The status of the book in the age of digital media


Park Avenue was lined with tulips as we looked for parking en route to the 62nd Annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. The Fair was held this spring, as it does every spring, at the Armory, a neo-Gothic structure that once housed the so-called “Silk Stocking” Seventh Regiment, due to its location on Manhattan’s affluent East Side (at the originally at Third Avenue and later at Park between 66 and 67th Street). The building contains a Tiffany Hall designed by Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany, most extravagantly sculpted and painted, and newly remodeled for use for formal gatherings and hired parties.

What better site for a collection of priceless books and artifacts from all periods of human history? The fair had been one of my favorite annual events until the pandemic suspended my visits to New York. Now I was back and so was the Fair, although the Covid years had given it, like everything else, a slightly different coloring.

If Park Avenue in the spring presents tulips, the Antiquarian Book Fair presents less ephemeral but no less colorful samples of material culture: rare, influential and beautiful books; original and special editions; illustrated works by the most august artists; and memorabilia such as film posters, letters, photographs, and various curiosities associated with the literary establishment. From the historical and academic to the religious and spiritual to the distinctly secular culture of finance and politics, the Fair offers offerings in every genre and topic imaginable. Walk in and you might feel dizzy at first. What to watch first – which stall, with its curated display of wonders, to peruse? An illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages, an original score by George Gershwin with his notations, a first edition by Jack Kerouac On the road, book cover designs by masters of Cubism, Dada and Art Nouveau? In other places, you need written permission and gloves to handle rare and very old volumes. Here you casually ask to take a peek and are offered to handle it with no apparent concern for greasy fingers. Vendors wear skinny pants and have excellent haircuts or three-piece suits and bow ties, more or less reflecting the range of materials on display: from young and hip to old and pretentious. Many spoke with international accents (France this year seemed to predominate but England was well represented as were Germany and Japan).

For my part, I am always tempted to buy, even if the prices are well outside my price range. Five years ago I succumbed to buying a first edition of Dickens dark house, a collection of 19 pamphlets as they appeared in serial form in 1852-53 in 20 parts (parts 19 and 20 being combined in one pamphlet). The brochures collected (displayed in a handsome book-like container) looked like a $2,000 theft; after all, there was a first edition of hard times (a shorter, less important Dickens novel) at a stand around the corner selling for $10,000. The dark house would be a nest egg for future grandchildren, I thought. Unfortunately, I would later discover that some of the covers of the pamphlets had been replaced, and the pamphlets themselves were more ragged and scored than required for “good” or even “fair” condition, so the together is worth a lot less than expected. (actually, maybe, worth nothing, since the key is to find someone as deranged as me who would buy such a thing). Yet I’ve displayed it in its thick cardboard display case over the living room mantelpiece and rationalize it as a very high-end conversation piece – about Dickens’ serialization of his novels and, more amusingly for my friends, on my fleece at the Antique Book Fair.

But back to this year’s Fair. It’s a particular source of excitement to be able to ask the young woman behind the counter to show me Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother, unusually gushing about her soon-to-be hooker husband, Ted Hughes. It is painful to read Plath looking like a dazzled schoolgirl (which I assume she was), extolling the poetic prowess of Hughes. Not a word about his own handwriting. I feel a momentary consternation, then a retaliatory triumph on her behalf that her poetry, not hers, is likely to endure – though I hate to think that to eclipse her she had to delete herself.

A volume of medical illustrations by Andreas Vesalius, a 16th century physician and father of the science of anatomy, also caught my eye – not a first edition, but a second, an improvement, I am told, over the first in that it corrected previous errors. The skeletons, resulting from his forays into human dissection, are posed on the page like macabre super-models. It’s a strange and fascinating volume, a reminder of mortality even as it helped doctors prolong human life.

Another stand presents a large white plastic suitcase marked “sac un” in block letters and signed in black marker: John Lennon. The seller explains that this is one of the few undamaged examples of 25 gifts given at an event organized by John and Yoko. He takes the suitcase out of the display case, opens it and shows us that hidden inside are a series of lithographs based on sketches by Lennon. Some of them are erotic drawings of Yoko alone or with him. The first in the series is a sketch of the two in bed with photographers opposite, preparing for the iconic 1981 cover of Rolling Stone magazine in which John, naked, kisses a clothed Yoko in their bed. John’s drawing style is charming; he clearly had talent, and we remember that he started out as an art student before turning to music.

The vendors, who hang around their stalls all day, are eager to pull out a volume and let us feel it, explaining its context if they have information that might be of interest to them. I find these little conferences delightful. Sometimes another browser knows more about the item than the sellers. Another appeal of the Fair is being able to engage in conversations with knowledgeable strangers about whatever you’re watching. Someone let us know about James Joyce’s reviews of Ulysses and the highs and lows of John Barrymore’s film career (while inspecting an early edition of the first and a poster for a film featuring the second). It’s wonderful to be able to go from inspecting Antonio Scaino’s first tennis book to a 20-volume set of the Complete Works of George Sand to a portfolio of Japanese erotica.

Curiosities aside, what makes the Fair so special is that it’s about books. Books with covers and pages have, in a society dominated by social media and other types of online trash, become functionally obsolete.

I recently walked into a bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut, and was confronted with a bookcase labeled “Geoffrey Hartman’s Library”. Hartman was a venerable scholar of literature who spent most of his career at Yale. His books, collected on the shelves of this second-hand bookshop, had a poignant aspect. A few gaps in the shelves showed that a volume here and there had been purchased, but most of the time the books scowled at me, annoyed at the likelihood that they would sit on those shelves in perpetuity. A memento mori, you might say, for the way reputations are fading, but also for the fact that not only the individual but also the individual library is expendable these days. There are, of course, exceptions, such as that of the JP Morgan Library in New York and the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia, although in these cases the enormous wealth places the collections in a different sphere. Very wealthy people could collect already rare works and place them in opulent settings. Without such trappings, a motley collection of German, French, Hebrew, and English scholarly texts is doomed to languish.

Perhaps the term ‘antiquaire’, which traditionally referred to old and valuable books, often first editions and manuscripts, now seems to me to apply to all books. Books, by definition, have become, if not antiquarian, archaic in their material form. They have become artifacts.

I have hundreds of books on my Kindle, as my eyes seem to get worse every year. I appreciate the bright screen and the ability to change the font size as needed. These books exist as shiny postage stamps on the app’s Library page, while the books on the shelves in my apartment are getting more dated and covered in dust every year. It seems indulgent to buy more, because once read they are rarely read again and simply take up more space and gather more dust. Still, a room without books wouldn’t feel like home. It would barely look like a room. That is why, perhaps, the fair’s magnificent books seem to attract buyers.

Indeed, one could argue that even books that have no value in themselves have begun to acquire an “aura.” This is the term used by literary critic Walter Benjamin (arguably a major figure in Geoffrey Hartman’s library) whose “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a classic contribution to cultural theory. . Benjamin posited that the art – the original art – was tied to a particular time and place so that it had an aura associated with the artist’s hand. If the artist became famous, this explained the high prices that went to his original work. Works that weren’t original — that is, posters and reproductions — lacked that aura. The same goes for books, which are supposed to be reproducible by definition. Unlike the original manuscripts, the printed volumes, by being mass-produced and separated from the hand of the artist, carried no aura.

But that may have changed. We have entered a new era in which mechanical reproduction has been largely replaced by digital reproduction. As a result, the material book becomes rarer and more important; he acquires the “aura” attached to his materiality. This materiality – and the beauty that comes with it – shines brighter when besieged by computerized versions of itself.

I suspect that in a generation or two, walking into a house with shelves full of books will be like walking into a house with quirky artwork on the walls. Both will be rare occurrences – even if the art isn’t by an old master or even if the books aren’t first editions or even classics. Their material presence on the shelves will provide enough aura.•


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