The Book: An Homage by Burkhard Spinnen 2016
I have no recollection of buying this book, though I may have ordered it from the David Godine publisher’s mailing I receive twice a year. I love the Godine list and often order one or two books from the beautifully written summaries under the image of their always beautifully designed covers. And this book’s cover, one of the many line drawings that introduce each chapter is quite enticing—the image of a plush chair with a comforter draped over its back amidst a library full of books including a pile next to the chair and another pile on the hassock in front of it. I probably bought the book just to enjoy the illustrations!
This slim volume translated from the German is one man’s thoughts about books, their physical forms, their trade, their usage, and their collection. Spinnen is a prolific German novelist and essayist who is not widely known in the USm and this book was a bit too Teutonic for me, lacking the color and spirit of most literary criticism. The section on Collections, however, did spark my interest, and I thought his analysis of the motives behind collecting books was quite accurate. It included stockpiling for the day when books might succumb to ebooks and disappear, as a status symbol for others to see, as a collection the way one collects stamps or ‘beer coasters’, and as an archive. I particularly identified with the last two categories.
I love collecting books. I have all of John McPhee’s books and all of the Georges Simenon Maigret novels. I have nearly all of Roth and Bellow and a good deal of Updike, Hemingway, and Mailer. I also have thrilled to the chase of trying to accumulate all of the books recommended by several critics. Harold Bloom’s ‘How to Read and Why’ provided me with my first ‘must have’ list, and over the years, I’ve managed to collect and even read nearly every one of his recommended 18 short stories, 21 poems, 15 novels, and 3 plays. Susan Hill, a British literary presence, wrote about her experience during a year of reading only the books on her shelves and ended the book with a list of 40 books she would take to a desert island if limited to that number. Finding all of them was a quest that delighted me as does looking at the row of 40 books on my shelf.
The second category, that of archiving is also one that I identified with. As Spinnen writes, “….it became clear that I wanted to be surrounded by books to which I’m bound by something substantial—no, not simply their texts but something even more important, their readings.” He goes on to write, “I believe that the read book maintains its value because it is a visible, tangible document of one’s life as a reader…Every text is a world of language and at the same time, for the reader, a diary of his or her journey through that world.” That is one reason why I love to be surrounded by my books, volumes I often go to to refresh a memory or to re-read.
This is not a great book, but as so often, the few pages about collecting books made this particular journey worthwhile.