I finally got around to finishing The Smithsonian Book of Books by Michael Olmert and I’m sorry to say that it’s a book that promises more than it delivers. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Christopher de Hamel’s The Book, a beautiful, rigorous, comprehensive, orderly, and fascinating history of the Bible as a book. I thought I might be getting something similar here but I was terribly mistaken.
It starts off as a history but soon starts jumping around in time to address various themes. The text is interrupted by short vignettes on particular topics, which eventually morph into chapters as chronology is all but abandoned. Some of the digressions deal with subjects the author has written on before (such as Colonial Williamsburg, which pops up again and again) and they often come across as tangential if not irrelevant. It’s possible that Olmert was required to insert a certain amount of American content, or else he just didn’t have the time or inclination to write new material. I also noticed that certain aspects of basic book history, which I learned from de Hamel’s superior work, were simply left out. This is just not a book to learn the history of books from.
Perhaps I am asking too much from a coffee-table book, but it doesn’t even match The Book in illustrations either. As with the text, some of the illustrations seem irrelevant and just there to make up the numbers (e.g. a half-page painting of the Williamsburg courthouse to illustrate civil record-keeping). A great number of the illustrations are also blurry, which I think is unpardonable these days.
Certainly there are a number of interesting tidbits here, both in the text and illustrations, and I particularly enjoyed the explanation of the mechanics of type casting and type setting. However I don’t think there is anything here that you can’t get in much better form elsewhere. I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for this book (thanks to you all) and I think I’ll be hocking it fairly soon. Sorry Mr. Olmert.