Review: The Booksellers

Here are two things I know to be true: there aren’t enough documentaries about books; when one can be found, it’s almost always disappointing. Well, sigh. D.W. Young’s film, about New York’s rare book dealer and collector scene, promises to be a quaint, easy-going glance in at the lives of those who have made collecting books their governing passion. Young’s narrative and scene structures are quite standard: the frame is the New York Book Fair, where dealers exhibit their wares and monied folk pass through, occasionally stopping for a closer look at a book trapped behind the glass. Then, Young moves to one dealer/collector, supplies a quick profile, and interviews them. In the middle of interviews, Young cuts to photographs of other figures discussed, zooming in and out of them—the movement of which mirrors and reinforces the progression of the interviewee’s contribution. This is a visual tactic so many documentaries employ, but I’ve rarely felt this large a gap between the formal decision and the lack of knowledge the speakers impart. And the tone of those interviews can swing. Some of the dealers/collectors are storied and charming, others are a bit mournful: the internet is killing the trade—pesky youth!—and where now, alas, are they meant to find their next $25,000 gilt-edged, leather-bound shelf-prop? The Booksellers becomes interesting when the film interviews subjects who actually read the books they collect. Kevin M. Young, who became a collector because he was writing about the material; Syreeta Gates, whose interest in amassing hip-hop literature and magazines means she’s assumed a position as one of the artform’s archivists. But chief among the pleasures is the moment in which one of the dealers combs through the bookshelves of an art historian with an eye for an acquisition. Scanning a person’s bookshelf, a favourite pastime, is a narrative act: it creates an inventory of what that person felt was important in their life and in the world; a compendium of the thoughts that occupied them; a diary of sorts. But Young is more taken with displays of wealth rather than the external signs of a rigorous internal life. And, behind the fabulous libraries, the warehouses in which purchased books are left to rot, the apartments that have needed structural reinforcement to bear the weight of the collections, Young has omitted to ask an important question: from where did these people acquire their wealth? Who are they? Here’s a hint: one section mentions Armand Hammer (Arnie’s great-grandfather), the oil magnate. So, this is, at least in part, the pastime of the ancestors of the Anglo-American 1%: usually older white men of property. I’m afraid I can’t get over, like most things involving stupendously rich people, and despite participants’ appeals to sophistication, how garish this all is. For that reason, I can’t stomach Young’s obsession, which is with people whose own obsessions are purely for show: books in this film are trophies—and I don’t care about trophies. 

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