Leather Bound Books

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My father built a collection for me of superbly leather bound books.  The selection was beyond the ability of my 6-14 year old mind and most of the titles remained unread…until now.

Why did he choose Theodor Reik’s The Secret Self: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Literature to give to a seven year old?  He gave me books by Hersey, Salinger, Saroyan, Katherine Butler Hathaway, Isak Dinesen, Jacques Chardonne, Howard Fast, Max Beerbohm, St. Exupery, and other 20th century writers.

Back in the early 1970’s when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I was a practicing book binder and restorer, I took a bibliography class at Harvard’s Houghton rare book library. Our teacher was William Bond, the head of Houghton. He was of the patrician type one might expect at this formidable university—tall, elegant, gentlemanly from a Protestant stock that formed our nation and its early corporations. Dr. Bond had a rolling cart filled with books he had selected to illustrate his every point. We met in the wood-panelled Keats room, handled rare books, took a short break in the hall to partake of Dr. Bond’s wife’s cookies and then returned with our greasy fingers to handle more books. From him I learned to be a book sleuth.

So, allow me first to report on the visual evidence I found in two books in my collection.

But, I am ready now to decipher this private message my father encoded for me in 1958 when I was ten.  I will read his gifts, delve deeper, decode the choices he made, the changes and designs he prompted. I will do this while I translate his letters and diaries; and maybe I will learn something I did not know about him… about me.

The Secret Self by Reik has a copyright from 1952. Included in the binding are the original understated scholarly front and back covers of the original dust jacket. A small ‘–1’ in pencil at the top corner of the first blank page announces insolently that my father purchased it for $1 at a used bookstore. Twenty chapters and an introduction are squeezed into 329 pages. The binder, Gilberte Givel, impressed her name in tiny gold letters on the edge of the inside back cover. At the bottom edge of the inside front cover, my full formal name and the date of the gift are in bold gold capital letters—the accent grave is included, of course: PAULINE JANE TRIGÈRE 1955. The black Morocco leather book has a decorated cover of two onlaid birds—maybe geese—flying off to the right. They are made of various geometric shapes in smooth calf skin—white, gray and black. It begs to be touched, to let one’s fingers graze across the surface. I wonder at the choice of design. Whose? The endpapers are a magnificent shiny dripping of black ink on glistening cream paper stock. And to enclose it all is a box covered in the same paper. Well-made book boxes have this satisfying feeling as one slides the book in or out. The box swallows the book with a barely audible sucking sound. And, pulling the book out feels as if the box is so reluctant to give up it’s precious content.

I must find out why my father chose the book, which chapters captivated him, and also where and what in the text influences those flying geese. It cannot be a random choice.
Without reading an entire book, how does one grasp it’s scope, it’s valued messages, its deep meaning for the writer and also for a particular reader? I searched the table of contents for something that might catch any of my senses. The chapter titles were intriguing, amusing, inviting, but the last chapter, Kleiner Kinder, Grosse Kinder had the strongest pull. It comes from a saying the analyst’s Viennese father used to say: small children, small worries—big children, big worries. I had heard it often before. The author writes of his daughters, then his patients and their children and finally about his own father and that relationship. It is very moving. Since I was only 10 and lived most of the year away from my father, I cannot have been like the problem daughters he describes, but how he views his own father is more to the point. The conflicts that must have evoked something for my father had to do do with his own father—his feeling for that man, his disappointments and how to resolve that. My father was hard on me but even harder on himself. The message I deciphered was his hope that I would use compassion one day to judge him as a father. That was the author’s message. I understood.

Although I cannot yet prove where the design of the two flying geese comes from, I think it may be this last chapter, too. One goose is larger than the other—grosser, kleiner. The smaller one is below and protected by the larger. And perhaps more to the point, their wing tips touch delicately. Parent, child. The smaller one is exactly like the larger one. They are not just black and white; they are gray, as well. It’s not so simple…like our lives.

The Junk

The luscious blue and green Morocco leather of John Hersey’s A Single Pebble represent water and sky; a small black and gold Chinese junk floats on the front cover horizon. But my father renamed it The Junk, which is also the heading of Part 1. I think I know my father well enough to understand what happened here. He loved to read and he was a serious judge of literature. Clearly, he felt that Part One: The Junk was the best part and boldly edited the author’s title.

All I want to do is hold the book and turn and turn it between my palms. It feels solid, precious and somehow unknowable. Gilberte Givel’s name and mine are gold stamped as, what has become, usual. The dust jacket covers and spine are included. The leather cover design is drawn from the DJ, and this was designed by the remarkable George Salter. Written in 1956 and bound for me in 1958—I was only 10. Could I have predicted that 36 years later, I would marry a man who so admired this refugee book designer that he had created his own impressive collection of George Salter covers?

Two mysteries to decode here. I read all of Part One: The Junk. At first I don’t understand what made my father pick up this book. It is about a young hydraulic engineer (American perhaps) who goes to study the Great Yangtse River. His junk journey into Chinese culture is via the sailors and the captain’s wife. His sense of otherness seen suddenly through their eyes astounds him. He is a stranger learning about his new world, his company and himself. That was my father; he was an immigrant from Europe to America in the late 1930s. He struggled so hard to understand his new world, the people and encountered his continued otherness through their eyes. He wrote to his cousins in Paris that he was marrying America…but by 1958, he had long been divorced from her. Born in Odessa, Russia, he had struggled to become a Frenchman. I am sure they never allowed him that honor entirely and now he was trying again. Of course the book had to be renamed The Junk; that was what was important—this first part. He was reading his own story.

A third immigrant, a refugee from Germany, George Salter also had to make his way into American society. Three strangers meet on one junk on a fearsome river.

I understand.

I have several sections of paperback books that have been torn through the spine; he would send me what he deemed worthwhile and discard the rest! It wasn’t only me; others have shown me their similar oddly curated collections by Sioma.

Mostly, he would send entire books; innumerable people have come up to me to report on or even show me their copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico.

One might feel miffed to not have been the only recipient of his choice book…or one could be flattered to be among the chosen group he felt compelled to send a copy. He reviewed books with his feet and at the post office.

Gilberte Givel… the binder of all these books. It is because of the books and because of her and my 16th summer which I spent with Gilberte in her magnificent Paris apartment, that I became a book binder.