Sunday, June 13, 2010

Special Edition

I'm currently reading a Library of America volume devoted to Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932). I like this little text, on the inside back flap:

Library of America editions will last for generations and withstand the wear of frequent use. They are printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat. Flexible yet strong binding boards are covered with a closely woven rayon cloth. The page layout has been designed for readability as well as elegance.

These really are nice editions. I bought my used copy on Amazon for about twelve bucks. It's an ex-library edition, from a public library in Loudoun County (Virginia), and the cover is protected by plastic and also conveniently attached to the book itself.

All of this attention to the physical object of the book, though, reminds me of one of Chesnutt's stories, "Baxter's Procrustes." It's a satirical piece about a club devoted to book collecting (the contents of the books are of secondary importance).

In this story, one of the members, Baxter, is urged by his fellows to publish an edition of his poem, called "the Procrustes," which some members have read parts of. He resists, but eventually gives in, under the condition that he be granted sole authority for the preparation of the volume.

He goes all out:

The paper was to be of hand-made linen, from the Kelmscott Mills; the type black-letter, with rubricated initials. The cover, which was Baxter's own selection, was to be of dark green morocco, with a cap-and-bells border in red inlays, and doublures of maroon morocco with a blind-tooled design.... When the Procrustes was ready for distribution, each subscriber received his copy by mail, in a neat pasteboard box. Each number was wrapped in a thin and transparent but very strong paper, through which the cover design and tooling were clearly visible. The number of the copy was indorsed upon the wrapper, the folds of which were securely fastened at each end with sealing-wax, upon which was impressed, as a guaranty of its inviolateness, the monogram of the club.

You can guess where this is all headed: eventually, one club member opens up a copy of the book, only to find that it's utterly blank inside.

In embarrassment and disgust, most of the club members destroy their copies of the book, with the result that it becomes the rarest and most valuable book ever published by the club.

For Chesnutt, whose stories are mostly clever and trenchant explorations of slavery and the post-Reconstruction-era South, it's a somewhat unusual story, with echoes of Borges and Twain. It was never published in Chesnutt's lifetime.

***CORRECTION*** "Baxter's Procrustes" was published in June, 1904, in the Atlantic Monthly. It was never collected during Chesnutt's lifetime.

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