Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tell Me Something Good

There are a few members of my acquaintance who will say - I won't say "admit" because they don't seem embarrassed about it - that they don't like to read. One of these is a near relation and non-stupid. Two others are, well, questionable.

When a grown person, who has clearly learned how to read, says that he or she doesn't like to read, a moment of polite silence prevails while the hearers work out whether sympathy or astonishment is the appropriate response. Is the person handicapped in some way? As in, "I can't see the color red," or, "I can't hear from my right ear"? Or is he or she a Philistine who deserves an argument? As in, "I don't like Audrey Hepburn" or "I don't like ice cream"?

Today, at further risk of exposing an ugly side of my character (my inner, and sometimes outer, Supercilious Pratt), we turn to books that even non-readers can love. The contents of these books don't much matter. What matters is how they look.

If you have been following along, you know that I have felt pangs of guilt in the past about admiring books for their covers or their illustrations. It's like going to church only for the music or the stained glass. The Internet, however, with its great therapeutic powers, is helping me over this. I have learned that there are whole societies of people devoted to promoting the book as art. One of my favorite places to window shop on the web is a Berkeley, California book store called Handsome Books, which, "specializes in books with decorative publishers’ bindings, designed and illustrated by some of the leading artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries." Their website, as I have mentioned here before, is my idea of a good time. I also recently stumbled in my wanderings over a book artist, apparently famous in the circle of book artists, who has assembled a couple exhibitions of such books. So, it's OK to love a book for its cover.

I have always been a sucker for good-looking old things - the Dickens set in the first picture was a find at auction this summer. Each volume weighs about 2.5 pounds and it was lovely to behold, though largely dilapidated. I didn't think I would ever read it. I thought I might sell it (no takers on Ebay) and if I didn't it would do well on the bookshelf. The better volumes went off to my brother for his birthday and I kept the others. Even with missing spines, they are nice. It was Handsome Books, however, that helped me narrow my main interest to the early 20th century.

I bought this book after seeing first on their website. I have this sort of unaccountable interest and love for England and English things so when I saw this I had to get my own copy. This, as I learned at their wonderful site, was part of a series of travel books published in Boston in the early 1900s. I haven't read much of it, but I do admire it. It has this fabulous fold-out map in the back.

I was back on Handsome Books recently and found this:

They attributed this cover as (possibly) by Blanche McManus. She, as it turns out, was one of the bright lights of early 20th century book cover art. As a bargain scrounger, I found a cheaper copy elsewhere, but H.B. has my gratitude. I have read almost all of this book. It is very much of its time. It's author, one "Thos. D. Murphy" no hotel prices or opening hours are included in the information for the traveler. The quality of the roads is often, but not always, noted (motor travel being a novelty when this was first published in 1910). Otherwise we have impressions of churches, ruins, crypts, castles etc. It was apparently a big hit with its intended (gilded-age leisure-class) American audience. It was revised and republished in 1924 (after the war, of course) as, In Unfamiliar England with a Motor Car. I like this cover even better (no attribution, unfortunately).

Even the title page promises romance:

There are lots of photographs, mostly of churches and other buildings. A slight organizing principle is to show and describe places in England, which is referred to periodically as "The Mother Country," of special interest to Americans: e.g., the Washington family seat and William Penn's meeting house. My favorites, though, are the dewey paintings commissioned for the book.

Here's "Old Whitby":

and Warwick Castle:

And, gentle readers, guess what turned up in the mail today?

Isn't it lovely? It was my Christmas present to myself. It appears that Thos. D. Murphy got back from England and got back in his car to start touring New England (this book was published in 1924, the same year his revised version of Unfamiliar England appeared. This volume is sooo wonderful, like an embossed, illustrated, cloth-bound brick - and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Really, I may have to lie down. As an aside, isn't it interesting that the American touring car (seen at the bottom of the cover) is so much more elaborate than the car on the English cover? Can anyone possibly identify the models for me? And look, bonus! Another fold out map:

Sorry for the lousy picture but it shows that our Thos. journeyed from nearby Plattsburgh, NY through Vermont on old Route 2. I really can't wait to read this. But just looking at it is pretty great too.