A Glorious Court
That place that does contain
My books, the best companions, is to me
A glorious court, where hourly I converse
With the old sages and philosophers;
And sometimes, for variety, I confer
With kings and emperors, and weigh their counsels;
Calling their victories, if unjustly got,
Unto a strict account, and, in my fancy,
Deface their ill-placed statues.
— Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
from The Elder Brother (act I, sc. 2) 1625
I’m fairly sanguine that my children will grow into the kind of adults who, like me, consider that ‘decorating’ a living-space consists mainly in adding bookshelves. They’ve been raised to believe, as their parents were, that books contain nearly all that makes us human. They’ve also, like their parents, come to love books as tactile objects–as pleasing artefacts in and of themselves.
I was reminded of the tactile pleasures of a well-made book yesterday when I bought a new copy of an old favourite (and the work I consider his masterpiece), Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. It’s the Everyman’s Library Edition and it is, to me, a thing of restrained and elegant beauty.
Since childhood, I’ve enacted the same ritual whenever a book comes into my hands. I inspect the book, back and front; then the fly-leaves, copyright and publication details, printing details and typeface (I’m a bit of a font-geek) and foreword and preface if they exist. Then I riffle the pages, feeling the quality and weight of the paper and I inspect the binding. Lastly and by no means least, I smell the book.
Why? I don’t know. I just know that different books have their own particular smell, never quite the same. I suppose it depends on things like the chemical composition of the ink, paper, binding etc., but whatever it is, the smell almost invariably pleases me. The sense of smell is, of course, plugged directly into the limbic system, our profoundest and oldest (in evolutionary terms) pleasure centre. Only after these rituals have been accomplished am I ready to read a book.
The Everyman’s Waugh is a special delight. Printed (on creamy, substantial-feeling, acid-free paper) and bound (properly bound, not glued) in Germany; tastefully laid-out and set in an old favourite, Baskerville, with a 24-page introduction by Frank Kermode and a 14-page chronology of Waugh’s life and the times he lived in; red-cloth boards and spine with title and author’s name in gilt-on-black. There is even an old-fashioned ribbon bookmark, properly sewn into the binding, a little touch I find utterly charming.
This is a thoughtfully designed and beautifully made book that’s a pleasure to hold and to contemplate. No electronic reader can, in my opinion, ever replace it. I’m no Luddite and I revel in the fact that I can and do carry a vast library of books, music and film on my laptop. The convenience and ease of access and use are a miracle of sorts. But no E-Book will ever replace, for me, the pleasures of a well-made, physical book.
Which brings us to your poetic task, a suitably broad subject, I think: books. Any aspect of books and in any form. Here’s an old favourite to inspire you:
A Study Of Reading Habits
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.