Books as things? Details on a book addiction

I have commented on this before, but I was recently reminded how much I love books as things; as physical objects not just collections of words and ideas. Obviously, great literature flows out of the words and the ideas, but the experience of a book is elevated if it is a beautiful object in an of itself.

What brought this up in my mind was my review of My Antonia. I had originally written a rambling introduction about how I love to collect quality editions of classic works. For good or ill, however, I lost the post so I thought I would post the discussion as a stand alone post.

The fact is I love quality editions of classic novels. Whether it is the Modern Library, the Everyman’s Library, Oxford World Classics, or even the blue Konemann Classics, there is something enjoyable about having a great work of literature in a edition that will pass the test of time. The quality binding, the nice paper, the helpful introduction, and maybe even a sewn in book marker as a bonus, all of these things appeal to me.

What is interesting is the attraction is more psychological than aesthetic. Most of the series of editions have uniform – and often bland – covers that lack art in the sense of painting or photography. Granted uniformity is a form of aesthetics I suppose, but the pleasure is more “anal retentive” than “free flowing artiste.” I would liken the attraction more to craftsmanship; like the satisfaction from a well made tool or piece of furniture rather than a sculpture or object d’ art. This correlates with the satisfaction of knowing I have it on the shelf whenever I want to read it. There is a solidity there, a sense that my kids can read these same volumes when they are of age. There is a sense that I have a library, not just a bunch of paperbacks.

Of course, I love beautifully designed books in the artistic sense as well. I was tempted by the Folio Society for this reason. And I love to find beautifully illustrated works as well; especially in children’s literature, fantasy, etc. For example, I recently picked up both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in the beautiful Bloomsbury editions with illustrations by Mervyn Peake and introductions by Will Self and Zadie Smith. These volumes put it all together: classic works, quality binding (with sewn in bookmark), interesting introduction, beautiful design, and high quality illustrations. (All for twenty bucks at Amazon I might add!)

I must admit there is something connected to ego as well. In some way I see collecting these works as adding to my cultural literacy; as denoting a depth of intellect or at least knowledge. It is as if these works provide clues to the world of literature and higher knowledge and if I read them I will be elevated beyond my rather mediocre small town education. It is a rather odd old fashioned bourgiose type feeling or attitude I suppose.

Anyway, I just thought I would share this particular slant of my book addiction with you. I wonder if anyone else out there has book buying quirks like this. Do you care what particular edition you buy or do you just pick up the cheapest paperback? Do “books as things” appeal to you?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. You should look into rare books. They’re probably a bit too expensive to collect (although I understand 18th century rare books can be had for only a few hundred dollars right now due to lack of demand), but they’re all about the book as object. I’ve seen some astonishingly gorgeous Kelmscott editions of Chaucer from the 15th century—enormous books with heavy leather covers and metal locks on the side, some made from vellum even… beautiful artwork, too. An very small example of the Bridwell Library at SMU’s prize possessions:

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