Everyone has a blog … everyone’s on Twitter … everyone’s feverishly tapping out 140-character wisdoms on their cell phone keypads. The paradigm is shifting towards instantaneous communication: short, sharp one-liners, or one screen at a time.
And then there are people like Randy — a no-holds barred, out and out anachronism in this day and age: he’s a book collector.
I spent the most amazing evening with Randy, last night, listening to him impassion over his collection of first edition books by the likes of Charles Dickens, Robert Heinlein, Zane Grey and Mazo de la Roche — all legends of the old literary paradigm, in case some of you didn’t know. He has shelves and shelves of them. He showed me a box of amazing signatures by George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Rice Burroughs, William Makepeace Thackary, T.S. Eliot — hardly names of contemporary celebrity, like Matt Mullenweg, or Robert Scoble or Barack Obama, the heroes of the modern paradigm.
The bookshelves in Randy’s small living room crowd around us, stacked two rows deep with first editions, signed editions, leather bounds, and books that were damaged when he bought them and rebound them himself, laboriously sewing signatures and gluing and pressing them and finishing them with his own lettering on the cover. But the books here are only a fraction of his collection. These are largely the most prized possessions; there are another 15,000 in boxes in his mother’s basement, he explains.
I pondered if I should tell him he could probably save a lot of space by putting them all onto a 500 gigabyte hard drive. I decided to leave it alone. He was somewhere else … and so was I, really. Besides, it wouldn’t have been that funny.
“Don’t get me started about books, or I’ll be going all evening,” he warns.
At one point, he tosses me a piece of smooth vellum (calf skin used for writing or printing before the advent of paper), about 4 inches by 8 inches, over which is scrawled, in fading ink, about 15 lines of very tidy handwriting, purportedly in Middle French. On the back, someone has written in pencil: “1398.”
Uh, well, OK! That was the year Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the first printing press (in the Western world, at least) was born. In just a few months, across the Channel, Henry Bolingbroke would journey from France and usurp the crown from Richard II, and assume the throne as Henry IV. And his henchman, Thomas Arundel, would declare himself Archbishop of Canterbury and begin a reign of terror against all self-proclaimed heretics. And Geoffrey Chaucer would be worried for his life.
I am thinking all these things, as Randy continues tossing books at me, faster than I can think. I see an old television, wedged into a bookshelf … with a rabbit-ear antennae sitting on top. Boxes are everywhere. There’s an old guitar perched on top of some papers. If there is a computer in this apartment, it must be well-disguised. There must be one, I think. Randy is an accomplished professional; he uses them as efficiently as anyone, I’m sure. I know he’s on Facebook. — but that’s probably to keep an eye on his twin daughters, who are at university on the other side of the continent.
Listening to Randy talk about books, lights up a darkening memory for me of the sensual experience of books — not e-books or audiobooks. The smell of the paper, the creak of the binding as you open it up, the gentle weight on your lap as you read it, the satisfying thump as you close it. And I realize that this is a dimension of reading that is fading away, as the world rushes headlong into the digital standard. An expendable dimension, perhaps: we don’t really need the smells and sounds, I suppose. But they’re nice to have. And perhaps the time and expense of making hardbound books could be better spent elsewhere. But listening to Randy makes me realize it’s a dimension that I love, and one that I will miss as it gets left behind in a dust of ones and zeroes.
I may be misinterpreting Randy, here. He is most certainly a book collector, and his passion is not so much in reading them (“Oh, God forbid, you never read a first edition! You’d ruin it!”) but finding something rare, buying it for next to nothing, and carrying home a treasure worth many times the price paid.
But he’s not a cold-blooded profiteer, either. He mends books and makes them from scratch: he’s put together a few bound editions of his own poetry and made gifts of them to his lovely partner, Marina. So really he is a romantic, as well.
As we leave his apartment, Randy pulls out a hard cover of Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. It’s not signed by the author, though. His daughters gave it to him as a Christmas present one year, and they saw fit to sign it for Randy themselves. “Dear Dad,” the message reads. “Doesn’t it drive you crazy that we wrote all over the inside of this first edition?”
“The little monkeys,” he smiles. “They know their Dad all too well.”
He places the book carefully back on the shelf, and we head out into the frosty evening in search of a place to drink beer and watch the hockey game.