Friday, November 12, 2010

Review of Bare Naked Books

In my house I'm surrounded by books.
Stacks of them stalagmite the floor. Bookcases assert themselves from the walls in four different rooms. When I go to sleep, books keep watch on nightstands.

The other day I’m sitting in the room we call the library which also includes a flat screen TV, a DVD player, and a replica 1930s radio. I guess it's the media room, but library is easier and more satisfying to say.

I look at the books on my shelves and I think to myself, "You know what? You guys could use a makeover."

So I did it.

How to Arrange Books
Before I got out the step ladder and started moving things around, I decided to seek seek some help from experts. A bit of googled investigation turned up this advice.

- Put books of a common size together
- Align the books and don't shove them all the way to the back
- Keep books off shelf edge which makes them resemble cliff divers
- Mix in some horizontal stacks of books
- Place the larger volumes on lower shelves
- Leave some open spaces between book rows and fill with art objects

As tried out these tips I was in a sort of on-task bliss. Over the next few hours I was handling some of the things I valued most, including books going back to my childhood. All of them had given me hours of pleasure and often life-changing illumination. I was handling old friends like Catch 22, Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. And I was getting somewhere because visually things looked neater, but still—

That’s when I found one more tip.

-Remove dust jackets, let the books bask in their cloth glory

Hmm, I had not thought of that. Aren’t book spines rather boring? But at that point it became another excuse to prolong what had become an entire afternoon “off’ in which I was going up and down the ladder, pulling down books, temporarily stacking them on the floor, thumbing a few and reading at random.

I began carefully taking off the dust jackets. (Note: Brits like to call them "wrappers.") I did this for all the books except some that were the most collectible or were former library copies and their dust jackets were glued onto what they call in the business “boards.” This led to a discovery.

Dazzle the Eye of the Beholder
With dust jackets removed, the garish glare of the typically glossy cover went away,  presenting the shelves with a new subdued library-like effect. But there was something else that happened on a regular basis. Most books au naturel were beautiful. Rich gold or silver lettering graced the spine. Wonderful soft blue, green, or black cloth submitted to my respectful finger touch.

In the case of series in which the covers were rather pedestrian and faded to boot, the differences were night and day.

For example, my James Bond matched set had been wrapped in a cheesy, loud, Miami pastel color palette. Stripped down to their essence, the books boldly declared a 007 evening attire gravitas with black spines and gold lettering. Ian Flemming looked as if he had produced a collection of Shakespeare plays.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton’s three-volume set on the Army of the Potomac, a work that had fired off the cannon of my historical imagination when I was a tween, went from bland and blah dust jackets to a stiffly proud, regimented red and black presentation.

Some of my Hemingway collection now “popped,” especially the Caribbean green of Islands in the Stream and the recent posthumous release, Under Kilimanjaro with its copper designs on the spine.

I fell in love with how Nathaniel West’s and William Faulkner’s final novels declared “must read me” in columns of red.

Bird Lives!, the wonderful bio of Charlie Parker that reads like the greatest novel ever written about jazz (and served as the basis for Clintwood’s fine 1988 film Bird) revealed a surprise. The book's artistry went beyond the jazzy typeface on the spine to offer something on the cover. A gold saxophone player lurking beneath the dust jacket. All this time I had no idea.

Tom Wolfe’s collection of ground breaking "New Journalism" winked at me with it’s mega-title abbreviated on the front: TKKTFSB – The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby.

Isak’s Dineson’s collection of Africa stories shared a delicate line drawing.

Isak Dineson offered another surprise. The spine of my 1938 early (first?) edition of Out of Africa is elegant...

...but I also have a gorgeous facsimile dust jacket to go with it, obtained from a wonderful source who goes into private libraries and makes high resolution scans of classic dust jackets, then sells them wrapped in protective mylar for $22 each.

Then there’s a number of books I wouldn’t consider removing the dust jacket from. These  New Directions books from the 1950s are ones whose cover design was done by the famous Alvin Lustig. In the Lustig style, they're lean and graphically arresting.

My books are tangible, caressable evidence that with some things in life what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. It’s a matter of probing beneath the surface. If you really want to know something or somebody better, stay there long enough to establish a mutually trusting relationship until they're ready to slip into something more comfortable. Less is indeed more.

Bare naked we come into the world and bare naked bears cultivation in all aspects of my day-to-day life. As for books, I will continue to haunt garage sales and library clearances or even splurge at my local purveyor of same. I won't resist picking up a hardback from time to time, used or new, because at their best they offer a weighty surprise that cannot be replicated by any eBook known to humankind. Such sweet eye candy will always merit four stars. **** - V.W.

Bonus Bibliophile Goes to the Movies Feature: Here's a shout-out for possibly the best documentary film ever made about the love of books, even a mania for books and their attendant pleasures. It's Stone Reader by Mark Moskowitz (2004). My favorite scene: Moskowitz pans the camera over the books on his shelves and gives voiceover commentary about his favorites.


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