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Dragon’s hoard and loving paper-bound literature

BY COLIN GILBERT | JULY 15, 2009 7:15 AM

Books have a wonderful solidity to them, and I really do enjoy the sight of my bedroom walls lined with stacks of them. I’ve endured that particular Iowa City method of nomadism, moving house to house, apartment upon crumbling apartment, several times now, and so my once-enormous cache of books has disseminated through the basements and boxes of town. Now, I have my stripped-down essentials, a collection of Calvino, Nabokov, Ballard, and Banville, and the odder novels of my special interest, the weird Czech authors such as Bohumil Hrabal and Karel Capek, but I miss the sheer variety I once possessed at hand.

Another friend seems to have been hoarding books for untold decades. His cube-like apartment consists of a mattress, desk, miniature TV, and thousands and thousands of covers, ranging in subject from ancient erotica to Russian opera, in tone from dense academia to Harlequin Romance. His room is awe-inspiring, truly, to be surrounded by high-rises of the these wonderful codices, and I have very little doubt whether he’s read every one of them at least twice.

I won’t bemoan it here again, that topic has gone stale enough, but I’d like to mention that a purely digital world will never, ever fulfill the wonder and joy I feel when I walk into a book-lined room.

I got into bookbinding as a hobby some years ago, a trick of the hands and eyes that I gave to friends as journals or sketchbooks. It wasn’t all that difficult to find diagrams and directions online for various stitches, presses, and paper, and after a few wobbly first tries, I settled on what’s called the “Coptic Stitch” technique of binding the pages together, a kind of neat exposed knitting that runs like vertebrae up the book’s spine. People tell me I should investigate the Center for the Book, which does seem to have quite a reputation, but frankly, I keep this hobby as my own. I am no great artist in this sense, it’s just my way of relaxing. I think most of all I enjoy holding in my hand, turning over and over the finished product, a book I’d like one day to fill with words of my own. A blank slate, a white canvas, and when I inspect the stitches for soundness, turn the pages I’ve wrought from anonymous paper (you see, they have become pages), I’m really only thinking about what I might write in it. Nothing’s ever good enough, predictably, and I would come to regret maiming my creation with substandard material. I don’t even like keeping a journal; I’m often embarrassed by what I peruse from even a week ago and the banal thoughts I thought then so clever.

(I keep one anyway, of course, everybody should, just a pocket notebook for this or that trivium, such and such snatches of eavesdropped phrases, a memory worth jogging, even if later that memory is discarded).

Now that I’m moving yet again into another lair in Iowa City’s warren-like hodgepodge of housing I have to box all these books and heave them a few blocks thataway. I’m sure I’ll end up leaving something behind, some treasure that at the time I’ll forget but in a month crave. In a way I like the feeling, that so much of myself lingers in the spaces I once occupied. And old roommate once said that he’s still finding books of mine in odd corners of the house, like the backs of kitchen drawers or equalizing unequal table-legs. I wonder what I’ll give this house. Maybe I should sell them all and start going to the library exclusively — it’s a little like lining a room with books, in essence, and I’d always know where to find what I’m looking for. I just couldn’t underline passages or pen notes in the margins (one of the chief pleasures of holding a book: imparting one’s imprint on it).


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