Media Circus: Genteel readers of the world, dig deep

For the gentle reader who has everything, there's only one mail-order catalog: Levenger's

Published December 16, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Do you long for the golden age of the Book? That epoch of high-minded literacy when statesmen quoted poetry, great novels were serialized in newspapers and a literary quarterly or two could be found strewn about the sitting room of many homes? Do you decry the triumph of the visual; despise the ubiquity of the screen? If your answer is yes, yes my breasts all perfume yes, then you are perhaps one of that breed more sinn'd against than sinning, the happy few, those who hear the brave music of a distant drum and who get these top-drawer allusions, you are, kind lady, noble sir, a Reader. Not just some abridged-version trifler, but a Reader with iron eyeballs ready to burnish them on a grindstone like Middlemarch just to warm up for Proust.

Yet, however steeped in bookish lore or wise in taste you may be, you remain an embattled warrior against a cathode-glazed Babylon. So, before girding up thy loins and going forth into the paneled den, you should stop to take a quick glance at the Levenger Catalog: Tools for Serious Readers. The posh equipage you will find in its pages will not only spirit you back to the bookish yesteryear but will arm you for your own stylish war on illiteracy: luxurious leather-bound notebooks, pocket magnifiers sheathed in full-grain leather, rich leather and suede book weights, Napa leather pen and eyeglass cases, soft leather envelopes for "a pad, a few pens," traditional leather folios, cocoa brown leather chair cushions, Napa leather stamp pouches, mosaic leather paperback covers (with satin ribbon bookmarks), top-of-the-line belting leather notebook covers, black Tuscan leather card cases and full-grain La Paz leather pencil cases. If a few thousand cattle need die in the cause, so be it. A paperweight that isn't "a pleasure to touch" and that doesn't possess "the inviting aroma of a British leather shop" is hardly a tool for the Serious Reader whose parchments simply won't stay put under something as pedestrian as a coffee mug.

And the siege that is readin' & writin' not only decimates the herd but lays waste to forests too. No, not just for paper, but for tulip wood dip pens, natural cherry bed desks, Danish wood veneer book shelves, oak bookstands, dark cherry pen cabinets ("you will want to run your fingers over the butterfly joinery"), natural cherry desk sets, dark cherry reader's tables and dark cherry magazine stands. (The woodsy folks at Levenger's "admit to being partial to solid cherry" because it's "the epitome of traditional good taste.")

If all this leather and lumber doesn't get you in the mood to dash off an epistle or scan some strophes, perhaps the proper frame of mind might be summoned by Levenger's preening prose, which flatters the Serious Reader's literary pretensions while never losing sight of good value for the dollar -- blank-page journals will "preserve your thoughts for a century or so" and pens are "heirloom writing instruments"; notebook paper is "luscious cream stock that is a joy to write on" and sterling silver pens are not merely "precious in sentimental value" but "precious in content (92.5 percent silver)." Indeed, one rather pricey lighting fixture is even called the Investment Desk Lamp. A dimmer switch allows you to choose "bright intensity" or "romantic hues" for perusing your stock portfolio.

Levenger's saddle-soap and Lemon Pledge vision of literary life tilts earnestly against the not-so-distinguished thing itself. Genet used a stubby pencil to write on paper bags while in prison. Faulkner, too, favored pencils, with which he produced handwriting so cramped and illegible he could hardly read it the next day. Kerouac, who madly pounded out "On the Road" on a paper roll, sweated so much he went through dozens of T-shirts a day, and Yeats described poets penning lines while "tossing on their beds." If the canon was produced in such haphazard, un-ergonomic circumstance, think about the likely desks of grunge scribblers like William Vollmann, Mary Gaitskill and Henry Rollins. Any British Crystal Inkwells in sight? Bookish labor just ain't as dainty as imagined by Levenger -- but wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

That's why there is a decidedly Old World flavor to these products: pens are the color of the "green Aegean," one mechanical pencil was obtained from Count von Faber-Castell at his 200-year-old pencil factory and Tudor bridge cards were produced for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Repeated mentions of Britain and Germany invoke the venerable literary traditions of those countries and conjure nostalgic visions of Masterpiece Theater-ish home libraries where the sherry awaits and the pages are yet uncut. One offering, a 1936-style globe reproduced for Levenger, is quite literally an old world. Although the place names have been brought up to date, the art deco sphere has been photographed next to a prewar rotary phone -- Churchill might have twirled such a globe as he rang up Chamberlain to chide him about appeasement.

But the new technologies can't be ducked forever. Apparently, the wood shop and tannery can just as easily churn out quaint accouterments for the screen. Sculpted wood keyboard stands, cushy leather mouse pads, full-grain diskette cases and La Paz cellular phone carriers are to be found among the fountain pens and monogrammed paperweights. Even the esteemed dark cherry has been pressed into low service as a remote control box. (Of course, the box does offer additional space for magazines and crossword puzzles. The written word, it seems, will not go gentle into that good night.) After all, the Serious Reader can't be on the clock every hour of every day. Sometimes you need to kick back with a "Patty Duke Show" rerun or click around the Tokyo Topless Web site. Hey, Chaucer will still be there when you're done.

Creating fetish objects for bibliophiles, who surely number among the most fussy of fetishists, is a canny move on the part of the Levenger folks. Untouchable first editions will no doubt be found in homes along with pens too expensive to use and desks too polished to accommodate a pair of feet. Just as book collectors prefer to inhale the aroma of literature rather than chew on its meat, the purchaser of a $129 leather journal that "should be used to record the passions of your life" will probably end up recording their to do lists. Tools for the Serious Reader provide the Levenger customer some reassurance about his literary inclinations -- if you wrap a Tom Clancy paperback in a butter-soft leather jacket, it surely raises the book a notch or two in the canon.

Most not-so-serious readers and writers pore over text perched on the commode under bad light with a Bic in their hand. They use bobby pins for bookmarks and think the great age of the book was the last time they read a good one. But even these humble souls so lacking in seriousness are not immune to something as cool as a Levenger pocket combination telescope-and-microscope with a sleek black body, brass hardware and a Napa carrying case lined with Ultrasuede for lint-free, scratch-resistant protection. These Naugahyde- and Formica-philes would love an Old World, Stanley and Livingstone-type tool like that. And Christmas is coming up soon.

By Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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