Editor’s Note: And now let me present some of my ideas for where this site will fly to in 2018.
I originally started OldBookAppreciator.com in late 2016, allowed it to languish some months, and then finally became serious about it around four months ago when I was able to re-jigger my work schedule to allow for more regular reading and writing.
The niche I wanted to fill was for a website that reviewed obscure books from past ages. My perception is that there were no shortage of antique book collector websites, but these were all about buying, selling, and collecting physical copies of antique books, as opposed writing literary criticism of the contents of the books themselves (many of which can be read! FOR FREE! ONLINE! Isn’t the internet grand?) I’m interested in questions like, sure Alice in Wonderland is famous, sure an early copy will sell for a lot, but is it good? And what about all those non-famous books that have been published through the ages—are any of those any good? (Spoiler: Many of them are.)
Antiquarian book collecting, by way of digression, is a nice business/hobby if you have the wherewithal to get into it, and as you can tell from the design of this website I do think the physical and graphic features of antique books have a charm all their own. While it’s not the focus of this site, for those with the interest (and disposable income) to collect antique books, I can off-handedly give the following guidance:
- Consult John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors and Books Will Speak Plain by Julia Miller. I highly recommend both.
- Recognize there are about 3 – 5 factors that determine the resale value of whatever you purchase; do your homework.
- Apropos to #2, list price is not necessarily indicative of sale price.
- If you’re trying to flip books, your willingness/ability to wait (a long time, sometimes) for the right buyer to turn up will often determine whether you lose money or gain it.
- The internet is where the action is. Unless your physical store is located in a highly trafficked area like New York City or the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas—looking at you, Bauman—you may struggle mightily to find clientele willing to plop down $1,000 even on books you know are worth that much.
- Auctions with few bidders favor the buyer; auctions with many bidders favor the seller. If you’re trying to make money, bid at the former and sell through the latter.
But the main project of this site stems from a vain, fantastical, and yet (I think) not altogether uncommon ambition/pretentious pose, that of the writer of erudition. (I caught it from Joyce.) The WOE (for it truly is a woeful thing to aspire after) is not content to just tell nice stories and entertain you; no! he (and with Pola Oloixarac in Argentina and Sybille Lewitscharoff in Germany, we can also say she) instead must parade their depth and breadth of learning right in front of you like some damn know-it-all—and even worse when he/she starts spouting gobbledygook in a 2nd or 3rd language, that takes the cake. And I’m not innocent: Ah, you know of X (which is why you’re reading this review) but have you heard of Y and Z whose names I am now dropping as a macho demonstration of my prodigious reading? Bourdieu (the Frenchness of whose name gives it extra authority) had all of us WOEs and aspiring WOEs pegged when he said it’s a class thing, a way of signalling our cultural capital.
But in defense of me and my fellow wannabe WOEs, I believe it’s not just that, for just as there are physiological and socio-historical preconditions that make certain “hipster” music a harbinger of what will soon become mainstream—it is not all just a social construct—I believe there are certain inimitable qualities in the literature of other countries and in the literature of the past that merit a continued visitation (or revisitation) within these fields. Aren’t all of us who review new books at least somewhat trading on their newness? And yet let us allow that the world needs new books and people to evaluate them, lest our culture become stale and self-contented. Let us allow that translators and reviewers of translations (who I am not trying to cast shade on, only use as an example) get some amount of cachet from giving us exclusive knowledge of work hidden behind barriers of language; are they not also actually performing a service by promulgating and making less exclusive that knowledge we otherwise would not have had? And I intend to redeem my pretentions of being an WOE similarly by calling my readers’ attentions to the existence of works whose worthiness should not be overlooked merely because few except scholars talk of them anymore.
Now let me summarize how I intend to do that.
I think of my bibliomania as a group of ongoing “projects” for self-improvement—self-improvement being a euphemism here for “partially becoming, and at least creating the image of being, a WOE.” Why can’t you just like things just to like them? say the people I referred to in my last post who consider my personality unattractive. And the answer is: I do. But that alone can’t cause the rest of the world to give a damn; I refer you to Dr. Johnson’s famous line about blockheads.
Anyway, one of these projects is an “ancient world project,” another the “master prose stylists project,” another the “histories and historians project,” another the “epic poetry project,” another the “European modernists project”; then of course you have projects organized by genre, geography, and time period; French dramatists of the 17th and 18th century, say; autobiographies of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and so on. From there, I build out a list and decide, “If I just read these texts, then I will know so much more about this time period or genre.” And the goal of these various projects is to develop something like an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and world history.
(Let’s step back and acknowledge that my use of the phrase “encyclopedic knowledge of literature and world history” indicates a level of hubris that is—depending on how you look at it—admirable, deplorable, laughable, unbelievable, the sign-of-nothing-good, and also kind of exhilarating—like the view from ten thousand feet in the air; the additional syllable provided here by “ten” making it sound more majestic, and my puncturing of my own pomposity making me no less of a prig.)
Given my goal of making this site a resource for those seeking that “10,000 feet in the air” view of literary history, I think this site would be a good venue to host clubs and challenges that taps into that rich history. These participatory events (it sounds so clinical when I word it that way :D) would be modeled after, for example, what Roof Beam Reader has done with his Classics Club, except instead of breaking out the choices by time period (at least for this first one) instead we’d break them out by genre.
Early Modern Book Club
I recently expressed curiosity to a friend over the widespread and persistent “obsession” (as it seemed to me) with Henry VIII. This friend, who I should note had never read Hilary Mantel’s much-loved (and Booker Prize-hogging) Wolf Hall series, could nonetheless expound at impressive length all of the over-the-top insane circumstances of this monarch’s career, the shameless womanizing, the multiple wives, the strutting and bullying and conniving, the invention of his own church simply to get out of an inconvenient marriage, the harassment and then execution of those (like Thomas More) who wouldn’t go along with his (initially private) revolution against the established order. While I confess some ignorance of this particular eon in the court annals of England, I can see that part of what fascinates people about Henry VIII is how he represents the triumph of the individual over the polity; heretofore the Church had been order of the day, and here comes this selfish egotistical bastard lugging his fat ass right across the marquee of history and saying, “Nah!”
And it dawned on me what it was (aside from the literature, which we’ll get to) that people love about the period lasting from (let’s just, for convenience, take the outer limits) 1400 – 1699 AD, known (take your pick) as The Renaissance or The Early Modern Period: this is a period when, at long last, humanity (or at least its European contingent) finally allowed its freak flag to fly. While the recently cancelled TNT drama Will was certainly hackneyed in its blending of punk rock with the theater scene of Elizabethan England, its creators understood correctly that more than any time before it in England, France, and Italy, this was a time of intimate skullduggery, of uncouth language and cynicism that distinguished itself from the medieval kind mostly by its intellectualized, individualized, and artistically-inclined flavor. The Italian Wars of the late 15th century were not the first time rascally rulers connived to grab each other’s territory, but it was the first time a Guiccardini or a Machiavelli was around to give us some very entertaining play-by-play.
This was a time of literary firsts: a 23-year-old shows up in Florence in 1486 hocking his 900 Theses and “Essay on the Dignity of Man” and draws the wrath of the Catholic church down upon him. Another precocious youngster writes an encyclopedia of “natural magick” that becomes a publishing hit throughout Europe, while a book about how to be a good “Courtyer” also becomes a big hit. Early in the 15th century, a French monk writes one of the most hilarious books of all time, while later another Frenchman invented a new type of introspective literature that had never appeared before. A liberal-minded French monarch turns her court into a safe-haven for freethinkers (and starts a witty short story-writing club), while a loud-mouthed son of a tailor boldly sticks his uncouth pen into the affairs of the nobility and invents literary pornography. One woman writes the world’s greatest letters and another the world’s longest novel (possibly.) A shy, retiring Oxford scholar writes the world’s most learned book under the pen name Democritus Junior, and we also get some halfway decent epic poems written about English topography, human anatomy, crusades, voyages of discovery, faerie queens, and Satan.
Further afield, an old man tilted at windmills in Spain, which produced more great dramatists than you can shake a stick at. (Though jolly England wasn’t altogether too shabby either.) A Swiss doctor burned the works of Galen and prescribed forbidden chemical medicines, Galen’s followers called him a quack, and an Englishman pleaded with everyone to start writing their methods and results down so that it could be independently confirmed that you can’t turn lead into gold, thus laying the foundation for what came to be known as science. Science came on strong in the last part of this period, with a witty telescope engineer getting arrested for writing a book where two shlubs make fun of the Pope for believing the sun revolves around the Earth, another wackadoodle who invented modern mathematics, and a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam who threw a wrench into centuries of religious dogma. A Frenchman proved we’re not plants stuck in the Matrix by saying, “I think, therefore I am.” One Englishman told us we’re all savage beasts who need to knuckle under to the King, while another said that the natural state of man was to be peaceful, independent, and free. There were fine books written about fishing, venerie, and trees. There were also lots of sad shepherds.
I would like to set up an Early Modern Book Club because this era is so fascinating to me, and I wonder if there is latent interest in the book blogosphere in diving into some the less well-known texts from this era with me. I think of this book club as an opportunity to expand the conversation about this time period to include continental Europe (particularly France and Italy), and to broaden the conversation beyond just poetry and drama (which modern readers know so well through Shakespeare, Milton, and John Donne.) The truth is that the early modern period was also an extraordinary literary period for prose too, albeit not necessarily the kind of prose we’re used to reading (prose fiction). To encounter the best prose from the early modern period, it is necessary for us to go outside of fiction and explore other genres and other subject matters, to enjoy the style (and this period had some crazy styles!) even when the content is otherworldly.
Post-script: Let me know in the comments if this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of or if you have any recommendations/suggestions for how to get this started! (I’m entirely new at organizing something like this, so I welcome any help you might be able to render.)
Next-Steps: I think I’ll start by drafting a Big List of Early Modern Books with links and so forth (to be posted in the next day or so), and we’ll see what suggestions you come up with as well. Then I’ll post a monthly poll (with a different literary genre every month) to select the next early modern book y’all are most interesting in reading and discussing. I suppose that’s the best way.
Posted on January 4, 2018 at 4:40 pm, in The Old Book Blog