Thursday, February 26, 2009

Moving Oeuvre

(Thomas Hardy Memorial Window, St. Michael's Church, Stinsford)

In my hand I hold a slim beauty of indeterminate age, measuring roughly four by six, the leather still fragrant and supple, the color of old burgundy. The title is embossed in gold on the spine, the exterior otherwise innocent. The pages are creamy white, the type large and pleasing. It is a tactile satisfaction just handling such a book. The title page reads:

Under the Greenwood Tree
Thomas Hardy
Illustrated by Percy Graves
London & Glasgow
Collins' Clear Type Press

This is early Hardy, the story of the Mellstock Quire, of Dick Dewy & Fancy Day, of the day when the rustics still fiddled and love suffered but only embarrassment. A charming book, and bound as such.

I have a decrepit set of Hardy, the leather gone rusty and bald, but the boards still attached, the pages clean, if not clear for being in a tight and ugly type, the lines not always plumb. If I could find all Hardy in "Collins' Clear Type," I'd be a happier man. And I have Hardy in a contemporary series, with three novels in each of two squat volumes, clumsy to carry and heavy to hold. Guess which of my Hardy is of modern American make?

Just today I priced two fubsy volumes of "unabridged" Twain: leather-bound, barely stitched, each volume the thickness of a de-luxe Red Robin novelty burger and five times as heavy on the stomach. These two monstrous books, printed in a tiny type, are meant to represent the whole of Twain's considerable ouevre, in one inconvenient, nay impossible lump. They are no more meant to be read through than phonebooks. They represent the very worst sort of bulky American ostentation:

"Look here! See the full extent of my leather bound literacy, and know, as all such big books prove, that I am, quite clearly, sumbudy"

The tragedy of such piggish reprinting is that some well meaning soul is likely to inflict just such a set on some unsuspecting young person who might, if given a clean paperback, actually read Pudd'nhead Wilson. Or, for that matter, Under the Greenwood Tree if likewise given a Penguin. The irony of my beautiful little edition is that as a Used Book, it is likely to be overpriced because of it's handsome covers and then sit unclaimed on the shelf for years. The paperbacks would sell quick enough and cheap. And the ungainly great Twains will sell as well. Trust it.

I wonder if, when my estate, such as it so sorry is, comes to be auctioned, anyone will have the sense to fish out and treasure this perfect little book I hold in my hand? I'd leave it to someone, but the will is already drawn. And who would have it from me without thinking themselves pretty poorly remembered? Still, it's lived, I would guess, near one hundred years and was made to see out another hundred yet, baring fire, flood or the Second Coming. Someone will want it. And by the time they do, I'll be past caring and that is as it ought to be, for I'll not part with it before.

You can have the bulky show of that "unabridged" Twain. Seriously, I priced it to sell.

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