Books as objects of affection: Review of ‘The Book Beautiful’ by Pradeep Sebastian

Pradeep Sebastian’s memoir brings into focus the less-known world of fine presses and the antiquarian book trade.

Published : Jun 29, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

An illustration by John DePol for Self-portrait with Birds by John Graves.

An illustration by John DePol for Self-portrait with Birds by John Graves. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

What is the most beautiful book you have ever come across? There can be two kinds of answers to that question: One set of readers, most of us, would name Anna Karenina or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or a book on those lines. The other set, a minority, would name something like John DePol: A Celebration of His Work. The title of Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Beautiful refers to this second kind of beauty; of the form rather than of the content.

The Book Beautiful: A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books
By Pradeep Sebastian
Pages: 306
Price: Rs. 699

Many readers do not always distinguish between the two. They find the book as a physical object entrancing as well. Not only the characters and their travails have to be described in the right tones, but the cover, the typeface, the book design and much more go into making the reading experience special. In the age of e-reading, there is a whiff of nostalgia associated with these details that make the individual copies unique.

Sebastian, however, is not talking about that either. The objects of his affection are rare and fine books, especially those brought out, in limited editions, by ‘fine presses’. A handpress pushes metal type on a dampened handmade paper. One can move a finger along the words on the page and feel the letters. Add vibrant colours and intricate designs for the first letter, the border or the margins, plus a dash of visuals using printmaking and what you have is a sumptuous work of art.

A unique masterpiece

Sebastian, who has written columns and books about bibliophilia and even a novel on the same theme, discovered the world of fine presses in 2015 and then could not help but buy what he liked and could afford. Thus started a journey of hunting fine and rare books, following auctions, discovering masterpieces and learning—learning the ropes, and also learning to live with the elation and depression of getting or missing out the books he would have sought after for years. This is a memoir of book collection. “It’s also about the thrill of the chase, the pursuit of juiciest rare book bargain, the camaraderie of fellow collectors and the friendship of book dealers.”

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The memoir begins with the baby steps the author took in the world of connoisseurs of antiquarian books, but soon the narrative comes to be, chapter by chapter, devoted to two kinds of characters: in the first part, Sebastian introduces the artists behind some of the most beautiful books fine presses created, and the second part is wholly about the other side—some unusual dealers, collectors, and other bibliophiles he has come to know, in person or otherwise, during this journey.

The upshot of structuring and organising the memoir in this way is that the guided tour of the rather less-known world of rare book collection becomes an exciting experience for the reader. Otherwise, reading a book on this subject could have been like hearing a friend describe the wonderful places he has seen and the unusual people he has met during his latest travel to some faraway place about which we know next to nothing. His charming enthusiasm can lead to information overload. Instead, when we are introduced to mavericks like John DePol (1913-2004), a New York-based printmaker and wood engraver, we are better prepared to appreciate their silent genius.

Cover of The Book Beautiful by Ashish Mehta 

Cover of The Book Beautiful by Ashish Mehta  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement.

DePol prepared graphics for special-edition books published by fine presses and also worked independently. His output includes not only the engravings done for books, but also keepsakes, bookplates, and original print works. His themes fell in two categories: one had landscapes, rural as well as urban, usually deserted; buildings, machines, portraits of historical figures, birds.... John Graves’s Self-Portrait with Birds (1991), illustrated by DePol, has an irregularly shaped, borderless engraving of a bird with a farm and a building in the background giving way to the opening lines of the text. The image, seen even on the computer screen, is enticing enough for even non-aficionados.

The second set of DePol’s work was about books. “Engravings of beautifully bound books on a table, a private library with a fireplace and a stuffed chair for the collector, a book collector snugly ensconced among his rare books, bookplates for collectors and printers, … a monk at the lectern table, a monastic library,” Sebastian writes. For booklovers who appreciate old-fashioned illustrations in their books, the images could not have been more fascinating, except if M.C. Escher were to work on illustrating Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction.

DePol’s bibliophilia makes him the author’s favourite. Among his works, there’s also a rather small piece of artwork, used as the frontispiece in a miniature book measuring 2 x 3 inches, You Can Judge a Book by its Cover: A Brief Survey of Materials (1994) by Bernard Middleton. It is the portrait of ‘A Happy Book Collector’, which is the most apt choice for the beautiful cover of this book as well.

“Much of the history of American wood engraving over the past fifty years was contained in or reflected by DePol’s work,” David Godine, a prominent publisher of aesthetically produced books, noted in Five Decades of the Burin: The Wood Engravings of John DePol (2004). Yet, not many have heard of this self-effacing genius. Godine also speaks of DePol’s passion about the “physicalact of engraving and printing”. Sebastian describes these hours of painstaking labour in great detail.

  • The objects of Pradeep Sebastian’s affection are rare and fine books, especially those brought out, in limited editions, by ‘fine presses’.
  • Divided into two parts, the first part introduces the artists behind some of the most beautiful books fine presses created.
  • The second part is about the unusual dealers, collectors, and other bibliophiles he has come to know.

A lost world

The picture that emerges is of a world fading before our eyes. A variety of page-making and graphics software have made it easy to produce a sufficiently good-looking book, but they don’t stick in the mind’s eye the way these works of art do. Technology and the market have colluded to change the pace and rhythm, true, but Sebastian’s collection is mostly of recent decades, not from the 16th century. There have been artists like Valenti Angelo who were working in the last decades of the 20th century, and fine presses like Heavenly Monkey that continue the great tradition today, but away from the mass market.

Yet, browsing these elegantly produced books takes us back to the old days, when reading was a nearly magical experience. The smell of a new book, or even an old book, was part of it, and so was the tactile feeling of its printed letters. Time moved at a different pace then. Books then offered much more than a narrative or information. Booksellers, too, recognised a bibliophile when they saw one, and went out of their way, without a profit motive, to help the reader-collector.

But, as a chapter on Alan G. Thomas (1911-1992), an English antiquarian book dealer (and a friend of the novelist Lawrence Durrell), reminds us, that world is not gone; it is only less visible now. Sebastian’s book helps one discover that world. It can also kindle a taste for fine and rare books, if not the passion to collect them as well.

Ashish Mehta is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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