Stephanie Taylor

California Sketches: Shelves harbor unseen spirits


What is it about books?

Books contain the kinetic power of possibilities. Gathered on shelves, multiplied in old stores and stacked in libraries, unseen spirit emanates from each. Wisdom and knowledge contained within a room full of books could mysteriously seep into me. As I stand quietly by a wall of books, one chooses me, as if by destiny or perhaps by chance. To browse is to be receptive to surprise and opportunity.

Richard Press has spent most of his 80 years collecting and selling books, not an accumulation of just any books, but only those he loves – artistic books. He is a librarian and a scholar who, he says, lives a "life of the mind." Surrounded by books at his store in midtown Sacramento, his joy is matching a book with a collector.

Sunlight spills through Venetian blinds casting diagonal patterns across rows of vertical spines in a room filled with color and texture, including jelly beans and a ubiquitous cat. The tactile feel of pages, the smell of ink on paper, meticulous binding, typography, design, illustrations are artful elements that enrich my experience of the content within. An afternoon here is bliss.

Gary Kurutz, curator emeritus, presides over the California State Library rare books and collections that the state has been acquiring since the 1850s. Through locked doors, past stacks of plain boxes, another locked door opens into a climate-controlled room – a vault within a vault.

Ornate book covers of wood and odd materials protect hand-painted pages in gold leaf on pigskin. Some books are huge and heavy, some inconceivably tiny. A California publisher has created an immense and artistic edition of "Moby Dick." Gary opens a folio to a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. These books, he says, are about the joy of "how a book meets the eye."

Collectors from all over the world meet at the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco. Long aisles of glass showcase rare books, some more than 500 years old, others from more recent times, all a reflection of our history and our culture. Over hundreds of years, rare books have been safeguarded by owners who, I imagine, have had an emotional connection to author, content and the book itself, and consider each an object worth keeping.

I wondered whose hands had touched the first German edition of Euclid's "Elements," 1555, now available for $30,000. Who would buy the first French edition of the United States Constitution, 1783?

The custodians today are a distinguished but aging crowd. Who would next conserve these objects of knowledge, history and art, and symbols of our cultural heritage – from Thomas Paine to Picasso to Raggedy Ann – for future generations? Libraries and younger collectors must continue the task.

For me, nothing replaces the kinetic energy of a book as an artistic adventure, with the possibilities of provocation, inspiration and illumination.

Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.

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