Montblanc Pens, Everyman’s Library Editions, and Dante’s Comedy.
Epistle no. 1
June 21st, 2022
565 Alnitak Rd.
At any given moment, there are really two objects which I would want to own. First, the Everyman’s Library edition of the Aeneid. And, secondly, an ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ edition of a Meisterstück Solitaire LeGrand Montblanc pen which I would use to annotate my Everyman’s Aeneid. For, only a pen of such physical beauty and caliber of craftsmanship as the ‘80 days’ Montblanc is worthy of annotating– and complimenting– the beauty and quality of a Everyman’s edition of a classic, let alone the sublime aesthetic achievement of the classic itself.
I only half-kid. I did immediately fall in love with the Montblanc after seeing it on display today. Though, I have to admit I feel guilty when talking about the pen and my infatuation with it. Quality products– beautiful objects– are undoubtedly bourgeois. It feels callous and careless to gush over a thousand-dollar pen when there are people who live under the poverty line not far from where I stood. I don’t gush at the prospect of donating money, and yet, a metal cylinder turns me into a mad lover and an adoring aesthete.
There is something genuinely depressing and soul sucking about the objects around us. When was the last time you found a building beautiful? When was the last time you bought something and could appreciate its artisanship and design? When was the last time you saved up money for something that was not practical, but rather beautiful for its own sake? Very few things are beautiful today. Very few things feel permanent and lasting. Everything I own, from a cheap magazine to a costly phone, feels ephemeral and disposable. But, everyone knows this. We all know how markets like ours work, and we all know profit is the imperative command which tramples over quality and beauty. We are not naive and we have complained. Yet, well, here we are.
I must sound like an insufferable snob. And, I am. But I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that I would like some of the things that I own to last me a lifetime, and that, in that case, I rather them be beautiful and worth my while.
It is impossible, however, to ignore the fact that aesthetic achievement does not spring from the head of Zeus, but is often the mark of a relatively privileged person who has benefited in one way or another from the labor of others. There is no reason, though, that we should not strive for beauty in everything we do, even if some of the fields of art present themselves as inaccessible and hidden behind the high walls of wealth. Aesthetic judgments can be made, and subsequent actions can be taken, even in the most democratic and accessible of mediums.
Today, works of great literary, artistic, and musical value and high craftsmanship can be made available for all through the internet and public spaces such as art galleries and museums. Excellence need not be monopolized by the few. For example, we know by the poets– professors of a universal art form– that something as commonplace as our language and speech can be made beautiful. And more than that, we know by the philosophers than even our way of thinking can made be pleasurable by being refined and wrought by rational inquiry into an elegant and thoughtful system.
The exciting possibility about being an aesthete is that we allow ourselves to be optimistic at the prospect that things like our writing, our music, and our own souls can be made beautiful at very little material cost. That is, however, if we are willing to pay attention to minutia and to be careful even about our artistic carelessness.
I am happy to live during a time when the Aeneid, a text of monumental poetic and literary power, is available to all. I happen to think that is a good thing. However, I will always want to have an Everyman’s edition. I know that the real value of the book lies with the text, but that is not why I would want to purchase a copy. After all, if I wanted to, I could read a free PDF and save myself fifty bucks. But, that is not the point.
I’ve struggled with the question of why beautiful editions of books are worthwhile, and part of my conclusion is that the reason I like the excellent paper quality and the superior binding– in other words, the feel of the book– is that reading a book is a tactile experience.
We don’t experience literature by some sort Bluetooth or osmosis. We use our eyes and our fingers to take in the data of, say, something that like the Divine Comedy. And, just like a narrator can make or break an oration despite the quality of the substance of the piece, a good edition of a book can enhance or detract from the reading experience. And, with a work as dense and long and arduous as the Comedy, it is nice for the medium to be as enjoyable as the message. This is, by the way, the ethos of all poetry, and there no reason physical objects should be the exception this principle.
In fact, the only Everyman’s edition of a classic that I own is the Divine Comedy. I adore the book. Everything about it feels superb, and I don’t only mean the materials and craftsmanship, but the scholarship in part of the translator, Allen Mandelbaum, is amazing. The Everyman’s edition of the Comedy is not only translated beautifully, but is also accompanied by annotations and an infinitely useful appendix by Mandelbaum, and is complimented with illustrations by the legendary Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.
The whole experience of the Everyman’s edition aids the reader in their descent into hell, yes. But, may I suggest that the design of the book is also a deliberate sign of reverence? A monumental work, such as the Comedy, is really worthy of the title, secular or otherwise, of poema sacro.
A paperback will serve you well, but when it comes to a giant like Dante, I find it almost painful when the text is not treated with some sort of elevated dignity. Indeed, I believe the reason beautiful editions, such as the ones from Everyman’s Library, are worthwhile is because they serve a very specific cultural and individual purpose.
Beautiful books are signals to others and yourself that this text is worthwhile and worth preserving. But, it is also a mausoleum of sorts. We can think of these editions as victory columns– paper and leather wreaths that we choose to lay on Dante and on his poem. It is an acknowledgment of our recognition of beauty.