The Independent Newsweekly
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|Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news. It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.|
|August 20, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 95
Books, I love
by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large
Books, I love. A pox on computer printouts.
I used to deal in the antiquarian and rare.
Our life involved 10 moves, never less than 3,000 miles per move. Books are a bulky bother. Most had to go.
We’re a bookish family. September 11, I had to go looking for the television (it was in a bedroom closet). We haven’t watched the news or a feature program in five or more years. We read.
I’ve reduced more than eight hundred volumes to less than eighty keepers.
But I daren’t complain. Son Michael forever reminds me that, pre-move, I once made him sell hundreds of comic books that included all the early X-men. He’s forgiven but not forgotten. He only got $28 for the lot.
Nor am I the family member with the best record for handling an ancient volume. Son Ian, whose limited pantheon includes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, was allowed to study the actual Beowulf.
It looks like an old black brick, for it was burned in a fire at the edges. But the contents are intact. Access to Beowulf two decades ago was a birthday present to a saga-mad little boy by my dear friend, the late Derek Turner, keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum.
The collected books, and the precious ones, are indoors.
Others suffer. But they’re ones I work from, and we’re all crumbling together. They’re in the garage. Temperatures out here have been constantly over 100 degrees for the past two or three weeks. And in the garage, 15-20 degrees higher than that.
The Britannica (scholar’s edition, 1911) turns to parchment out there along with a few dozen volumes in the 150-year-old to 25-year-old range.
They’ll survive, but I’m not doing them any favors.
Indoors are my beautifully rebound first editions of Edmund Burke (3 vols). They were gift from my parents when I left Oxford, and the rebinding a graduation project by a bookbinder’s apprentice I knew as she studied under a Russian expert. She needed something from the 18th century and I paid only for the materials. What fortune.
I’ve my Evelyn Waugh first editions. And Bellocs. And my French primer, which I still use in my one-on-one conversation class, published in 1834. There’s Benjamin Disraeli’s 1842 Vivian Grey with a beautiful etching of him. A marvellous collection of Spanish ballads from 1840 – all the El Cid ballads, and Saracens and Crusades. So very modern.
My oldest books are Scriptural commentaries. Exegeses by Johannes Marckii. One 17th century (Apocalypse, 1699), one 18th, a companion (Pentateuch, 1703-ish), bound in vellum (oh yes, movable type).
I simply like to hold them. Printout paper doesn’t do it.
The single-sheet and pamphlet incunabula I gave to SMU a quarter-century ago. The Catholic books I still dispatch by the boxload to colleagues. Three hundred books I disposed of in England before yet another transatlantic move. The only ones I sold. The rest have been gifts.
But two I dearly miss. And I’m sorry I gave them away.
I miss the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.
And I miss an early 18th century book on making things. Including how to make a clock, a very advanced thing to do at the time.
I haven’t the skills to make a clock. But I loved reading that book, for it was beautifully written and explained everything with great clarity.
The illustrations were art in themselves, on handmade pages as thick as towels. It wasn’t a book one held. It was a book one stroked.
Arthur’s Daily Ditty
Books, too, must pass,
© 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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