Monday, October 12, 2009


As I was getting ahead on some reading today, I came across this gem of a passage:

"...true bibliography is the bridge to textual, which is to say literary, criticism. Before a critic can attempt a definitive evaluation of the contents of any book he must be in possession of every fact which has any bearing on the history of its text." -from Fredson Bowers's 1949 Principles of Bibliographic Description

Really, Fredson? We need to know everything about a book -- its history, context, physical makeup -- before we can do any legitimate literary analysis of its literary contents? Really? Because I really do not buy that argument.

I would offer that the variety of packagings that encase most any book these days -- think the variety of bindings of any given book you read in college, where you might have a different copy, different cover than the person next to you -- stands in direct opposition to this claim for bibliographic necessity. So what if my cover is different than yours? The words are the same, and it's the words I'm analyzing!

I think that these sorts of statements -- the ones that inflate the importance of the appearance and condition of a physical volume at the near-total expense of consideration of content -- are exactly what bother me about the rare book world. I am always hesitant when library students say they want to be librarians because they "love books"; after all, a love of books alone cannot be sufficient to do well in what is primarily a service profession. That said, however, I do love books. And I love them because of the stories, the ideas, and the information that they contain. I love them because of what their words can do. I really think that someone who loves books for their trappings and trimmings -- who judges books by their covers, or their rarity -- is seriously lacking in their book experience.

And yes, while statements that expound on the book's physical virtues alone make me angry, my ultimate emotion is quite different. Ultimately, I feel sorry for you if you can't/don't/won't look deeper, because I can assure you that you are missing something grand.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this post. I always find it disheartening when someone who calls himself a "book collecter" means just that - he's collecting the physical aspect and NOT a story. To me, it's what's inside the book. Yes, I do love certain covers on certain books, but only because those are the covers that were on the copies of the books containing the STORIES OR POEMS I love.

    It makes me sad that I have to know the entire printing history of a nineteenth-century novel in order to enjoy the language and characters and plot. It's one thing to understand the history behind the time period and the writer to understand the book. It's another to know what kind of paper it was printed on and how it was bound. That stuff is good for people interested in printing and bookbinding history - which is itself interesting - but that's different from the history of a book.

    Once again, thanks. This is something I've found irksome for awhile now.