When I reviewed The Folio Society edition of Gustav Meyrink's The Golem fellow blogger Kevin From Canada left a comment where he encouraged me to pay a visit to the Member's Room at their offices, just around the corner from where I work. Finding the time was tough but I managed to squeeze in a quick visit in between shows on a Thursday thanks to editor David Hayden. There are plans to give the room a bit of a refit and re-jig but, as Kevin mentioned, it is a great showcase of some of their stunning volumes and it was fantastic to have the chance to speak to David about the process of publishing these books.
One strong incentive for members to visit is that it gives them the chance to lay their hands on some of the exclusive volumes that may be beyond their budgets. A special table held vast tomes like a stunning facsimile of the Luttrell Psalter and a newly illustrated version of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which provides an interesting comparison with Nick Hayes' recent updating). The walls are lined with bookcases that carry copies of the wide variety of Folio titles. How these titles are chosen comes about through a mixture of consultation with members and a strong lead from David and his editorial team. Luckily he happens to be almost absurdly well-read and even in the short time we spent looking at a few of the books you get a real sense of his enthusiasm about everything from the writers and illustrators to the materials themselves. When someone runs their hands across the page and rhapsodises about Letterpress printing and hand-marbling you know you are in the presence of someone with a genuine passion for books.
That passion is expressed in many ways. Some productions are part of a grand project. The decision to build on the success of Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book means that the entire series will now be published with different illustrators used for each book as well as new introductions from writers like Marina Warner and Joan Aiken. Katherine M. Briggs' Folk Tales of Britain has been published in three volumes and is a book that Hayden feels will still be read and referred to in a hundred years time rather than the literary successes of today. It is whilst looking at books like these that you get a sense of what a personal library really is. When I was lucky enough to see inside the house of the Christie family at Glyndebourne I saw paintings on the wall with alarm wires leading away from them and bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes of huge worth. We can't all have the fortune to come from the aristocracy but it occurred to me that the purpose of something like the Folio Society is to allow you to build a collection of books that really will stand the test of time and provide an awful lot of pleasure in the meantime as you appreciate the work that has gone into their production.
One great way to test this is to look at a relatively recent book, Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor, a book which you could easily buy a cheap paperback of or even find a second hand one for pennies so why spend considerably more on the Folio edition? Like all of their books the aim is to start from scratch and make it the best book it can possibly be. So as well as a new introduction from the author there are brand new hand-drawn maps and even more extensive photographs. The pictures are in fact so well researched that the book picked up the 'picture research oscar' which I'm sure has a far more official title than that. That rigour is in evidence all over the place but sometimes it is remarkably simple things that can transform a book. It is hard to believe that the original edition of Victoria Finlay's book Colour, a 'history of man’s attempt to reproduce the rainbow' and used as a resource by art students and those with an interest in colour and pigment contained no colour illustrations. That has been corrected with over 100 in the Folio edition, the kind of book that you might find yourself inventing excuses to own.
Now before you start accusing me of running an extended advert for the Folio Society let's be clear that these books are beyond what a lot of people (myself included) are prepared, or able, to pay for a book and the idea of signing into a commitment of so many purchases a year is another turn off (it will soon be easier to buy single, one-off books through the website apparently). What I'm hoping to communicate through this post is the kind of results that can be achieved when the usual financial or commercial constraints are removed, or at least made less important, to the publisher. In an era when the very future of the book itself is being debated, it is useful to be reminded of the full potential of what a book can be. I've never been shy about letting you know when a book has excited me as an object and it seems to me that exactly at the moment when the book as object is threatened it will be productions like the ones I have mentioned, as well as recent favourites like An Atlas of Remote Islands that will ensure that the book in its traditional form remains an irreplaceable part of our culture.