Blast | January 15, 2021
“Ten Books” by Priscilla Long
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. We fell in love with the way Priscilla Long’s essay “Ten Books” offers a rich and readerly appreciation of a diverse gallery of books, inside and out.
by Priscilla Long
What I like about a book is its heft. I also like endpapers and French flaps and deckled edges. I like the feel of pages between my fingers. I like turning the pages, holding my place, marking my place. I like ribbon markers. I like the word dingbat—an analphabetic ornament such as an asterisk or an ivy leaf (called a hedera). If I love a book, I must own it. I fondle my books and I dust them. I mean of course my physical books, for digital books have no heft. A physical book is a designed object, and it can be ugly, or it can be artful. A book’s content is a different thing. It can be magical, delightful, informative, insightful. Or it can be dull, a dud, the dumbest thing you ever read. If a book’s physical form is artful, and if its content is insightful or delightful, I want that book. Here I present ten books that are insightful, delightful, and artful, books I would not be without.
A book can be a dinner companion, a lifeboat, a longtime friend. It can be a wonder to behold and to hold, and to read. Such a book is Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographical Style, the fourth edition. It is distinguished by its size, 5.25 x 9 inches, a longer, narrower look than the standard 6 x 9. It has French flaps! It offers a cornucopia of book terms including pilcrow (¶ the paragraph sign), fist (the pointing hand, often with a ruffled cuff at the wrist), octothorp (# the numeral sign), and versal (a large initial letter). To his erudite and visually stunning work on typography and book design, Bringhurst brings history, philosophy, and dagger-sharp opinions. He appears to disdain the overuse of dingbats, for the only ones I find are the hederas separating the alphabet in the index. The book’s designer was Bringhurst himself.
As author, Bringhurst dwells on “page proportions as musical intervals” and page proportions using the golden section (the smaller is to the larger as the larger is to the sum). Certain of his sentences send me into spasms of envy: “The script of Macbeth does not need to be bloodstained and spattered with tears: it needs to be legible” (p. 83). Or “In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field” (19). Or “The earliest alphabetic inscriptions have no analphabetic furniture at all, not even spaces between the words (75).
You might think The Elements of Typographic Style suitable only for book specialists—typesetters and book designers. I think its pleasures could be chewed upon and savored by any reader or by any writer.
Alloy of Love presents the work of sculptor and assemblage artist Dario Robleto. Its wonders are endless, or, if there is an end, I have not reached it. It’s not a big book, not a coffee-table book, but it’s a heavy book. Its heft comes from the coated stock. Coated stock is part clay, and clay is heavy. (I speak as a former printer. I have lifted cartons of coated stock, I have cut it, I have printed on it.) The pages of Alloy of Love are satin-smooth to the touch. Both hard cover and endpapers are a silvery gray. The back pastedown (the endpaper pasted to the back cover) has a pocket. Folded into the pocket is the full-color poster for Robleto’s 2008 ten-year retrospective at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. The book has three ribbon markers, one silver, one gold, and one the color of copper.
It is lavishly illustrated with Robleto’s works, which comprise, in the words of curator Elizabeth Dunbar, “a love song to America, an extended meditation on longing and loss.” The essays on Robleto’s works are gorgeous, and each begins with a swash (a big fancy letter). Titles and captions are entwined in a vine-like ornament—a dingbat— printed in gold ink.
Robleto is deep into old songs and performs his magic on vinyl records of specific songs, such as the brightly colored buttons of many sizes, patterns, and colors made from melted Billie Holiday records and titled Sometimes Billie is All That Holds Me Together. Alchemical is a word that appears more than once in this book. The materials of nostalgia and American culture that Robleto transforms include human ashes, bones, shredded love letters, gold dust, red velvet, a prehistoric cave-bear digit, hair flowers embroidered by a Civil War widow, fabric from soldiers’ uniforms, fired bullets, shell castings, tree sap, dirt from various battlefields, antique bullet forceps (for extracting bullets from bodies), horsehair, broken male hand bones, pain bullets (used by Civil War soldiers to bite on during surgery), album covers, test tubes, amber, rock salt, and among much other detritus, vinyl records, many vinyl records, their specific songs integral to the piece.
Robleto puts the pieces through a process. He gives them a history and then relates their history in lengthy captions. In the piece I Wish the Ocean Sounded More Like Patsy Cline, “a collection of seashells were grouped into a series of pairs. Each couple was then serenaded with a different Patsy Cline song for 48 hours at a time. Each seashell’s partner was then either returned to the shore or used to make sand in The Words to All the Love Songs Start Making Sense When You’ve Gone Away.”
The titles to the pieces illustrated in this mesmerizing book are themselves mesmerizing: If We Do Ever Get Any Closer at Cloning Ourselves Please Tell My Scientist-Doctor to Use Motown Records as My Connecting Parts; a medical display shelf made in part of powderized Motown records “from Mother’s record collection”; A Dark Day for the Dinosaurs made from a dinosaur bone and melted vinyl from T. Rex’s song “Life’s a Gas.”
Anne Carson’s book, or whatever it is, is titled Float. Imagine an acrylic plastic see-through slipcase, the kind of plastic made to hold bus schedules on King County Metro buses. I admit I am not fond of the slipcase. Inside are twenty-eight chapbooks. Some are stapled pamphlets. Others are one sheet, folded in half. Others are a half-sheet, just one leaf. The chapbook covers are printed solid blue or solid pale green, with the titles knocked out in white (the white is the paper being printed on). If you pull this thing out of your bag the wrong way all twenty-eight chapbooks scatter to the floor, giving fresh meaning to the word slipcase. But never mind, for they can be read, as the author tells us, in any order.
This is Anne Carson, the classicist. Wizard of the sentence, the poem, the play. Wizard of language. Translator of ancient Greek. The most moving chapbook concerns her lost brother. It includes the lines:
met on the telephone you don’t know me she said but your brother just died in my
been married seventeen years.
Cookbooks count. Cooking from Scratch, the cookbook from Seattle’s PCC Community Markets counts a lot. This is our local market, begun as a co-op in 1953, famous for sustainable practices, organic foods, and alliances with local farmers and growers. I’ve been a member for nearly thirty years.
Cooking from Scratch is a beauty. It’s a large (8 x 10-inch) paperback with French flaps, its cover printed with shiny cherry tomatoes, its title knocked out in white. Inside, on the bastard title (or half-title) page, the title is overprinted in black on an image of a pale blue skillet. Throughout the cookbook, pale blue blocks overprinted in black offer tips and facts on subjects such as “Grass-fed Beef,” “The Greatest Greens,” and “Five Tips for Smarter Holiday Eating.”
The name of each dish is printed in red-pepper red. Above the name, a paragraph narrates historical and culinary facts on the given dish and offers suggestions for fixing and serving. For example, the narration for Halibut with Ginger-Rhubarb Sauce begins, “Sometimes it feels like salmon gets all the love in the Pacific Northwest, and that’s simply not fair to the other spectacular wild fish from Alaska and the Washington coast.”
Below the name of the dish, one column lists ingredients and a second column gives directions. At the foot of the page, under a short rule (a black line), information is printed about the dish’s calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, sugar, and protein.
The running chapter heads appear in the outside margins (technically, this is a running shoulder head). You find your chapter—main courses, salads, soups, desserts, or whatever—by flipping the pages with your thumb.
A comely cookbook is nice, but what about the recipes? Are they any good? I am not much of a cook, so I have tried only one: Linguini with asparagus and peas. Oh! Three kinds of peas—sugar snap, snow, and English. Leeks instead of onions. Baby arugula. Baby spinach. The sauce is soft goat cheese. It is beyond delicious.
Lydia Davis, the short story writer, is famous for very short stories. Her collected stories are contained in a fat paperback with deckled edges and French flaps. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is soft to the touch, its thickness almost squishy. The cover is a peachy orange with words knocked out in white. The backstrip (covering of spine) is white with orange words. The page size is exactly the size of my hand, a bit larger than 7 x 4 inches. The title page has a rectangular frame printed around it. The running heads and titles are in italics.
Did I mention that her stories are short? They may have a title plus one sentence. Or a title plus two lines. Many travel from beginning to end in a single paragraph. But these are not scraps or fragments or sketches or glimpses. Each is a complete story: dramatic, compressed, tense, and ultimately resolved. They begin in one place and arrive at a different place. The voice can be obsessive and (ironically) long-winded, the wit sharp as broken glass—thrilling.
Some books are meant to be held, daydreamed over, dipped into to, dabbled in, gazed at, wondered at, and read here and there rather than straight through. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s Red Book (A Reader’s Edition) contains his most private thoughts, fantasies, and dreams, his quest for self-realization, his dialogs with himself during which he discovers within himself the dark, murderous side of humanity along with the side of light and love. Jung kept his Red Book private and secret during his lifetime, and his family kept it in a safe for decades after his death. Now, we have it at last. The “reader’s edition” contains the words but not the artwork of the original edition, which Norton brought out as a facsimile, and which contains Jung’s colored drawings of serpents, elaborate floral versals, trees exploding into starbursts, living skulls, ghosts, mandalas, and bucolic scenes such as a sword-killed cow bleeding from the mouth. The reader’s edition is designed like a bible, with limp (soft, flexible) dusky-red leather covers with yapped edges—on three sides the cover edges extend beyond the book block. The Red Book’s title is printed in gold and black inks. The book has a red-threaded headband across the crown—the top of the spine. The corners are rounded, and the ribbon marker is red. The endpapers display in brown ink Jung’s closely spaced, neat German handwriting on a gray background. Inside, the ivory pages with their curved corners are printed in black ink but with dusky-red running heads, chapter titles, initial letters or sometimes words, some of which appear instead in dark blue.
Here is a bit of the text:
Sixth night. My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink. The journey leads through hot sand, slowly wading without a visible goal to hope for? How eerie is this wasteland. It seems to me that the way leads so far away from mankind. I take my way step by step, and do not know how long my journey will last.
Why is my self a desert? Have I lived too much outside myself in men and events? Why did I avoid myself? Was I not dear to myself?
Home Ground, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, was gifted to me by my niece Joanna and her husband Mike with the words, “We’re hoping you already have this book because we want it.” No, I did not have it. (Now I do.) The minute you lay eyes on this lexicon of terms for landscapes and waterscapes written by some forty poets and writers from Barbara Kingsolver to Robert Haas, you will lust for it. It is, as the editors write, an American vocabulary of place. It gives us words for where we grew up, for where we live, for where we travel to—from mountain to river mouth to mudflat.
It’s a big book (8.5 x 11 inches), with big, easy-to-read type, with terms to be defined—riffle, rill, rim valley—in bold. The textblock is only four inches wide on an eight-inch-wide page, allowing for wide outside margins, used for sketches of geographic features, and for quotes in italics from poems and novels and memoirs that envision the American landscape. In addition, most entries include an anecdote or literary quote. The entries on American geographies are engaging and so downright interesting that I’m having difficulty writing these words, for I cannot stop reading. I can say that the headband is yellow and the endpapers are red. I am searching in vain for a single dingbat.
Is there a reader alive who has never read the essays of neurologist Oliver Sacks? If so, this person, having been marooned on a remote island or locked up without books, is now in for a bibliophile’s banquet. For dessert—and it would work just as well as an appetizer—I recommend Sacks’s posthumously published Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. Here you get his loves (swimming, museums, libraries). His curiosity (what exactly is an out-of-body experience, neurologically speaking?). His compassionate, perceptive writing on his patients (the man, for instance, who could not stop hiccupping).
The physical book is low-key, handsome, a pleasing weight. Its size, 5.75 x 8.5 inches, is so much more satisfying than that of the ubiquitous 6 x 9-inch book. Why is that? I wish I knew. The typeface is Sabon, “designed by Jan Tschichold (1902–1974), the well-known German typographer,” according to the colophon in the back. Each chapter begins with a versal (a large initial letter). The cover is blue and black, the headband is white and black, and the pages are an ivory white. But the real beauty of Oliver Sacks’s last book is in the precision of his sentences, in his compassion for his patients’ curious lives, in the revelations about his own life, and in his love for science, its discoveries and questions.
Rosalind E. Krauss’s book-length contemplation on Picasso, The Picasso Papers, is the exact size of Sacks’s book. (Book sizes are limited by the standard dimensions of the stock that printers cut into sheets, so there’s no huge variety of book sizes.) Both books have a similar heft, both have chapters beginning with a versal. So alike in design are these two books that you would think the same person designed them. Krauss’s book has no colophon at the end to say who did what.
The pleasures in The Picasso Papers inhere in Krauss’s erudition, in her fascinating analysis of Picasso along with modernism and postmodernism, in her intellectual independence from Picasso’s adoring biographers, and in her vocabulary. Among the words and phrases I looked up were pastiche, reaction formation (in which secrets are projected onto their opposition and thereby revealed), and fixed referent (in which an image of a bowl refers to a bowl, not to a breast or a hill).
This is one of those books that is a tad difficult but neither pedantic nor academic, worth rereading a page, worth looking up a word, worth contemplating Picasso’s images, worth, even, writing in the margins, underlining, adding one’s own thoughts to those of the author, thus making the book your very own book, forevermore, since you have now destroyed it.
Slow Art, produced in conjunction with an exhibition of twenty-nine artists by the National Museum of Stockholm and authored by Cilla Robach, has boards covered in red buckram with the words Slow Art stamped in silver. It’s printed on two kinds of paper, an ivory-colored stock for the essays and a white-colored coated stock with a matte (non-shiny) finish for the lavish photographs of the art. The ribbon marker is pale viridian.
Slow art is craft art, art made by hand in painstaking repetitive motions. The various artists work in metal, ceramics, textiles, iron, eggshells, titanium, embroidery thread, silk thread, leather pieces, slips of paper and steel wire, shards of sheet glass, chainmail, clay, old oak wood, old encyclopedias cut into strips, dried petals, paper, silver wire, and old books cut into pieces. A description of each artist’s work is printed on the recto (the forward page—in English, the right-hand page), with the photo of the artwork on the verso (the left-hand page). The book design itself is a product of slow art, for each of these pages, though unified by the typeface (Indigo), is designed differently, with the textblock appearing ragged left, flush right (opposite the convention) or shaped as a triangle or an L or a slope or narrow band.
Slow art opposes conceptual art without mentioning conceptual art. In conceptual art it is the idea that counts. In slow art it is tacit knowledge—the long-practiced nonverbal experience of the hands. It is fragile, delicate, precise, demanding work. The artists speak of reaching a meditative state as they breathe, as they perform their craft on a single artwork that can take months to complete. Malou Andersson’s carpet design “consists of 35,555 knots divided into 225 rows, a work that took more than 200 hours to complete.” Just reading Slow Art makes you want to slow down and breathe as you contemplate the necklace, the bowl, the rug, the embroidered linen, the paper cutout, the dress.
What I like about a book is the world secured between its covers. And I like its covers, the limp yapped covers, the silver covers, the red buckram covers. I like the feel of the stock—printer’s term for paper—on my fingers as I turn the page. I like the look of the page, its typeface corralled into its textblock, its gutter and fore-edge and running head and folio (page number). I like ribbon markers and I like dingbats. I like books for their physical beauty. I like them for their heft. And, too, I like them for their sentences, their images, their ideas. I like them for what they say.
The Ten Books
Robert Bringhurst, Elements of Typographical Style, Fourth Edition (Seattle and Vancouver, BC: Hartley & Marks Publishers, 2009). Designed by Robert Bringhurst.
Dario Robleto, Alloy of Love (Seattle: University of Washington Press and Saratoga Springs: The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, 2008). Designed by Barbara Glauber and Erika Nishizato/ Heavy Meta.
Anne Carson, Float (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). Designed by Cassandra J. Pappas.
PCC Community Markets with Jill Lightner, Cooking from Scratch (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2018). Designed by Anna Goldstein. Photographs by Charity Burggaaf.
Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, editors, Home Ground (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006). Designed by Julie Savasky.
Carl Jung, The Red Book: Reader’s Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). “Art direction by Larry Vigon. Book adaptation and composition by Laura Lindgren. From the facsimile edition designed by Eric Baker Associates.”
Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009). Designed by Jonathan D. Lippincott.
Oliver Sacks, Everyting in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019). Designed by Cassandra J. Pappas.
Rosalind E. Krauss, The Picasso Papers (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998). No designer listed.
Cilla Robach, Slow Art (Stockholm: National Museum of Stockholm, 2012). Designed by BankerWessel/Ida Wessel and Emilie Lindquist.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, science, history, and fiction, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. She is author of six books, including The Writer’s Portable Mentor (University of New Mexico Press); a collection of memoirist creative nonfictions titled Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press); Crossing Over: Poems (University of New Mexico Press); and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators (Coffeetown Publishers). Her most recent book, Holy Magic (MoonPath Press) is the winner of the press’s Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award. She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Photo by Jerry Jaz
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