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‘Charming, Helpful and Solid’: Vitruvius Comes to Irving

By Daniel Orazio, BA ’13

Taylor Posey, BA ’13 MA ’18, my classmate and friend, was a Fromer. Try not to hold that fact against him. In each of our closets, after all, lie skeletons. On the balance side of the ledger, Taylor was the most talented classics major of the class of 2013 and a founding member of The Stillwater Hobos, the finest UD band of our day, for which he played the mandolin and the mandola and penned many of the allusive lyrics. Now, eight years on from graduation, he has answered his vocation: he is a “bookman.”

Say hello to the Irving Book Company, founded by Taylor in the fall of 2020. What is the IBC? Let us begin apophatically. Though it sells books, it is not a glorified Half Price Books, and though it publishes books, it is no mere printer.  

Taylor works in the book trade, buying and selling secondhand and rare books. Like perhaps 50% of all bookdealers, many of whom meet customers only for private showings, he has no storefront. Accordingly, it is not worth his while to sell $5 mass-market paperbacks. Instead, the books he sells start generally around $40, though exceptions are made for really good ones, such as Oxford Classical Texts and volumes of Shakespeare. At the upper level, the rare-book trade resembles art dealing, with items selling for many thousands of dollars. Last year, for instance, AbeBooks sold a signed vellum-bound 1936 edition of Ulysses for $46,310. Naturally, those who patronize a bookdealer may become steady “clients” rather than remain simple “customers.” Taylor has one such client in England, a gentleman with a taste for fine bindings. When Taylor comes upon a lovely one, he sends the man a note.

To draw clients, a bookdealer must offer a good price for a book that is well-cared for and about which he himself is knowledgeable. A good bookseller, then, is a specialist. Taylor’s specialties befit those of a UD alumnus: the classics, especially Greek and Latin texts; Catholic works from before the 1960s, including missals; Modern Library volumes (he shares that press’s “naïve belief in the common man”); and excellent editions of the Great Books, i.e., those we read in the Core.  

Taylor became interested in the book trade back in high school and college, when he found himself forking over large sums of cash for first editions, which, he had discovered, are the best edition of a text — that is, materially the soundest and handsomest — 9/10ths of the time. This duel interest in the words themselves and in their manner of presentation informs Taylor’s identification of “the two great heresies” of both bookselling and book publishing. First, there is a sort of Gnosticism, whose “creepy pure-idea” adherents “give no credence to mundane sacramentality.” Interested only in the book’s “soul,” i.e., in its words, they fancy themselves — for their very disregard of the material item — as the superior aesthetes. Second, there is a kind of materialism, the practitioners of which — i.e., the dread “collectors” — care only for the “body.” Obsessed by how a book looks on a shelf, they may as well be illiterate, so little do they actually read. For Taylor, on the other hand, a book’s content and form, as with a poem’s, are inseparable. 

But selling books is just a part of the IBC’s reason for being, and a lesser one at that. Publishing is at its heart. The difference between selling books and publishing them, says Taylor, is “the difference between commodification and creation,” and “creation for me wins every time.” The sort of book that the IBC creates is one that meets the standard set 2,000 years ago by the Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius: Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas. A book, like a building, ought to be “charming, helpful and solid.” In this age of unstable new dormitories and cheap Dover reprints, Vitruvius’ mark may seem lofty, yet Taylor insists that he has nothing formidable in mind. He takes his cues from the long-established orthodoxy of the publishing world and from the few good publishers left today. He will absolutely never print digitally, instead employing offset lithography for better blacks and crisper lines. As a book designer, his one care is for his reader, who should in no way ever be distracted from careful, sustained reading. He focuses on commercial publishing, not on collectible or letterpress books, with standards high for today but average for 70 years ago.    

The IBC’s first publication, however, released through its imprint Taylor Posey, Publisher, is rather special: a very fine, limited-run, first-posthumous publication of UD’s own Karl Maurer, who taught the classics at UD for 16 years before his death in 2015. The publication, representative of the content but not of the form of the future catalogue, is intended as “a beautiful and humble memorial to a man to whom I, and so many others, owe very much.” Titled An Introduction to Robert Frost: A Talk With Notes, the text is based on a seminar that Maurer gave at the English Institute of Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1985, on the poetry of Robert Frost. Also including a preface, a half-dozen Frost poems, three appendices and a bibliography, the book holds at its core a luminous lecture that says more about Frost and about poetry generally than one might read in a hundred other essays, instructing us — in words that I shall never forget — that “as any real poet knows, poetry is only love’s servant.”  

How does one frame Frost in Argentina? Partly by choice of type (Garamond) but much more so by specially made decorative paper, handmade and handblocked with an original and exclusive design, bound in quarter-cloth and slipcased. The design, crafted by the father-daughter team at Michigan’s Papillon Press with a motif specific to Mar del Plata, aims to give a glimpse of that city, as flowers might give a whiff of spring: a glimpse not of Munich or Paris or Kiev, but of Mar del Plata her particular self.  

As we were finishing up a phone call a few months ago, Taylor doubled back to emphasize one crucial point: The books that he publishes, including this special first, are “published to be used,” for “beautiful books,” as it turns out, “are the most sturdy.” He not only permits but commands that you mark up his books, toss them roughly into your backpack, whack a burglar with them and generally “beat the hell out of them.”    

A book on Frost repelling a home-invader? Charming, helpful and above all solid indeed.

Daniel Orazio, who was a classical philology major at UD, is currently a student in the Department of Christian and Classical Letters at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, Italy.

 
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