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First Editions in Hand

When my daughter called from college to talk about coming home for Thanksgiving, she mentioned in passing that she’d just seen something she thought I might enjoy at the library—a display of first edition poetry books, including a first edition of Paradise Lost. Now I readily admit that Milton has been one of  my blind spots, one of the few pieces of canonical literature I haven’t warmed to, although I keep trying and I think I’m getting closer. Still I thought I might like to see this book.

The Rare Book Room at the Kalamazoo College Library was going to be closed by the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but Faith, my daughter, contacted Paul Smithson, the librarian in charge of these things, and he graciously agreed to let me in to see the books on display. Maybe it’s one of the few perks that come from teaching at a university: people in other places will occasionally be kind to you.

Paul Smithson was very kind. Not only did he let me in to see the display, but he walked me through it all, showing me the limited edition prints of a poem by Kinnell and one by Merwin. I saw the first book printed of Sappho’s poems. And then we got to the first edition Milton. Not only did Paul open the case, but he lifted out the Milton and put it in my hands. He allowed me to leaf through the delicate yellow pages of  book.

Now I have a big personal library, and I will admit to colleagues who are excited by electronic readers that I fetishize the book, but I am not a collector. My library is definitely a working library, and many of my books—even quite valuable ones—show the use I’ve put them to. And, as I said, Milton hasn’t been a favorite of mine. Yet when Paul Smithson put that book in my hand, I felt it—the shudder, the tingling at the back of my head, the frisson. Whatever I am, I have been prepared to be moved, even physically, by these objects. These books.

When I had recovered from the Milton, Paul brought out a few other books he thought I might be interested in seeing. I was taken by a spectacular late nineteenth century, elaborately hand-illustrated, elephant portfolio of Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds. The paints glistened and the birds seemed to step off the page. It was like a museum display between covers.  I wanted to look at the whole book. But he had something else to show me. He handed me a first edition of Ulysses, printed by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, a book that had to be smuggled into this country. I could see the battered blue  cover, something I had read about but never seen. I looked at the beginning—Stately plump Buck Mulligan—and flipped to the end—. . . and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes—just so I could see those famous words in the place they first appeared. And even though I’m supposed to know better, even though I read endless articles about the end of the book and about the new technologies for disseminating information and the text, like any child with some unexpected pleasure, I felt it again: that shiver ran up my spine.

One thought on “First Editions in Hand”

  1. Luke Schmerberg says:

    This reminds me of one of the greatest joys of my time at UW-Madison, where I somehow managed to worm my way into a Milton course despite being enrolled in the law school. One day we were granted access to the UW Special Collections.

    Seeing the frontispiece of an original “Eikon Basilike” and flipping through the pages of “Eikonoklastes” did wonders to illustrate the feelings of rage over issues that are so distinct yet so similar to those I see around me today.

    Whenever I get upset about politics, I can always look back to those tracts and realize that it was not long ago that the best mind of the age, one of the best minds in the history of the English language, was justifying the violent overthrow of government and the murder of the king; recounts and filibusters don’t seem so bad.

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