I love my Kindle. When setting off on a trip, I luxuriate in being able to choose from a juicy new novel, an engrossing biography or rereading a title I’ve enjoyed while not having to shlep extra weight. And yet, when reading Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I did find myself squinting at the complex family tree and wondering what the printed version might offer.
A few people found the book tough to penetrate but most were swept up in de Waal’s quest to discover the origins of a netsuke collection that he had inherited from an uncle living in Japan. And the tale is one of a Jewish family’s rise to incredible wealth and power as “les Rois du Ble” (the Wheat Kings) across Europe followed by the loss of several fortunes in the wake of the First World War and utter dissolution as the Second World War unfolds. The Ephrussi family’s Austria, “the land of Dichter and Denker, poets and thinkers, had become the land of Richter and Henker, judges and hangmen.” The surviving members of the family made new lives elsewhere.
“The Hare with Amber Eyes” is full of references to art and concrete objects and as good a writer as de Waal is, I knew that as a reader I wasn’t “seeing” what he was attempting to convey. With electronic limitations in mind, I made sure to give the physical book as a gift on a number of occasions. Yet the paper version still did not seem to do justice to the tale.
And now Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published “An Illustrated Edition of the Hare with Amber Eyes.”
It is a delight on every level. The book has heft, the paper is thick and smooth and the illustrations are marvelous. The netsuke collection is beautifully presented with the hare on the cover and some 50 pieces featured on the endpapers.
While the book is a pleasure to handle, the wow factor lies in the illustrations themselves. Art or photographic books aside, rarely does one revel in a book’s images as an adult. Now instead of guiltily thinking that you should be researching each art reference online, you can indulge in a sensory perusal of the images as you rediscover the story. And yes, the text does bear a second reading.
De Waal, a ceramic artist, is acutely sensitive to the complicated role that objects play in our lives. He writes, “This is the strange undoing of a collection, of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure when grand things are taken and when family objects, known and handled and love, become stuff.”
The “Illustrated Edition” is in part an answer to the question, “What endows an object with value?” It demands to be held, explored and savored.
Sharon Anstey is a writer and business consultant in New York City.