Category Archives: Beautiful Book Objects

Celebrating the beautiful book object – Charles Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press books

Spelling, by Margaret Atwood, from Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written

As part of my daily #todayspoem tweeting routine, I recently accompanied my selection of an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling” with some pictures of the treasured limited edition chapbook from which the poem came, entitled Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written (published in 1981 by The Nightshade Press). It’s a slim, striking, verging on unwieldy, utterly unlikely rendition of a chapbook. Its somewhat thorny but beautiful physical demeanour, complete with stitched string binding that just might be sending some kind of a message unto itself, almost seems to echo the acerbic, urgent poems contained within. (Hmm, let’s think about writing book reviews that include a review of how well the physical book supports the book’s thesis, themes, tone, etc. Yes, I know that will be a challenge, but perhaps a healthy one, in this increasingly digital world.)

Inspired by interested comments about the Atwood chapbook pictures from Twitter book friend @barbhowson, I’m going to try from time to time to showcase and celebrate the physical books I’ve read, reviewed, and/or from which I’ve gathered #todayspoem snippets of inspiration.

Today, I dipped into Charles Bukowski’s The Last of Night of the Earth Poems (1992, Black Sparrow Press). Many of not most of the works comprising Bukowski’s prodigious output were published by fabled Black Sparrow Press in handsome, well-crafted editions that gave to his and the works of other avant-garde writers of the 1960s and 70s a reverence that was often a long time coming from a broader audience and readership. That was due in large part to the vision of Black Sparrow founder John Martin, whose literary legacy is described here and has still been kept alive today. As David R. Godine, the licensed distributor who took over the Black Sparrow backlist when John Martin retired in 2002, points out:

These are not reprints: they are the original publisher’s editions, trucked direct from John Martin’s former Santa Rosa warehouse to ours. Most of the books are hand-sewn, on creamy, heavy, acid-free paper, with distinctive cover and text designs by Barbara Martin. Most of the books, once they are sold out, will not be reprinted.

Bukowski’s The Last of Night of the Earth Poems is a fine example of Martin’s publishing care and craft.

The Last of Night of the Earth Poems, by Charles Bukowski, published by Black Sparrow Press

The Last of Night of the Earth Poems, by Charles Bukowski, published by Black Sparrow Press

The Last of Night of the Earth Poems, by Charles Bukowski, published by Black Sparrow Press

The Last of Night of the Earth Poems, by Charles Bukowski, published by Black Sparrow Press

This limited edition of Charles Bukowski’s The Last Night of the Earth Poems includes tipped-in doodles from the poet himself.

Treasuring my Book of Books (BOB)

“With no small amount of trepidation, I lay open here the first page of my diary ­ high-­schoolish stabs at intellectualism, fleeting girlish obsessions, deliberately obscure annotations and all. After many failed adolescent attempts at keeping a journal, the summer after my junior year in high school, I finally found a format I could adhere to: Never mind describing the back-and-lack-of-forths of unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends. I decided to list the books I read instead.”

Pamela Paul
Essay, My Life With Bob
Keeping Track of Reading Habits With a ‘Book of Books’

New York Times
April 13, 2012

Here's a page of my "Book of Books", which I started when I graduated from university in 1983 ... on Twitpic

Pamela Paul’s essay warms my heart. When our ways of engaging with and keeping track of books is becoming increasingly digital – even “in the cloud”, not tangibly or physically connected to us – how lovely is it to see a paper diary with handwritten entries capturing someone’s life in reading? As soon as I saw this picture in my paper copy of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I immediately connected with the picture and the essay because I’ve been doing the same thing as Pamela for close to 30 years (gulp).

I have a battered little bound diary in which I have been recording my reading since I graduated in 1983 from the University of Waterloo with a BA in Honors English (co-op). Surprisingly, I was not at all weary of all the reading I did as a student, and continued merrily along right after graduation. My first few entries in my Book of Books are:

April 28, 1983
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (reread)

May 6, 1983
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

May 20, 1983
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

… and on it goes from there. (Click on the picture accompanying this post to glimpse a couple of pages from 1989.) My only regret is that I didn’t start keeping a Book of Books sooner.

The spine on my Book of Books has come unglued on one side in all that time, but it still holds a place of honour on the shelf over my home office desk. I take it down and record my latest book completed as part of the beloved ritual of adding another book to one of my fondest memory banks of all.

Twitter, Goodreads, Bibliocommons and their ilk allow me to connect with other readers, for which I’m immensely grateful. My Book of Books allows me to connect with my own personal history as a reader, which is priceless.

See also:

Book of Books (BOB) Pinterest board
I’ve started capturing pictures of people’s gorgeous, textured, much loved book diaries. If you would like me to pin your book diary to this collection, leave a comment here with a link.


Nox, by Anne Carson

Nox, by Anne Carson

Anne Carson’s Nox is gorgeously crafted, both as poetry and as a book and beautiful object. Carson collaborated with designer Robert Currie to create an extended accordion fold-out of a plump, substantial set of pages that have the feel and heft of a handmade scrapbook. The assembled and folded pages are stored in a sturdy, hinged box, in handsome, muted neutral tones with a family photo album snippet on the lid. The elegance of the outer package seems to be trying to contain the unravelled scope of the pages when they are folded out, just as Carson’s words seem to strive to contain the unfettered life of a loved one she is striving to decode and understand.

(Image courtesy of

Nox is Carson’s singular lament for her lost and now deceased brother. Because he left her life early on, and provided and left little for her and her family to reconstruct his life, she approaches understanding and remembering him as she best knows how. She translates him the way she would the fragments of poetry in classical languages, methodically and almost repetitively analyzing every single word down to every possible meaning and variation. She uses as her framework Poem 101 by the Roman poet Catullus, a work that also paid tribute to a dead brother taken before his time. What seems almost monotonous at first grows increasingly moving with every term examined and dissected.

Visually, the jumbled family photos and scraps of handwritten cards and letters are heart clutching. The reproduced textures of torn and crumpled and dog-eared paper and even of the pressure marks of a pen on paper are startling and intimate, compelling you to constantly reach to touch the page.

“Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.”

This is a haunting and unforgettable work.

Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott

Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott

This absorbing novel recounts in lively, touching and suspenseful detail the aftermath of worlds literally colliding. Lonely, middle-aged and middle-class Clara’s car connects fatefully with that of the gypsy-like Gage family. While hospitalized after the crash, mother Lorraine learns that her bruises are actually an indication of late-stage cancer. Clara suddenly finds new meaning in her life as she takes charge of Lorraine’s three children, elementary school age Dolly and Trevor and infant Pearce, and elderly, cantankerous mother-in-law. As Lorraine battles cancer, Clara raises Lorraine’s family after L’s husband Clayton flees the situation. Clara’s friends and family rally round, and everyone learns about their capacity for patience, compassion and love. This novel offers probing reflections on selflessness versus selfishness, on charity, on all forms and types of love and caring for one’s fellow human beings.

An aspect of this novel that I initially found distracting was Endicott’s propensity for changing the narrator’s perspective so frequently, sometimes in mid-paragraph. By the end of the novel, however, I appreciated how much richer an overall experience the novel was for its interwoven voices. The novel mimics how voices naturally intermingle in normal group conversations, as if all of the characters are trying to describe the story to the reader at the same time.

Another striking aspect of this novel is its simple but arresting cover artwork. I’m not sure how often this sort of thing is remarked upon in reviews, but this book’s cover haunted me throughout. It’s a very simple picture of the end of an interior wall or doorway, upon which you can see the marks of someone measuring the heights of children. There are only a few marks, however, whereas in a home and a family where this is a tradition, there would be lots of marks. It said to me that Clara yearned to have a family and simple traditions like that, but that she only got to enjoy them for a short while. It turns out that this was the reasoning behind the image, as explained in these lovely and moving insights from the designer, which includes comments from author Marina Endicott:

This quotation from the Bible, which is mentioned in the novel, seems to sum it up well:

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13)