What joy to pick up a book you think you won’t like and then find yourself drawn in by its charm and knowledge. That’s what happened with Uncorked: A Corkscrew Collection, by Marilynn Gelfman Karp and Jeremy Franklin Brooke (Abbeville Press, 224 pages, $24.95 hardcover). This is a case where the contents are far greater than what it says on the tin.
Why do people collect? Some, I guess, for speculation, but usually there’s an emotional angle too, or a need to preserve something. It can become a mania. Now you may, like me, be thinking, “Do I really need a book with 650 photographs of corkscrews?” If so, I ask you to please give it a look. We stand to benefit greatly from Karp’s obsession with corkscrews, and other things. (She also wrote a book called In Flagrante Collecto: Caught in the Art of Collecting.)
Karp, an artist and professor (whose late husband, Ivan, was an eminent Warhol-era art dealer and collector), shows us the personal side of her fixation. Each chapter begins with a short personal anecdote that leads into the more studious part. The first chapter begins naturally with her mostly wine-free upbringing in the Bronx, followed by an early error in the 1960s of drinking first-growth Bordeaux before they were ready. “Wine came first. Corkscrews came much later,” begins a brief and beautifully written passage on early wine and storage history. Her writing makes her seem like a perfect dinner guest; she deftly weaves hard facts in with references to art and the wedding at Cana.
The bulk of the book explains various themes, most of them mechanical: folding and portable corkscrews; wall- and counter-mounted ones; differences in worms, handles, shafts and so on. Each chapter has color photos of dozens of corkscrews, documented with origin and any pertinent notes about its use. It should be dry, but it isn’t. I mean, they’re just corkscrews, right? (I have a gorgeous Laguiole one, but most nights I use my Wine Spectator–stamped Pulltap.) I warn you: You can try to browse through, but this book is like flypaper.
Karp’s point, made very convincingly, is that these simple tools reveal our history and our culture through innovation, ingenuity, decoration and use. Some of them are simple tools with no moving parts. Others are overwrought mechanical wonders. Still more are gag gifts—useful, but that’s not the point. These things contain and inform us.
You will have favorites. I have two: the 18th-century folding corkscrew she got at a flea market for $4, because it’s a great story (see chapter 4), and the simple, cheap supermarket corkscrew with attached bottle and can opener that she got half a century ago or so. That chapter begins, “I shared a bottle of wine each dinnertime with Ivan for forty-nine years.” See? They’re not just tools.
This is the rare collecting book that is not just for collectors. It’s for anyone who loves wine and can appreciate the power of everyday objects. It’s simply one of the best general-interest wine books I’ve seen in decades.
Disclosure: My first job in New York was at this publisher. I have never before reviewed a book of theirs; in fact, the last time Wine Spectator reviewed one of their books, it was one I had acquired. My colleague Harvey Steiman was quite critical of it. As usual, he was not wrong.