Saturday, November 17, 2012


In an age of too many kindles, it is a relief to attend something as well-worn as the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. I went last night with our daughter Andie, and we knew where we were long before we got to the door. We found ourselves in a sea of middle-aged men in tweeds of every hue. One even sported a monocle.

Exhibitors came from many of the world’s corners. There was an overabundance from Maine, several from east coast states, and one from Santa Monica. European booksellers came in droves from the U.K., but also from Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and France.
No matter their origin, they all arrived slightly rumbled, professorial, and owlish. Never have I seen a group of people inhabit their role more fully than these booksellers, who skirted as close to the edge of self-parody as is possible. When I tired (if that is possible) of the books, I began eavesdropping on their conversations. They spoke knowingly of provenance, frowned in troubled ways over bindings, and proudly pulled out their very best selections under the tablecloths for their friends. They sipped wine (where did they get it?) and in one or two cases, sherry. It was clear they all knew each other, clubbable men from another era.  
It was laughably clear that we were amateurs. Sellers courteously asked us if were were looking for anything special. How to reply? "Just looking" is what you say in a clothing store."Just drooling," was more like it. We examined signed first editions by Aldous Huxley, Julian Barnes, and Charles Bukowski. We read a letter from Henry James to his publisher. And held in our hands a signed volume from Winston Churchill, in an odd fountain pen script, to a his dear friend.

It was easy to gravitate toward the "pretty" books, bound in red Moroccan leather with gold leaf and ribbed spines with familiar names. We saw Jane Austen titles, over and over. And in between all the books, scores of antique maps, incunabula, artist’s books, and even a Nobel prize medal from 1959.

Clearly, many of these books are art objects, skillfully hand-crafted, sometimes with hand-made paper and hand-sewn bindings. Many of them carried lush illustrations that drew the reader further into the story. It made me realize that books from our era never carry illustrations, a factor that may be more of a loss than I realized.

These books raise a disturbing question -- are they actually meant to be read? Over and over I had to resist a life long habit of pulling down books and reading in them. Then, with a start, I'd realize that this was not Barnes and Noble. As collectibles, these books had an entirely different role.

Or do they? Some would argue that they are no different from coins, stamps, or fine china. But their dual purpose suggests otherwise. No one would be so stupid as to use a rare stamp to mail a letter, but one could, as least theoretically, read these books. It might take white gloves and a "clean room,"  but it would be a qualitatively different experience than reading the words on a Kindle, while riding the subway to work in the morning.

To that end, one could wear tweed, sip a sherry, sit in a library in an over-stuffed leather chair in front of a crackling fire.

 I know which I would prefer. 

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