Serendipity: You Forget all the Books You Know


I have just spent the morning – a grey, wet Monday – looking at my own books. A perfect task. I have to make a book list, a curation of titles, to add to a book of my own authorship, Shopkeeping, that will come out next spring. The boundaries are my own, my sense of what titles are actual and appropriate to the list. The very best of minds and hearts, for such of course are my readers, will look at the list, and take from it. There are emotions of every sort.

The task has taken me across every shelf, up and down each case. You forget all of the books that you know. Some are pals from grade school, some arrived that you greeted but have never sat down with. Here are a few that have been sweetly uncovered. They are wonderful.

A broken spine Modern Library copy of The Sun Also Rises, signed twice in pencil by the owner Vera Wolfe, this is the small 4″x7″ pocket edition, in cloth, a book designed that you could travel with, in your purse or pocket. It was published in 1930, a year after the original hard cover. The publisher’s promise: “Every reader will find titles he has been looking for, attractively printed, and at an unusually low price.” There is an introduction to the novel by Henry Canby. Today, a novel would never have an introduction from a critic. Canby describes the times as “a generation hurt in its nerves” and of Lady Brett Ashley, “she never drinks because she is thirsty.” Hemingway reads differently as you grow older — this edition reads differently in its own way.

A similarly small, 5″x7″ novel, Washington Square, the Henry James tale made into the William Wyler movie, The Heiress, with Olivia de Haviland and a young Montgomery Clift. The novel was written in 1880 but the movie was set in a different time, 1949. Hollywood wanted a love story and heart break. (James wanted his usual — brilliant and lengthy realism, the father calling out the cad as a cad, the daughter a fool to not see it that way.)

The type is painfully small, and every 30 pages or so there is a promotional black and white photo from the film, meant to lure. It is a crazy attempt, inserted against one of the great and most convoluted writers of literature in history. Said the novel’s Doctor, to his daughter Catherine, “I don’t wonder Mr. Townsend likes you. You are so simple and so good.” The Heiress failed as an investment but won five Academy awards. I am not sure the book, Washington Square, even noticed. Nor would my cat have noticed.

In 1946, MOMA published If You Want to Build a House, what it called a practical and necessary book, to help with the post-war needs and dreams. It hoped to make some sense of the task, a plea for a fresh and thoughtful approach that could rely upon the character of space, shape, light, materials, and color. A new house, it argued, need not be “an ancestral portrait” nor “an over-specialized laboratory.”

There are wonderful lines: “the Dutch have always had a way with brick”; “A view is something one should be able to take or leave,” and a wonderful spirit of the gentlest modernism. And nudging. Wright, Neutra, even Corbu, Lautner, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Wurster, Dow, all have houses in the book. “There is only one dogmatic rule: make sure that each thing is a pleasant authentic object which you honestly like,” Elizabeth Mock, MOMA curator of Architecture, notes.

I remember in 1993 bookseller Bill Stout and I were shown in Frankfurt a new series on architecture, titled Architecture in Detail, by the London publisher Phaidon. They were justly proud — each title was superbly photographed and technically informative, and graphically new. They wanted it to be the new series, a perfect series. And it was, for a period. Perhaps it was the internet that nicked it, but one day, it simply stopped. I still have some copies in the store but curiously they are rarely viewed or purchased.

I also pulled from the shelves Richard Murphy’s book Carlo Scarpa & Castelvecchio, published by London’s Butterworth in 1990 and it earned an AIA honor award that year. There were few books on Scarpa at the time, none on the wonderful design for the Castelvecchio. Very soon, the book went out of print and copies soared in value, up to $500. Ironically, there was an even finer book to come out of the project. Murphy, an architect from Edinburgh, had many more photos of the art museum than Butterworth needed or felt were necessary.

Years later, 2017, Murphy published, with his own press Breakfast Mission, Carlo Scarpa & the Castelvecchio Revisited, and now, there is the perfect book on the museum. It has 384 pages, twice as many illustrations, and twice the photographs, all in lovely color. A classic study, that should never have been out of print, returned in twice its glory and twice its exuberance. Welcome back, how wonderful you appear! This book I do have for sale at the shop, each copy boxed, one of the very best titles in all the shop. Scarpa, in full color, drawings and photographs, front stair, back stair, counter, window, passage, space, corner and edge.

Such tales, each book, its place in time and memory. And the good ones, they are always pleased to see you now, or again. Shall we dance?

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


  1. I look forward to Shopkeeping. I’ve visited your bookstore for years and found a real continuity in the inventory. That personal structuring must be even more focused in your personal collection.


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