In Which Sarah Glazer Indulges in the Guilty Pleasure of Paper Books
The bell jingles when you open the door just like the quaint shops in old movies, the books stand open on the shelves inviting you to look at the colorful endpapers, and there’s a scent from fresh flowers in a vase.
That’s the enticing atmosphere of a bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood, where the small press Persephone Books sells its distinctive dove gray- covered volumes, mostly by women writers of the 20th Century, including some quite obscure.
In my last blog, I told you how much I loved my iPad, and I’ve just read that e-books have surpassed paperback book sales for the first time ever.
But as a novice user, I’ve discovered you can’t always get works of another era in a Kindle or iPad edition. (When I headed off for the World War I battlefields of France last week, a couple of friends told me I just had to read Robert Graves’ memoir Good-bye to All That. No Kindle edition of that.)
If I still wonder about the reason for paper books, all I have to do is open a book from Persephone. Handling one of these volumes yields the same sort of sensual pleasure as the shop—it’s not just the thick cream-colored paper. Each of the titles also has a different patterned endpaper from its period: A Victorian memoir opens with a wallpaper pattern by William Morris; war-time stories are covered by a 1940s dress fabric with a ration coupon theme.
The experience reminds me a bit of my childhood summers, when I spent many hours in an elegant Victorian public library in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Since I was an omnivorous reader, I usually plunged in without knowing what to expect from the Victorian or war-time writers who had long fallen out of favor.
Books there still had those gold-embossed covers, black and white engravings tucked behind tissue paper and sometimes the flowery signature of an owner from a previous century or maybe even a pressed flower. The whole physical experience is what I remember as much as the prose.
Over coffee across the street from her bookshop, press founder Nicola Beauman tells me that her publishing venture came about because of a book she wrote in 1983, A Very Great Profession, which examines fictional portrayals of middle-class English women between the wars. Many of the women novelists she discussed were out of print.
When Beauman approached a prominent publisher about reprinting some of her favorites, she was rebuffed on the grounds the books wouldn’t sell, she recalls. “So I just thought, ‘I’ll do it myself.’”
Not surprisingly, you start to realize as you make your way through Persephone titles, it’s as if a very well-read friend has discovered an out-of-print treasure and lent it to you.
For years, I knew Mollie Panter-Downes as the writer of the “Letter from London” in the New Yorker. But I had no idea she wrote short fiction.
Her collection of short stories written during the London blitz, Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, is filled with the same kind of vivid description and immediacy as her reporting, rendered in vignettes of no more than six or seven pages. The class frictions produced by evacuating working-class Londoners to the countryside offer ample room for Panter-Downes’ amused eye.
Now that this collection has been available for more than a decade, “Mollie is much better known here in England than in America,” Beauman says.
As a child I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. So I was delighted to discover through Persephone Burnett's equally absorbing novel for adults, The Shuttle, about one of the many American heiresses who married an impoverished English aristocrat at the turn of the century. The American heroine shares some of that poignant sense of displacement as A Little Princess.
One argument I often hear from e-books enthusiasts is that books you hold in your hands will survive only as extremely expensive collectors’ items-- rather like hand-bound books that go for hundreds of bucks. But it’s not true of all beautiful books—at least for now. Titles from the Persephone website sell for only 10 British pounds or the equivalent of about $16.
I’m sure one day you’ll be able to read them on the screen too. But until then I’m enjoying the guilty pleasure of a tactile experience.