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In any given week’s news about books, there are always 2-3 elegant uses that have nothing to do with reading them, but make great pictures, so I thought I’d consolidate the references in one place, with some conveniently located reading on the subject.

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of
all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts
will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice
it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired
his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘‘And you
have read all these books, Monsieur France?’’ ‘‘Not one-tenth of them. I
don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’’ —Walter Benjamin

Walking into Persephone Books one day, my partner was congratulated on her appreciation of their content, since, the cashier claimed, most people only came in to buy the uniformly grey-bound titles to decorate their homes. While getting to know one of the booksellers from Classic Bindings Ltd. at the Olympia Fair, he told me how he was excited that his business was moving from the realm of interior decorating to “real” bookselling, that is, selling books to people who intend to read them rather than en bloc manorial furnishings, buying by the book rather than by the foot (and let us not forget to extend to books Edgar Allan Poe’s weighing in on the Philosophy of Furniture). And before either one of us could afford bookshelves in our flat, we built them out of our books– efficient for display but not recovery.

As long as books have been produced they’ve been left unread, from the 16th century ducal library with an inch of dust kept by the upper crust of society as a sign of gentility– surely that is what libraries like the largest floating library in the world on the Queen Mary II, or at the new W Hotel in London are going for to some extent. Jeffrey Todd Knight in his ‘Furnished’’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture”, expands things further, there are books in his essay that lie on desks as would carpets, or books written on for scrap paper, practice, accounting purposes, all totally ignorant of which Canterbury Tale or book of the Bible they may be obscuring. The spectrum of use is very wide. He writes:

[W]e might gain a more inclusive understanding of what lies behind modern
taxonomies by considering texts in relation to a different category of things:
‘‘furniture’’—books that furnish space and furnishings that, like books,
have the capacity to fill minds with information.

Sometimes unreading happens to a single book, for instance the odd copy of M. Merleau-Ponty, covers well worn but unread, spine uncracked– something I have been told by a certain student of the École Normale Supérieure used to be carried around as a kind of intimidation tactic. Books can take on functions that have nothing to do with their content and everything to do with their form. Sometimes you might just like the weight in your bag, or the silent reverence of a secular space like the library, sometimes they help you think independent from themselves. And the emphasis on form isn’t always bad thing: as I have reported here, evidence is now showing that books that are aesthetically pleasing and well made do not suffer the same ravages of digital culture that mass produced paper backs have.

On a personal level, in the past when I have attempted to organize books by their covers and not content, I’ve actually found that emphasizing the visual allows me to remember more easily where they are, especially by color. So sometimes you can have it both ways and organize your books in a way that will get the compliments AND play to your own particular ars memoriae.

Some ways of organizing books:

  1. By color.
  2. By size. (a la the Duke Humphrey Library, Oxford. Or Oprah)
  3. Fore-edge out, chained.
  4. Fore-edge out.
  5. By sentences you can spell using their spines.

Some places to store books:

  1. Shelves
  2. Stairs
  3. Shelves AND Stairs
  4. Stairwells
  5. Scrolls
  6. Everywhere
  7. Everywhere

Some non-books:

  1. Fake Books
  2. Bedside Lamp

How do you use books that is off the beaten path of what we might normally expect? I’d love to hear from you.

Finally, beyond the jump I have pasted the most useful/amusing commentary on books and furniture yet written– two short chapters from Jackson Holbrook’s Anatomy of Bibliomania on “Books as Furniture” and “A Digression of Dummy Books”.

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Excuse the silence, it’s been a pretty hectic few weeks! But here are three weeks worth of digested news related to books, although by this time some of them may have been retweeted and shared to death. Aside from John Charles Gilkey being on the loose again, and the Codex Calixtinus going missing, here’s the shortlist of what’s up:

1. THE SLA [Special Libraries Association] CONFERENCE HAPPENED: Not that I was there, but the beauty of Twitter is that it allows for some distilled information of a very heartening sort, check out the feed here.

2. IN DIGITAL NEWS: Setting type and printing from an old-fashioned letter press? There’s an app for that. Single Stroke alphabets? Xerox has the patent for that. Although speaking of Apps, the British Library has released about 1,000 19th C books for iPad, and that’s only the start of it.

Creative Commons done made a book, The Power of Open, compiling stories of the glories of their work.

PS: E-books are decreasing in value, does that mean economic capital follows cultural capital, or vice versa? On that subject: I have been looking into Nabu Press which so often appears in my wildest Amazon and ABE searching frenzies– and I wonder if their impact on both economies of books doesn’t contribute in some way to the deterioration of perceived value of ebooks when they go back to hardcopy. The internet is rife with horror stories of Nabu buys, but has anyone ever gotten a print on demand that they were proud of?

Which brings us to:

3. IN DE-DIGITAL NEWS: The Internet Archive is backing its stock up in paper copies. Prediction: this is only the beginning of what will be a real news category, as we backtrack from the theoretical dreams & superfluities the internet seems to make possible, to the contingencies of their practical application.


So here it is, probably not as I read it since you make editorial decisions in the heat of the oratorial moment. No one laughed at the Judicial Astrological Virgin joke but what can you do. Let me know if you have any questions &c.

Dispatches from the Department of Acquisition and Destruction:  Robert Burton’s Books at the Bodleian

Brooke Palmieri, April 2011

Book Destruction Conference, UCL


         A little over a year ago at Oxford while I was in my so-called ‘Anatomy of Melancholy Phase’ (holla if you’ve been there) I went to request a book belonging to Robert Burton, his ‘astrological notebook’ from the Duke Humphrey library. I had found it mentioned a few times; once in a 1926 Proceeding[s] of the Oxford Bibliographical Society initiated by W. W. Greg in order to collect specimens of early modern literary autographs; a second time in a 1981 essay by J.M Bamborough, describing the contents of the volume at length, partially in response to what he considered to be Greg’s neglect of its real value, that is, as the only surviving notebook from the prolific melancholic. It’s also in Kiessling’s bibliography of Burton’s library. But because I couldn’t find an online record the librarian said the book didn’t exist. I double-checked my sources, and finally after two more attempts, brandishing Kiessling wildly, another member of staff agreed to check the location of the book. Sure enough, upon his return I was handed Bod. 4to R9 Art. (Bod as in Bodleian; 4to as in shelved with the quartos, as books were stored by size in those days of lock-and-key-chaining-the-books-to-their-proper-places; the R9 puzzles me because it has nothing to do with the author which is the way books were listed, 9 because it is the 9th book on the first shelf, and Art because it is in the Arts section, as opposed to Theology, Medicine and Jurisprudence, the four other categories under which books were separated when catalogued in the 17th century.)

The problem is simply that too many people make too many requests per day for the overwrought staff to leap at everything, so as a matter of policy and SANITY if you’re going to order a printed book you have to do it online, and in advance. I’ve worked at a rare book library before, I am one of the lucky ones who has been asked the question “can you just find this book for me, I read it in here a few years ago and its binding is black and it’s entitled ‘short stories’ and it’s rare, I think”, so this procedure makes total sense to me. But what happens if a book doesn’t have an online catalogue entry? It seems to rephrase—and I know this sounds corny—the proverbial tree-in-a-forest puzzle: if a tree is stored in a library and there’s no way to recall it from the stacks, does it make a difference? Does it effect our histories, does it add to our knowledge of the past? I would call this a potential, very silent form of destruction, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today, the kind of destructiveness that follows, simply, from a library’s day-to-day maintenance; lying somewhere between our deepest ambitions to amass as much material as possible, and the need to organize it in some useful way. Where ‘book destruction’ brings up very compelling images of war, heavy artillery, and totalitarianism, instead I’m talking about the kind of destruction that is institutionalised. Out of necessity. And while digitisation both of books and of cataloguing systems casts these issues in the greatest, most immediate relief so far, I’ll leave that discussion for drinks and instead talk here about how there is a quiet destructiveness that haunts the archive, and it’s a habit that also happens to be historical tradition.
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Angela Seguel, Age 21

One conspicuous absence I have noticed from the usual Rare Book News sources is the announcement that NYU’s Riot Grrrl Archive is now open, what Maggie Serota’s neat article fittingly calls Academia, Girl Style Now:

“Sure, handmade zines and master copies from the movement do comprise an important component of the archive, but the collection boasts a vast variety of equally relevant and defining artifacts. To illustrate her point, Darms unfolds a navy-blue baby doll dress, and identifies it as the dress worn on the cover of Bikini Kill’s seminal Pussy Whipped album. Perhaps the collection’s most prized object is the actual filing cabinet used by Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna to catalog the various clippings, documents, articles and reviews related to Bikini Kill and other prominent figures central to the movement. “

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