Friday, April 10, 2009

Ruskin, in spades

In the home stretch of the semester, which may account for the slackness of blogging around here. One class is in the midst of Harryette Mullen, Trimmings (this week) and Muse & Drudge (next). The graduate seminar is watching Samuel Beckett whittle his characters down: week before last, we watched the progressive burial of Winnie in Happy Days; this week, we regaled ourselves with talking canopic urns in Play; next week, the disembodied mouth of Not I. Reading (my own) has almost ground to a halt, save for a few novels. Paul Auster's latest, Man in the Dark, last weekend (perhaps a trifle better than the dire Travels in the Scriptorium, but still a very very weak effort); Michel Houellebecq's Platform this week.

Much of my spare time seems to have gone into painting. Alas, I'm pretty sure that I'm no better a painter than I was 25 years ago, when I spent far more time with pencils, canvases, & paints. But one learns new things every time around: (1) don't do your canvas sketching in pencil: graphite is oily, refuses to be erased from the gesso ground, & leaches up thru your paints; (2) blue underpainting produces wonderfully cool shadows in flesh; & (3) glazing medium is da shit.
I don't call myself, in any sense Walter Benjamin would recognize, a book collector – I'm rather a book accumulator. Mine is for the most part a working library, with lots of second-hand editions, & things I've read rather tatty & marked-up. Only occasionally do I go over the edge & invest in a scholarly "complete works," like year before last when I took the plunge with the Gary Taylor Thomas Middleton from Oxford UP, 3000-odd pages of plays, poems, pamphlets, entertainments, & whatnot that I've yet to really scratch the surface of.

But now I've done it. Now I have to become a full-time John Ruskin scholar. Yes, it's true – I've acquired a set of the impossible-to-find, bank-account-breaking, second-mortage-requiring Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), edited by Cook & Wedderburn, in 39 volumes (1903-1912). I have set myself up to become the object of death threats, assassination attempts, & general black envy on the part of real Ruskinians everywhere – you know, those folks whose library carrells have been groaning under the weight of these books for years (since the library won't check them out), or whose interlibrary loan fines (since most libraries don't own the set) are outpacing their car payments.

[The set pictured here, by the way, is in the super-fancy leather binding; the one the UPS person delivered yesterday – in 4 huge cartons, approximately 150 pounds total – is in a far more modest morocco cloth – but this gives you some idea of the sheer mass of the thing: those books are approximately 10 inches tall.]

The Library Edition, compiled after Ruskin's death by his followers Edward Tyas Cook & Alexander Wedderburn, is by all accounts one of the glories of scholarly editing. C&W, with full backing of George Allen & Co., Ruskin's own publishers, set out to gather pretty much everything Ruskin had ever written; and like a true Victorian, he'd written an awful lot. (They didn't get every last piece, but they came close.) Each of the 38 volumes (the final volume is an astonishingly lengthy & comprehensive index) has a large introduction & copious running footnotes. They're illustrated thruout – over 800 wood blocks, almost a thousand color plates, & over 100 facsimiles of Ruskin's manuscripts, all beautifully reproduced: none of the muddy pictures you encounter in too many contemporary books. (Guy Davenport used to complain how various publishers had reduced his painstakingly cross-hatched drawings to "burnt toast.")

These are beautiful books. That's really all I can say. And the editing is beautifully done, as well. It's a testament to Cook & Wedderburn's labors that the Library Edition, a century after its publication, remains the gold standard for Ruskin scholarship. Sure, there've been a zillion paperback selections, & a handful of his books keep getting reprinted in Penguin editions, but nobody's attempted a new Collected Ruskin. (Edinburgh UP seemed to have started one back in the 1990s, but it didn't get past Praeterita and a selected Fors Clavigera.) If you write on Ruskin, you rely on the Library Edition: and if you don't have access to the Library Edition, then you're at a distinct disadvantage in your Ruskinizing.

So, don't ask me what I paid for this leviathan (it was a bargain, but I'm still not telling). And expect more – much more – 39 volumes' worth – Ruskin blogging in the future.


undine said...

It is a beautiful set, and I'll look forward to continuing my Ruskin education here.

Ed Baker said...

there is a set "out there"
going for $15,000 U.S.

and a set on ebay starting bid 100 pounds... no bid yet!

in 1965 or so I had tree volumes of this set (beautiful paper, etc)

I traded the three vols for

the complete set of The Great Books of the Western World which Eli Zaretzky had won

I also had that brown edition of

The Complete Charles Dickens

my dad had a collection of

The Complete Readers Digest the paper ones AND the Abridged Books ones

I had almost the entire run of Playboys from beginning issue to when
they went from stapled to perfect..

nude posing Madonna in both

Steven Fama said...

Way to roll! This should give you enough to read for a few days (ha-ha!).

Just reading about it on-line, and given its publication date, I wonder why the whole thing isn't on-line yet . . . so far as I can make out, only a few or maybe several volumes are up on GoogleBooks.

And just reading about it, I'd love to read just the index -- that in particular sounds fabulous.