“Books are much more than an escape. They are a way of being fully human.”
So opens the 2020 documentary, The Booksellers, a Parker Posey-produced ode to the Holy Grails of the printed word, Rare Books, and the people who sell and collect them. Who else is a book person? You longtime “Room” readers know I am, and watching The Booksellers is an exercise in geekdom. It also got me thinking of the fleeting, relatively uniform nature of blogging and of digital media in general, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Heck, The Booksellers is not just geekdom. It’s basically book porn, and I’m not advocating actual porn by any stretch of the imagination, but The Booksellers is porn-ish in that this film knows what book lovers want to see. There are closeups throughout the movie of worn covers and highly detailed book spines, roughened pages and hand-tinted illustrations. The viewer can see all the fibers and irregularities in these books, especially if they watch the doc in 4K. Best of all, the books we see come from all eras. There are illuminated texts and Georgian atlases, Victorian children’s novels and Cervantes-era prints of Don Quixote. Ardent book lovers may gasp so often as to become a wee bit lightheaded.
What kind of person sells rare books? Typically, the first thing that comes to the mind is a cantankerous or reticent old guy in tweeds and elbow patches, but that’s far from the case nowadays. Booksellers are of all races, sexes, and ages, coming from all walks of life. Some even sport haircolors not found in nature. There are former lawyers and teachers, there are those who are born into it, and there are others who simply wanted in on the rare book world.
Either way, one of the obvious plumblines of collecting, books and otherwise, is its gotta-have-it-ness. People who are new to the trade are often suprised at the ardent enthusiasm they find themselves mustering when they see a book they want. Once they’ve got it, there’s no looking back. And they want more.
Book collecting’s other plumbline is the fear of history disappearing, and it’s not limited to finished works. Writers and students of all kinds have found inspiration and interest in looking at early drafts and writers’ notes, both of which are becoming endangered species. Since the advent of computers and digital writing, a lot of writers don’t take notes the way they used to, and any knowledge we have a of a current writer’s creative process is unknown. Ergo, a lot of writers are donating their notes to universities instead of tossing them, which I agree with. I’d give my eye teeth to look at C.S. Lewis’s notes. Or Tolkien’s. Either one would be amazing.
(I wonder if my alma mater would take the Star Trek parody I wrote in the eighth grade. Meh, maybe not.)
Or, heck, preserving one’s work at all might be dicey as we head further and further into the Digital Age. I’ll lay odds a lot of bloggers have thought about this–there’s always the danger of a server going down or not being able to pay a hosting fee, which means potentially losing decades of time and energy. It’s a sobering thought, which is why some bloggers chose to have their work printed in book form.
Getting back to the film, the epicenter of the rare book trade is New York City, and contrary to what You’ve Got Mail implies, competition between sellers isn’t always make-or-break fierce. In fact, there used to be a street in New York informally known as Book Row, which was nothing but bookshops. The shop owners didn’t want to sell books so much as read them all day, which begs the question of how they were able to stay in business, but the rare book trade has always been something of a rich person’s game, or maybe that of the hustler, possibly both. Either way, it’s an art form in and of itself.
Speaking of art forms, what makes collecting so unique is that every collector has their own way of looking at collecting and rare books, and the film makes the excellent point that everyone who collects or studies may see things others don’t. For instance, the film details older collectors who store up ephemera about women’s history because once upon a time no one was talking about women all that much when it came to our collective past.
One place where collectors and sellers tend to differ is the future of rare book collecting and books in general. Some see historical literacy as a driving factor; there may not be a demand for books because people don’t know what to look for. On the other hand, there might be people who desire the tactile experience of being around books and just having them, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean reading them.
There are those who believe books may disappear altogether, and others who think books will be more desired than ever. Preservation is also a big thing; some collectors make a point of having their inventories completely digitized for future generations and to make their collections more accessible.
Not surprisingly, though, a lot of collectors aren’t fans of digital books when it comes to reading, and I can’t agree more. I’m not a fan either except for college textbooks, which are so heavy and possibly completely useless if a school’s bookstore won’t take them back. However, sometimes those old books can be handy references. I still have my big fat lit anthologies, plus every Shakespeare play I read for school. And yes, I still use them.
But that’s just me.
In case it’s not clear by now, I totally got into The Booksellers. I’ve had an almost unbroken streak of mediocre to bad movies for a while now, and it’s nice to find a fist-pumpingly good film.
Crystal’s Anne Bancroft Blogathon is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…
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