An American Library

Fourth Ring Road, 3.5 klicks from the Siyuan Bridge, Beijing
Marvelling at the truly legendary traffic
1937 hrs.

Not too long ago I realized that my appreciation of books went somewhat beyond what is considered normal. I guess the light went on when I designed my home office to hold 2,000 volumes, then filled it up three-quarters full as soon as it was complete.

Hello. My name is David, and I’m a biblioholic.

American Penguin

Despite having what I would consider a pretty decent education, I realized that I’ve missed more of the classics than I care to admit. I considered the idea of going to a foreign languages bookstore here in Beijing and scooping up handfuls of Penguin Classics, but then realized that Beijing’s harsh climate would ensure that by the time my five-year-old was ready to enjoy them, they’d be falling apart.

My mom went to town on her collection of classics, and the walls of her study in Los Angeles are covered with the elegant volumes of Easton Press. Easton does a great job – the leather covers and binding, gold-edged acid-free paper, and carefully varied sizes and cover textures to give the feel of a library filled with heirlooms.

Easton Affection

I hovered for years on the verge of buying Easton Press volumes, but I kept holding back. The prices are high, to be certain, and that was part of it. On my last trip to visit my mom in July, thumbing through Easton’s Jules Verne, I realized what was bothering me: the books are almost self-conscously beautiful, as if their primary purpose is decorative, or indeed designed to impress the visitor with the culture and literacy of the owner. They look, in short, ostentatious, the literary equivalent of the kind of Louis XIV-Whorehouse-Modern gilt-edged overwrought style that passes for decor in many of the restaurants and residences here in Beijing.

So I was stuck between the biodegradable Penguin paperbacks on one end and the effete and expensive Easton volumes on the other.

Just Right

Then, about a week before my return, I was cruising the bargain racks at the front of the new Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion and I came across a competitively priced volume of Philip K. Dick books. It was shrink-wrapped and had a black paper dustcover with Dick’s photo and a list of the four novels included therein. I bought it, along with a handful of other necessities, took it back to my hotel room, and set it alongside the three dozen other books I’d purchased on the trip. (See? I told you I’m a biblioholic.)

And promptly forgot it.

When I got back to Beijing, I catalogued and shelved my new books (yes, I know), and finally came to the P.K. Dick volume. I removed the cellophane and was awestruck. The binding was cloth-covered hardcover, but the cover was flexible enough (and the volume small enough) to be held comfortably in the hand. The paper was acid-free, and there was one of those little ribbons for marking your place (no dog-ears, please.) The spline was tastefully and elegantly embossed with the author’s name.

All for the retail price of around $13.

There’s more.

Inside the dust jacket there is a long list of volumes of American authors offered by the publisher, TheLIbrary of America (LoA), stretching from the earliest days of the colonies to more modern fare, all delivered in LoA’s trademark elegant but affordable packaging. This was it. An American library for someone of modest budget that would outlive me and possibly even make it to my grandkids. What is better, LoA is a non-profit, doing their bit to keep classics in heritage formats and charging just enough to support the effort.

If you are building or fortifying your library of American authors, there can be no better source. As for me, the P.K. Dick volume is no longer alone: I just ordered an LoA volume of Jack London and four volumes of John Steinbeck from Amazon.

Before you buy, though, check out the LoA website for subscriptions. After ordering the entire Steinbeck library from Amazon, I found that LoA was offering it for about 85% of what I paid for them through Amazon. I harbor no resentment – the money is going to a good cause – but I’ll check the website first next time.