McIntyre on Books.

John E. McIntyre, the official Favorite Copyeditor of Languagehat, recently posted on Facebook his Baltimore Sun column from October 30, 1994; those who are terminally bored and irritated by encomiums to physical books can skip this post, but I’m a sucker for them:

Three steps from my desk, I can put my hand on a shabby paperback with a faded pink-and-white cover. Anyone else would see Houghton Mifflin’s edition of selections from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” I open the book and hear Professor John Yunck reading aloud in Middle English with zest and glee. It is the spring of 1971 in East Lansing, Mich., and I am young.

Across the room rests a battered one-volume complete Sherlock Holmes, the first grown-up book I purchased with my own money. I found it at a store in Cleveland in 1962 on a visit to my older sister’s home. Everything in it (except the tedious “Valley of Fear” — Conan Doyle is not at his best in American settings) has been read and reread more times than I can count.

Near Holmes are a number of ratty drugstore paperbacks — Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe canon. Every few years, having forgotten the plots, I can enjoy them all over again. Nothing so pleasant after a long day at work than to sit for a time with a drink in a still house, reading about disagreeable people meeting violent ends.

A great gulf separates those who own books, who crave them, from those who see books as a dust-gathering impediment. […]

At one’s back one hears the cry of the noncollector: Why bother?

These books are more than an amusement; they are also my past, in the way that the Chaucer makes immediate those university days at Michigan State.

The volumes of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin evoke the people with whom I first read the poems.

In one city and one marriage, I bought John Cheever’s collected short stories and read them straight through. In a different city and a later marriage, water dripping from a plant above the bookshelves stained and warped the book. Both of us have been through a great deal.

Trollope’s “Autobiography” I have in the shapely little Oxford World Classics series, found on a balcony during a foray at the now-vanished Scribner’s bookshop in Manhattan. I can’t go back to Scribner’s, but I have the Trollope.

On one shelf is the nearly unreadable — well, I haven’t tried very hard to read it — “Davis Memorial Volume; or Our Dead President, Jefferson Davis, and the World’s Tribute to His Memory,” by J. W. Jones, D.D., published in Richmond (where else?) in 1890, and bearing, faintly, in pencil the signature of E. J. Early, my grandfather’s elder brother. Having it is a connection to my family’s past, even if they were secesh and I am not.

I keep my grandfather’s battered copy of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (New York: J. C. Derby, 1855; LibraryThing page) for precisely the same reason, even though should I wish to read a Wordsworth poem I will probably do so online.


  1. …those who see books as a dust-gathering impediment.

    …the cry of the noncollector: Why bother?

    I’ll allow that these people doubtlessly exist, but I’ve never met them or had to justify to them having a printed book, or a specific copy of a printed book. There are even people, I hear, who think that reading any fiction is a waste of time.

  2. John Emerson says

    I once was browsing in a bookstore when I saw a misplaced book in Japanese about the shrimp species of Taiwan. I will never read Japanese and have no special interest in shrimp, but the photos were especially beautiful and I would have bought it if I had had $20 in my pocket. I came back a week later and it was gone, gone, gone.

    I also once almost bought the Rasulid Hexaglot just because, even though I can read none of the 6 languages it glosses (though I was at that time hoping to learn Mongol).

  3. Merely pentaglot, this psalm-book is nice, too:

  4. I’m neither bored nor irritated by ” encomiums to physical books”, but I can’t grok the sentiment that inspires them. I almost envy those who do feel that way, which is why I read such encomiums, like a kid with his nose pressed to the glass gazing at alien creatures in a museum, but with very rare exceptions, the medium matters not at all to me.

    Of the several hundred of books I’ve bought in the last 15 years, fewer than 50 are printed, and of those, fewer than 5 aren’t dictionaries or other language learning resources. Only two were specifically bought for their aesthetics on paper. Even as a child, I was a voracious reader who cared not a whit for the material on which the words were presented. Now that I’m an adult living with impaired motor skills in a 60m2 unit, I still love reading ( averaging more than a book a day over the last year) but I also love that the vast bulk of my library weighs less than half a kilo and fits in an oversized jacket pocket.

  5. For inherited works from the 1890’s, I see McIntyre’s secech-nostalgia book and I raise him my copy of “A Scientific and Practical Treatise on American Football for Schools and Colleges” by Amos Alonzo Stagg and Henry Llewellyn Williams,* with a note on the flyleaf indicating it was purchased circa 1894 by one of my great-grandfathers.

    *Stagg is a legendary figure in the early history of the sport; Williams, by contrast, is according to this a legendary figure in the history of prolific hack writers:

  6. Well, if we’re talking sports books from the 1890s, I also have a copy of The Jubilee Book of Cricket by Prince Ranjitsinhji (William Blackwood and Sons, 1897), from the collection of my wife’s grandfather.

  7. Did Victorians need her then majesty’s permission to use “Jubilee” in their marketing? I can’t see Joe Root or Ben Stokes getting away with it on any 2022 stockingfiller they might have in the pipeline.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    I am unable to find anything related to use of the word “jubilee” or “platinum jubilee” in a (for sale in the) UK product. Clearly use of the jubilee emblem, royal insignia or cypher, or a photograph of any royal would require prior permission, and any feature claiming or implying royal endorsement for the product would have to be supported in writing, but if you just called your product “Special Platinum Jubilee edition” and had an image of bunting and people cheering and waving flags, I am not sure you would need permission.

  9. @pp: I’m sure Joe or Ben would get away with it in the sense of not being brought to court, but I think the court of public opinion might fie upon them

  10. I quote from the book:


    And while I’m at it, this is scrawled in pencil on the flyleaf:

    With his father’s best wishes for many a good innings.

  11. As it happens, I am planning to move soon, and one of the more urgent questions facing me is whether or how to winnow my collection of books. I have tried to come up with categorization methods, but they quickly go off the rails.

    Books that stir fond memories; books I read and enjoyed and may read again; books I read and enjoyed but most likely won’t read again; books I read and didn’t care for; books I started reading and put aside; books I acquired for research and found useful and which may also have some modest value; books I acquired for research and found useful but am unlikely to consult again; books that were sent to me for one reason or another, and which I haven’t read but may conceivably do one day; ditto, except I probably won’t ever read them. And so on.

    Some decisions are easy. I have a copy of HTML 4 for Dummies which is yours for the price of postage.

  12. Yup, I’m very familiar with those categories, as well as with the routine of trudging around liquor stores collecting boxes to store the suckers in.

  13. 1. Is this of great financial value? Keep it.

    2. Is this particular copy of great sentimental value? Keep it.

    3. Is this something you will read again some day? Throw it out, for someday never comes (YouTube).

    This method of course generalizes beyond books.

  14. I’d like to have been one of the people above with a vast library of every book I ever acquired, a big wall (or multiple walls) of memories to review, but life had other ideas, and especially my wife, whom I married at age 44 and who doesn’t have that relation with books. (Also relevant: In our first nine years of marriage, we moved six times. All those books got to be a matter of exasperation even to me.) Now that I’m retired, I think my library has achieved its final form.

  15. I suppose I could go through my books, one by one, and ask myself, does it spark joy?

    But the difficulty, I fear, is that while all the books in a particular bookcase might not individually spark, the full bookcase in toto does. Hmmm….

  16. David Marjanović says

    I’m introverted. There isn’t much sparking around me; I do more quiet bliss and fascination.

  17. That’s a nice way of putting it. Joy is a fleeting thing, but I find the presence of books comforting, and somehow even a little protective (against what, I can’t say).

  18. marie-lucie says

    the full bookcase in toto

    I have several bookcases, in different rooms, but my favourite sight of books is in a formerly empty little corner at the top of the stairs. I had a carpenter make a bookcase that fits this, with the shelves spaced so as to just fit my collection of detective novels, and the top shelf just the right height to let me reach it without needing extra steps to stand on. This top shelf is reserved for the odd oversize books. When I go up the stairs I get to enjoy the view in toto of these favourite books! I have not added to the collection in a while, but if I do I know which books I will remove to make room for new joy-sparking ones.

  19. David Marjanović says

    somehow even a little protective

    “Science As a Candle in the Dark”?

    Or do you just get agoraphobia from staring at blank walls?

  20. Walls with shelves of books create a sort of safe space for me, I guess. A reminder of a certain kind of permanence. A protection against entropy and decay.

    I would have to consult a psychologist to figure it out any further, and I don’t propose to do that.

    ETA: visiting a big library, especially an old one, also gives me a feeling of comfort and ease. The only other place that comes close is Home Depot.

  21. I feel the same way as David L. All my life I yearned to have an expanded version of a library carrel, a place where I could be entirely surrounded by books (apart from a window where I could view the outside world), and now I’ve finally achieved it: bookcases to the left of me, bookcases to the right of me, bookcases behind me. And a library (an old-fashioned one, with lots of obscure books and pervasive quiet) is my idea of heaven.

  22. Allan from Iowa says

    Fiction: If I wanted to read this again, could I borrow it from a library?

    Nonfiction: If I needed this information again, could I find it online?

    Books I haven’t read yet: Maybe I’ll have time to read this after I retire.

    (Those of you who have already retired can tell me how wrong I am.)

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I warmly recommend living in rural Africa as a way of freeing up time for reading in the evenings.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    “Science As a Candle in the Dark”?

    And all those moths fluttering around it without research grants ! A sad sight.

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