Feb 20 2010

the 351 books of irma arcuri

The 351 Books of Irma ArcuriThis book was one long biblio-fantasy: great literature, re-bound with a writer’s love for the story within, an artist’s eye, an artisan’s care and feel for the beauty in the volume, seeded with secret messages, stories and codes, all written from one disappeared lover to the man she left behind. How can you resist? I couldn’t.

There are quite a few rooms full of books in this novel…nearly every scene is somehow described as a setting for one of Irma Arcuri’s beautiful books. But here are two of my favorites from the novel.

The arrival of Irma’s books:

The books arrived in one week, two refrigerator-sized boxes with protective packaging. They were packed alphabetically, impact-guarded, and marked fragile. He shelved them the way she shelved them–alphabetically, with no consideration of history, nationality, genre, or theme. They transcended these divisions, and Philip knew–somehow understood–that this was why she’d had them. They were splendorous together, in their cloth and leather bindings of jewel toned yellow, green, red or blue, or the more austere black and burgundy. No jackets, with titles embossed in gold, silver, brass, or iron. Most she had re-bound or restored herself, using period materials and tools. This was easy, she told him, because we use tools similar to those used since the fifteenth century. I could walk into an eighteenth century bookbinder’s shop, she explained, and have no trouble sewing up Defoe’s first volumes. Her shop and her mentor’s shop looked like museums, with their mallets and presses, awls and knives. Their work floors held the smells of old leathers, parchment, and linseed. Sometimes in their dark corners he would find a jar filled with a petrified volume soaking in amber linseed, the book’s fused pages beginning to separate like petals. If he lingered too long by one of these jars, she would crouch behind it and peer at him through the xanthic oil, her face magnified, tinted, and swirled around sharply focused eyes. Eyes aimed at him, not the sloughing book fossil. If we stir it softly with a wooden spoon, she taunted, it will all dissolve like a sugar cube in tea. (p.10)

The book collector and her husband:

Miriam Haupt loved Irma. She brokered antiquarian books, but in her retirement had become exclusively a collector. She and her husband owned a small apartment building, painted blue alongside the many other apartment buildings mortared together, all left to face to the colors of again paper along one continuous wall. Each flat in the Haupt building was filled with books. The Haupts themselves dwelled on the second floor, every room lined with bookshelves. The other floors were occupied exclusively by books and a wandering cat to fend off mice. Each decade of Miriam’s retirement seemed marked by the ousting of a tenant and the designation of another floor for books. Her husband Vlad Ballestreros, a professor of mycology at the university, often got himself lost in the stacks. He loved their smells, the breath of the molds and fungi he studied. Whenever Philip went with Irma to visit, Senor Ballestreros could be heard thumping around on one of the floors and he would eventually call down, or up, in his shaky Castilian croak and say he would be right there to join. He would only appear hours later, blinking and out of breath as though he had just surfaced from a dive or dream.