Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, October 20, 2006

Books As Kitsch

I love books, always have. If I were to go out and purchase a music CD or movie DVD, I would agonize over the decision, and I would first have to convince myself that I wasn’t being extravagant. However, I’ll buy a book on impulse without so much as a second thought, and I’ve always been of one mind with Erasmus when he said, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

As is to be expected then, I find myself on various book-related mailing lists, and the other day I received a catalog that I found particularly amusing, the holiday catalogue from an outfit called Easton Press. They specialize in leather-bound books. More precisely, “Heirloom editions, bound in genuine leather, accented with 22KT gold.” This is what I mean by books as kitsch.

On the inside of the front cover of the catalog is a little photo of the publisher, a well-scrubbed guy of about forty in a tie and blue shirt with button-down collars. He’s clutching a leather-bound volume to his breast and he looks like a perennial student, but not like one of those to be found at the common colleges. No, this fellow looks like a perennial student at some exclusive Ivy League or prep school where the sons of the well-heeled are presumably educated. (Yes, the sons. In this world of leather-bound books the women still know their places, in the bed and in the home.)

On that page with the publisher one can read about their leather-bound edition of all five Pulitzer Prize winners for 2006, in five volumes for five monthly payments of $79 each. At the bottom of the page there is their leather-bound collection of first pages of all editions of the New York Times from 1851-2004. Of course, there are collections in the catalog that one could argue are of genuine intellectual value. There’s the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written, and the Books That Changed The World, most prominent among them in the photo in the catalog being the seminal work of the capitalist demigod Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. There’s also the Harvard Classics, “The legendary ‘five-foot shelf of knowledge’,” and collections of the works of novelists like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis.. On the other hand, there’s the likes of the complete James Bond, The First Ladies Fact Book, and a book-length tribute to Mickey Mouse. Be still my heart!

The real gems are at the end of the catalog, the signed editions. For three monthly payments of $33, you can get a signed edition of Henry Kissinger’s “insider’s account of the inner workings of diplomacy during the Middle East War of 1973 and the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975.” For less than $220 total, you can get a leather-bound set of John McCain’s three “inspiring” memoirs, signed by the Senator, of course. There’s also a signed book by the golfer Arnold Palmer, and a complete illustrated history of NASA inked by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. For those of more liberal persuasions, there’s Carl Reiner’s novel, NNNNN, and a collection of essays by Kurt Vonnegut.

I guess I thought that the stereotype of the rich guy with the wood-paneled study full of leather-bound volumes that he’d never read was a creation of the Hollywood movies, but I’m apparently wrong. The folks at Easton Press seem to be making a living selling literary kitsch to just such individuals. I guess it’s an artifact of our new Gilded Age.


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