The Book: An Homage
by Burkhard Spinnen
translated by Aaron Kerner
David Godine, 2018
Burkhard Spinnen's 2016 Das Buch now has an English-language translation by Aaron Kerner as The Book: An Homage in a charming little paperback from Godine, with illustrations by Line Hoven. It's the type of handy, inoffensive, slightly gamine thing that's designed to appeal as a last-minute impulse-gift well-meaning distant relatives smilingly bestow on bookish kin they scarcely know. It's less an “homage” to books than it is a light, entirely uncritical series of more-or-less connected brief musings on various aspects of the bookish life. There are chapters like “The Old Book,” “The Damaged Book” “The Right Book,” “The Wrong Book,” “The Loaned Book,” and so on. There are quick, potted reflections on earlier oddities of the bibliophile's life, particularly as they pertain to Spinnen himself as a bookworm:
A hundred years ago, books arrived in the shops with their pages uncut. In a manner of speaking, one had to wound them in order to read them. There existed, expressly for this purpose, particularly flat and sharp knives. For thirty years now I've owned the first edition of one of Alfred Polgar's early books; it's called Motion is Everything. It was published in 1909, and its pages still remain uncut. A book so old, and definitively unread! Numerous times I've hefted the paper knife, but always I've set it aside again, unused. Because I wasn't quite sure that the book had been waiting for me to be its very first reader? Or because I wanted to put off still further the moment of that first reading? I don't know. In order to finally read the text, I borrowed another copy, and had it Xeroxed. For the time being, my own copy remains intact.
It's something of a perennial mystery that books, the source of so much nuance and complexity, should so invariably prompt feather-light keepsakes like this. No publishing season is ever without them, and there's a kind of sense to it: they're companionable things, and as with all books about books, they're sure of their audience. All kinds of readers will find themselves reflected in at least some Spinnen's short meditations – about reading in bed, reading in a comfy chair, reading used books, the whole customary course of chestnuts. And his friendly-old-man (the author was 60 when his book was published) soft rumblings about electronic books have the requisite bewildered tone. “The people who've grown up with computers, the 'digital natives,' are totally accomplished when it comes to writing and reading digital messages,” he writes. “For many of them the book is already an antiquated, almost exotic medium, even when they have a close relationship to various kinds of texts, including literature.”
That the author has neither met nor met anybody who's met anybody who considers books to be antiquated, exotic things barely slows him down a step. It's the kind of thing that's been breathing life into books like this one for the last five hundred years: that books are fading, wounded, magical things, and we who appreciate them always have occasion to pay them wistful homage. Books themselves are much hardier things and would, if they could, very likely scorn such wan tributes. But where would those distant relatives be without them?
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.