Harold Rabinowitz & Bob Kaplan, eds.: A Passion for Books (Three Rivers Press, 1999) [IBR2022]

My history is all books, and rarely anything else, which is why I am up front here, as preface….
The Egyptians often, in death, had their favorite cats embalmed, to cozen their feet. If things go well, my special pets will pace me into eternity, Shakespeare as pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-traveling. Meanwhile, I stand here with my hopeless prejudices, to preface these loves. Please, to begin.

Ray Bradbury, Foreword

About twelve years ago, during my read of BASS 2011, I came across a story by pre-Overstory Richard Powers titled “To the Measures Fall.” It’s the story of a woman’s relationship with a book, and how that relationship continued and changed throughout her life. I can remember, unprompted, only a handful of the stories I’ve read over the years; this is one of them.

I was hoping to capture that same feeling – relationships with books – in this anthology of writings about books. I was disappointed.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of it, it’s just that it’s one of those Great Men Write About the Greatness of Books (oh, sure, there are a few women sprinkled in, but it’s a sausage-fest, partly because many of the essays are drawn from prior to the 20th century when women belatedly appeared on Earth).

Not reading: books. I hadn’t realized what a difference that would make. Many of the articles are about book collecting, a process I don’t quite understand. Now, I have for the past ten years or so become fascinated with manuscripts, and I realize books don’t become historical cultural treasures unless they are collected and protected from their start. Will we some day stare in awe at a hardcover copy of, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the product of a bygone technology? Still, I don’t understand collecting books for their value. I have only recently come to appreciate books as physical objects, but that’s only inasmuch as the substance makes the reading easier or better in some way. I still consider books as tools to be used, not sculptures to be admired from afar. Yes, I dog-ear, I underline and notate, I crack spines and roll paperback covers. I’ve recently replaced several volumes that were falling apart, because I’m attached to the content, not the package. But there are those who put considerable effort – not to mention funds – into amassing book collections, not of books to read, but of books to have. To each his own.

I did find a number of articles fun to read. “Pillow Books” by Clifton Fadiman wonders what type of book is best for bedtime reading? Few want something dull enough to let them nod off in boredom, but how do you find a book that’s engaging but sedating rather than stimulating?

Then there are lists. The ten, fifty, one hundred best books of all time, of the 20th century, of course. “Books that changed America.” Favorite novels of Somerset Maugham and Norman Mailer. And a wonderful list of “Ten Books that Never Existed,” books mentioned within books. To the Measures Fall was not included. Neither was An Imperial Affliction, which I felt I might have liked more than The Fault in our Stars in which it appeared. More seriously, nothing by Borges made the list.

The most heartbreaking article was “Comfort Found in Good Old Books” by George Hamlin Fitch. In a moving essay, Fitch describes how favorite books were a comfort after the unexpected death of his son.

 Other essays covered the perils of loaning books, several articles titled “Bibliomania” or derivatives thereof, and the business end of books, both publishing and selling. Some of these were interesting, but I suspect I would have to be more of a book sophisticate to fully appreciate them.

Choosing to read this book was a worthy effort with mediocre success. I should have found a book titled A Passion For Reading instead. Or maybe just reread “To the Measures Fall.”

3 responses to “Harold Rabinowitz & Bob Kaplan, eds.: A Passion for Books (Three Rivers Press, 1999) [IBR2022]

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