Choosing Books for One's Library

By Tony Weller
Beginning in my teens I believed a person should have a library. I was fortunate to be surrounded by avid readers who helped me discover worthy books. The stories and ideas in my books excited me. Early in my college years, I discovered the meta-fictional tales in Robert Coover’s 1969 collection, Pricksongs and Descants, and they delighted me. One day I stopped into a new Salt Lake City bookstore, Scaliwagiana’s, later Scaliwags, run by the late Kent Walgren, who became my friend. There I discovered an attractive and affordable 1st edition of Pricksongs—I bought it and it became my first recognized experience of collector’s joy. Then began my desire to own great copies of books I admired. That was about 40 years ago. Listening to good readers—friends, colleagues and customers—my library grew past its practical limit (I like to see them all) possibly 20 years ago. That is another, more complicated story.

Bibliophiles and collectors know that different editions and copies of books provide different utility and pleasure. When choosing a well-known book, one that has been around for at least a few years, you might have several choices. With newly published books, one must accept what is offered and the idea of comparing traits is likely moot. Books that achieve popularity or impact will be reprinted, and that is when the readers’ choices may multiply. When choosing a classic work without copyright restrictions, options may multiply rapidly, sometimes with mind-boggling numbers. Who knows how many Bibles are published each year?

There are many ways we select our books, possibly too many, and since I cannot yet fathom your soul, I will proceed with a complex example with which I struggled a few years ago. Today, I do not own a nice edition of Paradise Lost by John Milton. I read about half of the copy I chose before glancing up at a calendar and realizing my life was too short for the rest. Before beginning to read, I needed to choose a copy and was then fortunate to have three great ones in our bookstore from which to choose. I fancy fancy books, but without “good” content I do not care. Editions of a title may have the same words or pictures, yet affect us differently. Usually I can select books without struggle but the John Milton choice was complex and required a matrix. Here are the ten traits I compared to choose:
  1. Format. Size. One was quarto (4to); one octavo (8vo); one sextodecimo (16mo). I prefer the ergonomic “handy” small 8vo or duodecimo (12mo).
  2. Font size. This is important to me because books are meant to be read and I read my valuable books to get maximum pleasure from owning them. Very carefully. Font size matters because I do not care to struggle seeing small type. No level of cuteness can overcome utility for me. In the same spirit, narrow gutter margins will dissuade me from choosing a book.
  3. Presence of additional material. All three editions had introductory or critical essays and brief biographies of Milton. One had an introduction by Samuel Johnson.
  4. Draping is the term used to describe the traits of paper that enable it to lay easily. Paper used in dictionaries and Bibles usually drapes very well. In very cheap books, stiff pages may not drape at all. Good draping requires astute paper choice and attention to its grain direction. If pages drape well, the binding will not be stressed during reading.
  5. Use/Absence of archaic s’s (ſ). This is only relevant with very old books. I understand there was some custom dictating the alternating use of the “s” we use today with one closely resembling an “f”. I don’t know what it was and I am too impatient to read through the s’s and f’s, and the oldest copy of Milton I was comparing had the fruftrating f-looking s’s.
  6. Illustrations. I like illustrations. One of these Miltons was illustrated, but not by Gus Doré.
  7. Flexibility of binding. The manner in which the pages are structured and held in the binding. The Miltons I was comparing predated the deceptively named common contemporary commercial binding called perfect. These Miltons were pre-1880, made from sheets folded into gatherings, sewn together and bound. Perfect-bound books are loose pages glued together—their name is ironic and cynical. I do not know all the ways, but smart binding choices affect how well books lay open, hence ease of use for the reader.
  8. Beauty. I like a beautiful book and assess its beauty using all components. Paper, binding materials, design, typography, margins, décor, craftsmanship, illustration, and, yes, previous owner marks.
  9. Age. All three were old but not close enough to Milton’s time to matter. Dates ranged unimportantly from 1770 to 1880. Unless discussing primary editions, age is of low priority to me. Other traits are more important.
  10. Value. Even though I sell books, when it comes to personal use, monetary value is a minor concern for me. If I own a valuable book, it is the best I could acquire. I will have chosen it because I love or admire it, or believe I will.
What did I choose? All were pretty. I excluded the big one and the one with the confufing s’s. The one with Sam Johnson’s essay fit nicely in my hand and laid open well. Had I chosen a different copy, I could not have found solace in Johnson’s wise words which include the phrase about Paradise Lost that reading once is enough. Half once was enough for me.
Rare Book Acquisitions
By Tony Weller
First “public” edition of Indian Joe: In Person and in Background. Historical Perspective into Piute Life by Frank A. Beckwith (1875 – 1951). This scarce book was published in Delta, Utah in 1975. $100
Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce Fiftieth Anniversary Dinner Program from 1952. Contains an enticing menu including Boula Boula Utah and Broiled Choice Utah Spring Lamb Chops. Program includes the Tabernacle Choir, J. Bracken Lee and David O. McKay. Chart at terminus compares 1952 to 1902. For example, in 1902, the Public Library housed 17,861 volumes; in 1952, 280,711. Brown velour wraps with gold medallion and metallic gold printed pages. $100
A promotional broadside announcing the publication of Francis M. Darter’s 1928 book of prophesies, The Time of the End along with a nice jacketed 1st edition of the book. The broadside is signed by Darter and the book is in very good condition. $250
A very good 1st edition copy of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1948 memoir, Crusade in Europe, inscribed by him to former owner on the half title in the year of publication. Laid in are a few newspaper clippings and a small personal note from Mamie Eisenhower. Dust jacket is unclipped and bright with rubbed and chipped edges. $3500
“To Sam, the Bull, and Lila, the Scorpio, from Linda Goodman,” is written by her among other words on the endsheet of my parents’ copy of Goodman’s 1970 book Venus Trines at Midnight: Astrological verses about Lions, Rams, Bulls, Twins, Archers, other Sun Signs and You. Good looking 2nd printing in bold warm-colored jacket. Inscribed again by the poem “The Fish Meets the Water Bearer.” $75
Limited deluxe edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms and Catch-phrases, Solecisms and Catachreses, Nicknames, Vulgarisms and such Americanisms as have been naturalized edited by Eric Partridge. This black leather-bound volume is copy number 19 of 100 of the 1949 3rd revised and expanded edition of this work first published in 1937. It is a handsome quarto, signed by Partridge by the limitation statement. $475
An album housing 124 color postcards of scenes of Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Arizona, California, a petrified forest and Native Americans with dates ranging from 1905 to 1935. Price lowered from $600 to $400.
Scarce 1977 edition of James J. Strang: Teachings of a Mormon Prophet published by the Strangite Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In very good condition with subtly rippled pages. Bright dust jacket. $120
Receive 20% off when you purchase during May & June
The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History
By Edward Brooke-Hitching
Chronicle Books
Sale price $23.96

Reviewed by Tony Weller
The Madman’s Library is a beautiful and smart array of unique books and a few ununique ones that are seriously strange. When I picked it, I was first excited by the abundance of great photographs; when I began reading, the erudite and fetching writing pulled me in—the style is book-wonky enough to excite but, like a savvy performer, author Edward Brooke-Hitchings leaves you curious for more. His previous books include the popular Sky, Phantom and Devil’s Atlases. The Madman’s Library is a curious tour for biblionauts.

You may have inferred that the books described here are not the collection of a particular madman, and this reader notes that Brooke-Hitchings’ application of “mad” is whimsical and various in meaning. The reader must likewise permit a broad definition of book. It is a stretch for me to consider any object with writing a book, but it is fascinating reading that Egyptians were so dedicated to script-covered mummy wrappings that they imported linen for burials.
Some of the books described herein are the products of crazy persons, others of odd loners, some made for leaders and despots, some for magical purposes. Some are of such obscure origins that we can only speculate about the intentions of their creators. Some are projections of radical creativity or religious obsession. This collection is such a diverse collection of bookish oddities that I barely know which to mention. But know this: the books I don’t mention are not at all like the ones I do.

Modern books are mostly paper, and many modern readers are surprised to learn that until the late 19th century, bookmakers struggled to get enough of it. Many fibrous materials have been used to make paper, but books have also been made from rendered materials such as papyrus and parchment, which is treated animal skin—goat, sheep, calf. Very few persons had books when they were made thus. In the Middle-Ages, it required 50-70 sheep to make a parchment Bible. Throughout history, magical powers have been attributed to various animals. In The Madman’s Library are photos and a description of a Nepalese shaman’s manual with the flesh and blood of five beasts representing five senses and passions on its cover: buffalo, chicken, dog, goat, cow.
Part of the book discusses codes and ciphers. Here I learned that old copies of the Kama Sutra were sometimes made in cipher. I also learned, incidentally (haven’t yet read it, have you?), that the Kama Sutra also teaches cookery, bookbinding, chess, conjuring, and…writing in cipher.

And I really must conclude with the ornate and mysterious alchemy manuscripts: The Ripley Scroll which gives instructions for creating the Philosopher’s Stone; the Beautiful 16th-century Splendor Solis; Abu al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī al-Simāwi’s Book of Seven Climes; China’s 1856 Waiki tashuo (Pictorial Manual of External Medicine—Hey, why does it recommend an elixir of mercury?); and the German Clavis Artis, purportedly originally drawn on the skin of a dragon.

I am drunk with mystical speculation and so many ken-stretching ideas between two covers. Biblio-nerds and seekers of mysteries, lovers of art and the bizarre: This is a book for you.
Bookseller Recommendations
Three Novels of Medieval Europe
Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin Press
Hardcover $27.00
For Sale 6/21/22
Rivka Galchen

Paperback $17.00
For Sale 6/7/22

Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books
Hardcover $35.00
It's distressing when a writer, whose path through the landscape of language you've admired, enjoyed and followed, suddenly veers off trail and tumbles over the edge of a cliff. You can only halt at the brink, watch their plummet to its end and hope they survive.

Ottessa Moshfegh gained early recognition when her first novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for both the Booker and National Book Critics Circle awards. Her charming minimalist novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, became a surprise bestseller (with a forthcoming movie by Lynchian surrealist Yorgos Lanthimos). Her 2020 novel, Death in Her Hands, bore suspicious similarities to 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: both books were first-person tales of self-isolated older women and unreliable narrators who were, themselves, responsible for dubious events of their darkly-cast stories. However, the near simultaneity of Tokarczuk's translation into English and Moshfegh's publication revealed that the coincidences were just parallel trajectories of two inventive, compelling authors.

Moshfegh's Lapvona, like Rivka Galchen's recent Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch and Olga Tokarczuk's just translated masterwork, The Books of Jacob, is a historical novel set in Medieval Europe. Galchen's book illuminates the witchcraft trial of Katherina Kepler, mother of famed astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, in the kangaroo court of ultra-superstitious public hysteria. It also highlights an impassioned story of reason versus its oppressive, scandal-driven opposite.

Though set in the 1700s, Tokarczuk’s novel makes it immediately apparent that the Renaissance gained no headway against the lingering Medievalism of an Eastern Europe still constrained by petty warring monarchies, feudal lordships, brutal persecution, entrenched superstition, and religious dogma. Though all these impediments are part of Lapvona's grim milieu, Tokarczuk's Books of Jacob, at nearly one thousand pages, is a completely immersive, personality-driven reconstruction of the era.

And this is where Moshfegh stumbles from her critical precipice. None of the cast of Moshfegh's grotesque satire ever attain personhood. Though a motherless hunchback, Marek—who I hesitate to identify as Moshfegh's protagonist—utterly fails to arouse empathy, particularly after his Cain-and-Abel-esque accidental murder of Jacob who spills off a less metaphorical precipice. Marek, like his brutal father Jude, the sleazy feudal lord Villiam, in fact, like every inhabitant of Lapvona, is a tediously loathsome caricature devoid of the hopes, desires and passions that enliven Galchen's and Tokarczuk's citizenry. In contrast, Lapvona is populated by two-dimensional shadow-puppets utterly incapable of rising from the book's flat, pallid pages.
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