won’t be buying a Kindle.
People think books are about reading. And they’re right.
But it doesn’t stop there. Books are about a lot more than reading.
I’ve had a love affair with books ever since I can remember. If you’ve seen my TED talk Information Is Food you’d know that already.
You know when you fall in love with someone, it’s the beginning of a journey where you learn to appreciate more and more things about that someone. Little things that make them unique, their foibles, their idiosyncrasies. Their background and upbringing, the environment they grew up in; their family, their friends; the way they look when the light catches them from a particular angle. Everything.
When you fall in love with books, it’s a little bit like that.
I’ve been a passionate amateur collector of books now for over thirty years, and every year I learn something new, something about books that amazes me and delights me.
To begin with it was all about the book. The plot. The characters. The journey the author took you on. Sometimes the book was part of a series, and you began to appreciate the characters and the settings more deeply, as the fondness of familiarity set in.
After a while I began to appreciate the way the book felt in my hands. How it was made. How it smelt. The paper used. The inks used. The fonts. The way the book was bound. The feel of the leather covering a well-bound, well-thumbed book. The way the pages were cut. I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into bookbinding, the tools used, the raw materials, the processes. There was a time when bookbinders actually signed their books, they took their craft that seriously. I still pay above the odds for a Bayntun Riviere bound book, and count a delightful Heath Robinson illustrated Don Quixote as one of that number.
Which brings me on to my next point. I have over two hundred and fifty different editions of Don Quixote. Not for the story, though it’s my all-time favourite. Not for the bindings, though some of them are works of art. But for the illustrations. If you’re interested in knowing more about Don Quixote illustrators, here’s a good resource.
Autographed and inscribed copies
I’ve had jobs that have allowed me quite a bit of international travel over the years, and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve tended to investigate two things. Two off-the-beaten-track things. Restaurants. Bookshops. Not the most famous ones, nor the most exclusive ones; the ones that had something different, something special, about them. Going to such bookstores has sometimes meant dropping in unexpectedly on a talk given by an author, often giving me the chance to get a personally autographed copy of their latest book.
With the advent of the internet, I could plan more, and that meant I could take my own copies along, or buy whole sets for signature. Decades of doing that has meant I now have a few thousand signed copies, many with their own tales to tell, where I met the author, where we went for dinner (that’s happened a few times!), what the talk was about. A whole story, encompassed in a signature.
Books don’t just contain stories. Each individual book is also a story. Particularly when you’re dealing with books that have been around for some time, the provenance of the book can get interesting. The journey taken by each and every copy , who bought it, who read it, who sold it, where and when. So, over the years, I found myself gathering stories about the books rather than just buying the books. I wanted to buy books where I found the story of the book interesting. It was no longer enough to get an autographed copy, I wanted to get copies where the inscription meant something.
I’m a big fan of “Road” books, not just On The Road but Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gulliver’s Travels, even the Bhagavad Gita. So, once I was bitten by the association copy bug, it was not enough to have a signed Pirsig. I managed to get my hands on Pirsig’s copies of Kerouac and of Baron Munchhausen. Later I managed to acquire Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. Now if only I could get hold of Swift’s copy of the Ingenious Gentleman…..
It’s not just about the authors and the famous. I have a number of different copies of The Imitation of Christ going back over the years, even though I’ve given a few away. They’re all secondhand, well-thumbed, beautifully worn. Each has its story to tell, even if it’s all in your imagination.
A decade or so into collecting, I found my first miniature book. Not a pretend-book for a doll’s house. A proper working book, every word as in the original, set, printed, bound and sold just like any other book you would buy. But an inch tall with other proportions in keeping with that.
I was in heaven. Transported. Imagining what love went into making the book. Tears in my eyes. And soon I found myself drawn deep into the world of miniature books, the printers, the binders, the markets, the collectors.
I used to read a lot of comics and magazines when I was young, something I’ve written about before. The original Mad Magazine, the US edition, was one I enjoyed tremendously. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was the “Marginal Thinking Department” section, a set of tiny drawings by Sergio Aragones that were squeezed into the margins of the rest of the magazine.
So marginal notes were something I began to be interested. And then came Fermat’s Last Theorem and marginal jottings in books about Diophantine equations.
Yup, you guessed it. Soon I was collecting books about marginalia.
No Kindle for me
There are books about everything I’ve written about, and more. Books about bookbinders and bookbinding, about presses, about the paper used. Books about association copies. Books about illustrators and illustrations. Books about miniature books. Books about book collectors. Books about marginalia. Books about libraries.
Books about books. And the stories about the books.
And it’s not just books. Over the years I’ve gone off on all kinds of tangents, where I have squirrelled away statues and figurines to do with literary characters (mainly Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). I have paintings, illustrations, triptychs, tables, jewellery, wine bottles, toys. Merchandising from times when there were no videos or T-shirts. Letters, postcards, sketches, photographs.
The social objects that in themselves are stories about the books, the people who wrote them, the people who printed them, the people who bound them, the people who sold them, the people who bought them, the people who collected them, the people who read them.
They’re not just for reading.
They’re a world unto themselves.
They’re lovesome things, God wot. They’re things of beauty, joys forever.
How do I love books? Let me count the ways.