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A Passion for Books


“A room without books is a body without a soul–Cicero.” “ A book is like a garden carried in the pocket–Chinese Proverb.” “Books break! Please support the covers when open. (The proprietor).”

These sayings greet browsers at Miriam Green, along with a steely, practiced ‘librarian stare’. Such as was employed to engage silence in a reading room, now employed to engage attentional respect from readers for what they are handling--or from children running off leash. Miriam Green, while know for its ‘distracting curiosities’, is at heart, a scholar’s library of rare, out-of-print, and out-of-the-ordinary books, approximately three thousand titles, organized with some semblance of order, sometimes by size, age, sometimes by subject. The collection is always changing–after all the books are for sale, albeit sometimes reluctantly.

Books are to be used, to be touched, opened, pages turned, absorbed. Like sipping fine whiskey or applying perfume, with delicacy, with appreciation. But with indifferent handling, people unintentionally spoil, damage, or break books. So I watch carefully how people handle books, how they remove them from the shelves, how they open the covers, and yes, even turn the page. When I am satisfied, they may browse freely through the collections, some on open shelves, some in locked cases.

Bibliophilia is the love of books. I have a passion for books, their artistry, their history, their audible voice to ages past. Books and delicious digressions on the "evils of book collecting", the history of libraries, collectors, even bookshelves are subjects of endless fascination. For more than a thousand years books were considered so precious, so rare, that to own them conferred its own status. The privilege ownership of books conferred was enormous, difficult to fathom until we understand how Richard deBrury, Chancellor to Edward III and a celebrated bibliophile, once gave 50 pound weight of silver for a book, and Alfred the Great bartered an entire estate to a Benedictine Abbot for a single title on Cosmography.

I have had the prodigious gift of familiarity with the rarified atmosphere of sublime collections, handling thousands of rare books and manuscripts, had the pleasure of assisting scholars to navigate what was familiar to me and eye-opening to them. Therein lies the gift. To appreciate a book and share this.

So immediate, so intimate, a book is the perfect package: like the egg, it cannot be improved upon. From papyrus, to vellum, to paper, books hold all our culture between their covers. From the introduction, in the second century A.D., of the ‘codex’, a square book format that replaced the roll or scroll (volumen, from volare, to roll, which remains in our vocabulary as ‘volume’) there has never been a more accessible more intimate vehicle for the transmission of knowledge. Forget the e-book, you cannot compare an electronic device with the tactility and personality of the printed text. You do not need a power source, you are the plug.

The book is a quintessential human design, even the terminologies that describe its parts are anatomically expressive. The spine of the book secures the covers. The spine has a head and a tail piece where the sewing connects the book block to its covers. The heads are weakened and frayed by being pulled from the shelf, you should always grasp the book in the middle of the spine. The spine can be damaged, broken, most often by opening a book too far, and not supporting the covers. Pages must be turned carefully, deliberately. Books should not be forced alongside their neighbors, there should always be ‘wiggle’ room to facilitate removing another title. Nor shoved to the rear of the shelf-- books need breathing room. Books should be ‘edged’, so that the spines are almost flush with the front of the shelf, known as straightening the shelves. Oversize or hefty tomes should be stored flat, and when opened supported securely because of their bulk. If this all sounds rather fastidious, perhaps you have not experienced the electricity books communicate in the simple act of discovery. Pulling a book off a shelf and allowing it to wrap you so tightly in its spell that you are no longer where you are. Books command respect.

So what makes a book rare? While space does not permit further amplification, succinctly, the demand for it is greater than the supply. And in this market place that determines rarity, a sought-after ‘modern first’ with a dust jacket will fetch as much or more than a 16th century Book of Hours. I infinitely, unabashedly prefer the latter. We will discuss value, rarity, and condition of books in another column. For the reader, the collector, what makes a book beautiful, desirable, elusive, remembered, or necessary, in the final analysis remains far more important.

  Editor’s note: Susan Alon, proprietor of MiRIAMGREEN Antiquarian Bookshop & Gallery, in her former life was Head of Special Collections at Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis and Secretary to the Historical Collections, Yale School of Medicine. She is a rare book consultant for Lyman Allyn Art Museum (New London) and a certified appraiser. Locally she offers appraisal workshops on books and is available for Library Friends’ groups seeking to raises funds with an appraisal event. If you are interested in arranging a library or community event, contact her at 88 East Main Street, Clinton, 860-664-4200.  


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