Soon after the invention of printing by movable type, something odd started happening to books. For as long as anyone could remember, books had lain flat on desks or in chests. Their paper fore edges lay outward; their titles were written directly on the edges of the pages or on slips protruding from them. But then, in a process known to historians of the book as ‘the great turnaround’, books rose from their slumber. They began to stand upright on shelves, turned around so that their previously unseen spines faced out into the room, in the manner we have become used to since.
Like all revolutions, this was good news for some, less so for others. Scriveners, who had handwritten all those texts and labels, were reduced to legal drudgery. Limners, who had illuminated the gorgeous manuscripts of the Middle Ages, had to find other outlets for their artistic talents. The metalworkers who made corner pieces and bosses to protect books on the crude desks of medieval readers were out of a job: a volume clad in such armour would rip off any polished calfskins standing next to it on a shelf.
On the other hand, work flooded in for label-makers and finishers, who found themselves lettering and decorating the newly exposed spines with gold leaf to make them gleam, not to mention cabinet-makers, who were called on to build shelves and bookcases. For those craftsmen, the great turnaround represented a new opportunity.
Yet for all that, the book itself was little changed. It still contained information in linear text written on both sides of leaves that were sewn in gatherings between two covers. Its production, binding and usual mode of storage had all altered, but the book itself lived on.
Travelling to New York for the sixtieth annual New York antiquarian book fair last month, my thoughts were occupied by the long history of the printed book and its sustainability. In the digital age, has the printed book finally outlived its span? If so, how long can the rare book trade continue?
And how much longer can we keep flying in fat-bellied jets to gather in some foreign land to exhibit our wares? The first murmurings of panic over Covid-19 were spreading through my colleagues and their families. Would we all get back safely, uninfected, unquarantined? The inflight movie, the documentary Apollo 11, matched the mood perfectly. One awe-inspiring shot, held for what seems an age, shows the titanic Saturn V rocket with its tiny topmost cargo of three brave humans soaring into the great blue beyond, a stupendous man-made technological marvel bursting upwards with indomitable strength and extraordinary power. It took an effort to drag my eyes away from the mesmeric sight of the ever-rising rocket to notice that an unbelievable plume of stinking, black, earth-soiling crud was being spewed from its gargantuan tailpipes. Down below on the packed shores of Cape Canaveral, sweating spectators peered up through the haze from the hoods of their gas-guzzling automobiles. Future launches drew ever-diminishing numbers to Florida’s shorelines. Once the moon had been reached once, what use was there in repeating the feat? The first manned expedition to another planet turned out also to mark the beginning of the end of an American era.
The New York antiquarian book fair is held in the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side. Previously known as the Seventh Regiment Armory, the building is a massive, self-consciously retro fort of red brick. It was completed in 1880 to deter the civil unrest made famous by Herbert Asbury’s book The Gangs of New York (1927), later filmed by Martin Scorsese. For the book fair, its vast central hall is quietened with carpet and lined with aisles of bookcases and glittering vitrines crammed full of the finest rare books and manuscripts that the international trade can muster.
This year the book fair was accompanied by a playful meta-commentary, a documentary film directed by D W Young, which was showing at the same time in local cinemas. Shot over the course of a year or so and bookended by a pair of New York book fairs, The Booksellers finds the present generation of rare book dealers in a similar state of self-questioning to that which kept me awake on the flight.
The film echoes a famous New Yorker magazine cover, ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’, in seeing little of interest beyond the Hudson. The film’s nostalgic heart beats for Manhattan’s 4th (now Park) Avenue, once lined with endless ramshackle bookshops run, as the amusingly sardonic Fran Lebowitz puts it, by ‘little, dusty Jewish men who were very irritated if you wanted to buy a book’. (A corresponding film in London would focus on Charing Cross Road, neglecting the bigger business done in Pall Mall.) But New York is only one entrepôt for the international traffic in rare books, albeit an important one, and the contributors wrestle with issues universal to anyone who cares about the future of the book.
Many of the film’s interviewees strike a pessimistic note. The dealer Glenn Horowitz pronounces the book dead (‘books had a 550-year run; they were a perfect object in many ways’); he has shifted his energies to selling the archives of such latter-day troubadours as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Others are not so sure. Fran Lebowitz says that it’s only middle-aged readers she sees on the subway pawing at Kindles. The hipster crowd, she thinks, prefer real books.
Pragmatically, there’s no reason why antiquarian book dealers need care whether or not the book survives. The auctioneer Nico Lowry of Swann Galleries points out that even if book production ceased tomorrow, there would still be old books to sell. And are second-hand booksellers, necessarily at least one step behind the times, best placed to judge? Even the most fresh-faced, forward-thinking young dealers and collectors in the film are just starting to immerse themselves in punk and hip-hop, both of which predate the internet.
Yet it’s the younger book enthusiasts who suggest a parallel between the present and the 16th-century revolution. At a time of bewilderingly rapid change, when the internet and e-books and smartphones and Netflix threaten to kill off the book once and for all, they all emphasise that the concept of what constitutes a book is enlarging. These younger book people sell and collect ephemera, posters, fanzines and games – anything that complements the simple printed book. The older collectors already know that dusty books racked on wooden shelves make for a dull display. Caroline Schimmel has augmented her collection of over six thousand works of fiction by women with Annie Oakley’s gloves and other ‘tchotchke’; Jay Walker has modelled his library of the human imagination after the impossible geometry of M C Escher’s works. All of them, old or young, realise that we are in the middle of a second great turnaround. The book is changing; the book remains the same.
In the end, my trip to the 2020 New York antiquarian book fair felt like a successful mission. While rumours swirled around the Armory that the sister fairs in Paris and Tokyo were both in danger of being cancelled, and the Abu Dhabi fair was officially postponed until 2021, rare books continued to be bought and sold with no apparent diminution of the usual enthusiasm. Few visitors wore face masks; nobody was heard to cough excessively. We made it back to a less-than-usually busy Kennedy Airport, and our capsule splashed down safely. It wasn’t for a day or two that the first of us started to feel unwell.