Book Reviews | February 2019 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Spring 2019 Books about Books Roundup

What used to be a biannual accounting of newly published books about books has become quarterly, it seems, which is good news for bibliophiles. So what are the freshest books in our favorite genre?  
If you had the opportunity to see The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection at the Morgan Library last year, or you read Nick Basbanes' profile of the collector in our fall 2018 issue, you'd know that Corrêa do Lago has amassed an astounding collection of autographs. From Michelangelo to Stephen Hawking, his nearly 100,000 items cover art, science, literature, you name it. The Morgan's selection of 140 showpieces has been turned into a handsome book by Taschen, printed on thick paper and bound in textured cloth. There are introductory essays, transcriptions of manuscripts, and copious illustrations. All in all, an incredible bargain for $35. My favorite: an Adam Smith letter c. 1767 in which he writes, "I shall not know how to employ myself till I get my library."

It's the time of year for planning a summer vacation, and here's just the volume to steer you: Inspired Traveller's Guide: Literary Places (White Lion, $19.99) by Sarah Baxter. It's not a travel guide in the typical sense of the term, it's more inspirational (which is why it will work just as well for armchair travelers and staycationers). The book explores 25 places -- e.g., Paris, Davos, Cairo, Cartagena -- through a literary lens, focusing on one book that illuminates something about that destination. In Dublin, it's Ulysses, and we visit some of Leopold Bloom's haunts; in New York, it's The Catcher in the Rye, and we pause to consider the iconic status of Penn Station and Central Park. Each charming essay is enhanced by bright, bold illustrations by Amy Grimes.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World's Greatest Library (Scribner, $30) by Edward Wilson-Lee is superbly researched and remarkably well-written. At its core, the book is a biography of Columbus's illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who was an archivist at heart. He sought to collect not just "the largest private library of the day," but ephemeral prints, pamphlets, and music as well. He then created lists and catalogues of his collected works and even designed his own secret alphabet to describe them; he could be obsessive in his collecting and collating, a kindred spirit no doubt to many Fine Books readers. Colón was obviously a man ahead of his time; his story is expansive, and in Wilson-Lee's hands, absolutely compelling.

If you enjoyed, as we did, Christopher de Hamel's recent book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, you will find his latest, Making Medieval Manuscripts (Bodleian Library/University of Chicago Press, $25), an ideal companion piece. In this slim, square paperback filled with glossy illustrations, de Hamel walks the reader through the art and craft of medieval manuscript creation--from descriptions of paper and parchment to types of ink to illumination and binding techniques. It is the perfect introduction to this area of study.

If Samuel Johnson is your man, Prize-winning biographer Leo Damrosch's atmospheric new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age (Yale University Press, $30) should be on your radar. In clear, engaging prose, Damrosch ushers us into "the club," i.e., the Turk's Head Tavern in London, where members like Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell joined Johnson for food, drink, and, perhaps more than anything else, intelligent talk. 

But wait, there's more!  

    -Books of the Weird: Figments from Libraries, Bookshops & Other Imaginary Worlds (Books of the Weird Press, $20) by John D. Riley. Written by a longtime antiquarian bookseller for fellow bibliomaniacs, it is a pleasure to dip into.

    -Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History's Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (Yale University Press, $35) by Joshua Teplitsky chronicles the life of David Oppenheim (1664-1736), a rabbi who built an extensive library of some 4,500 books and 1,000 manuscripts.

    -Murder by the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens's London (Knopf, $25.95) by Claire Harman is a quick and entertaining read about how the literary culture of Victorian England may have influenced a young valet to kill his boss, Lord William Russell.  

Still adding to your TBR pile? Check out our Fall 2018 Books about Books roundup, or our holiday edition.