Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Boston, the city of books

A brief wrap-up of last weekend in the city of books. I didn't intend to spend a lot of money on books this trip, and believe it or not, I didn't. Partly because of the terrible weather. I did manage to visit two of the three branches of Commonwealth Books. I never made it to Brattle, the rain was too fierce (and they were closed Sunday, when it was still raining but not Monday morning's total deluge, during which I holed up in our hotel room at the Park Plaza and watched marathon coverage on television).

Found at Commonwealth, at the Milk Street location: I cased the books-about-books section and had a few maybes in mind, but browsed on, and a few minutes later Ryan came up and said "Why didn't you pick up that Club of Odd Volumes book?" And I said, "What Club of Odd Volumes book?" He said, "The early one, from 1911." Well, I hadn't even seen it, that's why. Needless to say I now own it. It's very small, and very very nice. One of eighty copies. When I saw the title page, I could tell that someone good had printed it, and when I investigated the colophon, yes, indeed, I saw a little scotch thistle with the initals B and R on either side: Bruce Rogers. I have a small collection of books bearing his name (and often only his initials). Other books found: two issues of The Colophon: A Book Collectors' Quarterly, and a fat thick Concise Oxford Dictionary from the 1950s. I only spent around thirty bucks.

Onward to the Boylston Street location: I found an odd assortment and spent about fifty bucks. W. Somerset Maugham's A Writer's Notebook (Doubleday 1949), The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read, an anthology selected by Steven Gilbar (David Godine 1989), The Marble Foot: An Autobiography, 1905-1938 by Peter Quennell (Viking 1976), The High Hill of the Muses, an anthology collected by Hugh Kingsmill (Eyre & Spottiswoode 1955), and lastly, another book Ryan alerted me to, Early Italian Writing-Books, Renaissance to Baroque by Stanley Morison, edited by Nicholas Barker (once again, that David Godine, 1990).

I have in my collection of books-about-books many issues of The Colophon, and if I can find others inexpensively I always pick them up - they are completely delightful to browse in, I always learn many things I didn't know about the book trade, printing, collecting, etc., and the format is usually exquisite. It was a hardcover quarterly, and in the early series each section was printed by a different fine press, with often-intricate and always-lovely typography. In the new series, the whole volume was printed by just one press, but still, this periodical was going out to a group of die-hard bibliophiles, so the printing quality was still paramount. So physically, they are very pleasing objects. As far as content goes, one of the issues I picked up Sunday has articles by Christopher Morley, Alfred A. Knopf, Wilmarth S. Lewis (his book-collecting book Collector's Progress is not to be missed), and Frederick B. Adams, Jr., as well as articles about The Typophiles and Michael Sadleir. All this, along with editorial bits and pieces in the back (my other issue has a very brief column about collecting booksellers' tickets), great advertising, and appeals for solutions to literary mysteries. Can't ask for more, it's so good.

Other bookish notes from the big city: we stopped in late Sunday afternoon at the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, and saw the John Adams library on display, John Adams Unbound (hurry, hurry, the show has been up all winter but comes down at the end of April!). I walked into the room with my glasses off (they were wet and fogged up), so my first sight of his library was through a haze. Well, this huge arc of shelves, filled with leatherbound books and literally glowing with warmth from discreet ceiling spotlights was a tremendous sight, and was even more impressive without ocular focus. Instead, it was like a floating vision, or a wonderful dream of what a fine library should be. Then I put my glasses on and read some of the marginalia in the books displayed in glass cases on the other side of the room. Rather incredible to see his extensive notes, his deep engagement with his books. Free admission. GO!

Afterwards, on the way back to the Park Plaza, I had my head down because the wind had risen and was driving the rain right at us, so I happened to be looking at my shoes, which I watched walk right over a very familiar sight that stopped me short. A huge logo embedded in the sidewalk: a figure on the back of a dolphin. I stopped, did a double-take, and looked at the building in front of me, all plate glass and clean lobby and gleaming elevators, and thought Was/is this Houghton Mifflin? I found out the next day, when I was on the other side of the block, trying to find a good vantage point to watch the incoming marathon runners. There I saw their main entrance. Yes, it is Houghton Mifflin. I suppressed a none-too-furtive wish that I'd walk into that lobby with my own book someday. I walked on.

The Boston Marathon: Ryan ran 3 hours 17 minutes and change. Despite the crazy wind and rain. Need I say it? He's my hero. I scooped him up right after he finished and we got outta town.

The reason I bought The Marble Foot by Peter Quennell (besides the fact that he knew the Waughs, who I'm always interested in reading about, and the other fact that I love reading British pre-World War II memoirs) - in part, the opening epigram from Byron's Journal, Tuesday, December 7th, 1813:

"When one subtracts from life infancy..., - sleep, eating, and swilling - buttoning and unbuttoning - how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse."

The summer of a dormouse. Make it count!

That is one hell of a good bookish post! I'm gonna go sniff some old books right now to keep the buzz.
Thanks bb - I like your blog, I'll be keeping an eye on it! Careful, books are addictive, you know...
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