Wherein we argue that the 1947 tome, Books and Bipeds, is the perfect Starrett book.
Is Books and Bipeds the perfect Vincent Starrett book?
Yes it is.
“Why?” you ask.
My, you ask a lot of questions.
You remind me of my granddaughter. She once asked me why I was going to take a shower after getting up in the morning.
“Because I’m dirty,” I said.
“How did you get dirty?” she asked. “Where you playing in dirt?”
But I digress.
Here is why Books and Bipeds is Starrett at his best, and why this book deserves a place on your shelf.
1) The title. Nothing sums up Starrett and his love for books better than this title. Unlike the more obscurely named Buried Caesars, Persons from Porlock or Et Cetera, Books and Bipeds gets right to the thing that Starrett cares most about. Here’s how he says it in his introduction:
“These are the notes and queries, the miscellaneous browsing, the little journeys and occasional discoveries, in a word, the private satisfactions of an incurable bibliofool. They are addressed to people who like books and talk of books, whether collectors or simple readers, purchasers or patrons of libraries.”
Books and Bipeds.
The alliteration is sweet, the target direct. He could have called it, Books for People Who Love Them, but he was an old newspaperman, and being concise was a requirement.
Cut the poetry Watson.
Which is not to underrate the titles, or the contents of his two Random House books that preceded this one. Books Alive and Bookman’s Holiday.
I just believe Books and Bipeds is best.
2) The publisher. Books and Bipeds was published in 1947 by Ben Abramson, whom we met a while back.
Abramson, you’ll recall, ran Argus Books in New York City. Just one year before publishing Books and Bipeds, Abramson started a little yellow-backed publication called The Baker Street Journal.
But his association with Starrett goes back to the 1930s, when Abramson’s Argus Books was based in Chicago and was one of Starrett’s frequent haunts. By the late 1940s, Abramson and Starrett were old acquaintances.
“He was a great bookseller and a great personality,” Starrett recalled after Abramson’s death.
“His Argus Book Shop was long a mecca of booklovers from other states, and even from abroad.”
3) The letter. Abramson opens Books and Bipeds in an extraordinary fashion, by publishing a letter Starrett had sent him during the course of preparing the manuscript. It offers a glimpse of what it was like to work with Starrett on one of his books. Here it is, transcribed in full:
I have your letters, one, two and three, before receiving the MS, after receiving the MS, and after reading the MS. As I don’t go to the office often, I got them all at one time and so was able to read them serially, with cumulative effect.
I thought over the matter of arrangement for a long time, and the decision to make it chronological was taken after profound cogitation. Since you say you will leave it to me, I suggest that we leave it that way. I think the miscellaneous effect created is all to the good; it is what I like myself in a book about books, and I think others like it too.
All thanks for your letters. I’m glad you like the book. I like it, too, and believe it will do well. And best to you and yours,
Can you imagine being the publisher of a book and being so committed to the work that you keep going even though you have not heard from the author over the space of three letters? That’s commitment.
4) The first entry. The content is essentially a “Best of” series of notes and comments from Starrett’s “Books Alive” column, which started in the Chicago Daily News in September 1942 and moved over to the Chicago Tribune in November. The little items, which could be one paragraph or a couples pages in length, illustrate Starrett’s many passions and the range of his interests.
It’s a treasure box waiting to be explored.
For the friends of Sherlock Holmes, there is much to enjoy and the first essay, “Nova 57 Minor,” is one of the most intriguing.
The story of the discovery, publication, and denunciation of the mystery is well known today (Bob Byrne has a good summary of the case at his blog.), but by reading Books and Bipeds, you’re reading real time journalism.
5) The oddment. Go back to the illustration of the dust jacket cover and tell me what’s wrong. Do you see it? Look in the black bubble with Starrett’s name and see what’s written there: “Author of Books Alive, Bookman’s Holiday The Journey and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”
What is “The Journey”? The lack of a comma indicates it is somehow associated with Bookman’s Holiday, but its full title is Bookman’s Holiday: The Private Satisfactions of an Incurable Collector.
So far as I know, there is no book by Starrett called The Journey.
What did it mean?
6) The great anecdotes. Open it up, pick a page at random and you will be delighted. Here is a contemplation on imaginary islands, a favorite Starrett topic. There is a pun involving Dashiell Hammett, and a few pages later is a piece on three newly published books about Holmes: Christopher Morley’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship; Edgar W. Smith’s Profile by Gaslight; and Ellery Queen’s Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes.
If I'm not making the best cast here, it's because I don't want to spoil it for you. Reading a description of this book is like reading about a great meal. The only way to truly appreciate it, is to experience it.
I enjoy plucking this volume down from the shelves periodically, not to read it from cover to cover, but to sip it like a nicely aged Scotch whisky for an evening, before returning it to shelf for another day.
If that’s not a perfect book, I don’t know what is.
We’ll leave the last word about Books and Bipeds to Starrett from his introduction:
“My job, as I see it, is not to educate or reform, but only to communicate my own enthusiasm for books; and to the extent that I am successful, I shall be fulfilling my intention.”