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Mad About the Book


The somewhat mole-like English bookseller Paul Minet, whose sense of duty requires him to spend a good deal of his life in dank, unlit cellars, rescuing worthy books, used to write a column in the Antiquarian Book Monthly Review called “Book Chat,” a phrase that describes with a nice accuracy rather more than 90 percent of the large but mostly trifling literature of book collecting. If that judgment seems harsh, please note that I’m speaking only of the literature of book collecting. Serious studies of the transmission of knowledge in the early decades of printing (Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s L’Apparition du Livre) are not book-chat. The thousands of bibliographies crammed into the reference rooms of my own bookshops are not book-chat—they’re indispensable tools. Solid publishing histories are not book-chat, though the memoirs of editors (Jason Epstein, Michael Korda, Andre Schiffrin, Diana Athill, to name some recent examples) naturally contain a good deal of publishing chat.

Book-chat is mostly written by dealers, collectors, or the few journalists who slink like coyotes around the small, migratory herd of international book people. Nicholas Basbanes is one such journalist, which is merely to describe him, not condemn him. Book-chat is usually a mixture of reminiscence (Who should come into my shop one day but Mr. Thackeray…), gossip, prices realized, prices not realized, and oddments of trade information of the sort that properly belongs in newsletters—of course there are plenty of those, too. (Book-chat being innately digressive, I might mention that I once owned twenty years’ worth of the bound newsletters of a Fort Worth asphalt company whose sideline was industrial grease; I was mentally preparing myself to own those newsletters forever when the writer Annie Proulx came streaking through Archer City, pausing in her dusty journeying just long enough to be swept up by the drama of asphalt, as it unfolded in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1950s: a miracle!)

Small subcultures like to keep up with their own goings-on, which is why many subcultures boast newsletters. Collectors of toothpick holders have a newsletter, and even hold conventions. If we can agree that books, not toothpick holders or asphalt, are the foundation stones of our civilization, then there certainly ought to be newsletters for book people—about fanzines, one level down from the newsletter, I am not so sure, having recently revisited my file of We Don’t Rent Pigs!, a fanzine spawned by my own novel Lonesome Dove and published not in Ogallala, Nebraska, as one might expect, but in Hoole, Chester, England; circulation once rose as high as thirty-seven. Nowadays files of this brave little assemblage of what might be called Dove-chat seldom appear on the market, though, soon enough, they will.

Perhaps the likeliest analog to book-chat is fishing-chat; the late New York bookseller Frances Steloff must have thought so, since she made “Wise Men Fish Here” the motto of the Gotham Book Mart, a motto that endures to this day. A prominent collector of the Twenties, Barton Currie, called his memoir Fishers of Books, and I myself once heard a collector brag about having “hooked The Whale today”—The Whale being the three-volume first English edition of Moby-Dick, a catch that will probably cost the lucky angler six figures nowadays.

Fishermen, of course, form a whopper of a subculture. Something like 55 million people fish; even Lionel Trilling—it is said by his wife—fished, and a good thing too, considering how little fun he seems to have had otherwise. The great classic of fishing-chat in our language is of course Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler, which racked up at least 456 editions between 1653 and 1987.

The Angler, in effect, laid down rules for all the subcultures to come: first get a nomenclature (the more esoteric the better), and an apparatus, and a few recondite strategies, and a lot of miscellaneous lore (not forgetting recipes), and then settle on a couple of determinative motifs (the Big One Netted, the Even Bigger One That Got Away). It may not have hurt, either, that the author of this touchstone, Izaak Walton, was a little quirky. In 1658, while hustling up yet more lore for the third edition of his book, Walton wandered into Westminster Abbey one day and scratched his initials on the tablet of the great controversialist Isaac Casaubon, merely the first of two affronts to that learned man’s shade; the second came two centuries later, when George Eliot took his name and gave it to the shambling pedant who briefly beguiles lithesome Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch.

The last 1653 Compleat Angler to come on the market, the A. Edward Newton-Rosenbloom copy, brought $32,500 in 1993. We’ll hear more about A. Edward “Eddie” Newton—at his sale in October 1941, the same book brought $2,650, facts I report because book-chat without prices is like pie without ice cream.


It should be evident from the above that book-chat is easy enough to do: you just need an anecdote or two, the names of a famous dealer or collector (or their mistresses), and some prices. Probably the prices are the most critical element. Even people who don’t like to spend money themselves enjoy reading about ridiculous sums other people spend: that’s how the romance of capitalism gets consummated. Edwin Wolf II and John Fleming, biographers of the great dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach, known as the Doctor, are not wrong to suggest that the Doctor became the most famous American book dealer of the twentieth (or any) century by spending a good $25 million on books in the decade preceding the stock market crash of 1929; not only did the Doctor spend it, he made sure that his flashier purchases were reported in the papers.

Many members of the general public like books, and read them, a pleasure some collectors can but rarely indulge; just collecting keeps them busy enough. Should the general or common readers, for whom reading is the main thing, be expected to care if a variant binding or a trial-issue dust wrapper happens to turn up for The Sun Also Rises? No, such readers needn’t care about these variants, and they seldom do, though if it should come out in the paper that this new wonder has sold for $150,000 they blink a time or two before setting down their coffee cups.

Are there, or have there been, book-chatterers who can get the general public interested in the minutiae of book collecting? Yes, a few; but the list is short and the life span of their effusions is about that of a soap bubble.

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a rich man’s librarian named Thomas Frognall Dibdin; he worked in Althorp, seat of the Spencers, where Princess Diana is now buried, and he was also the nephew of the popular songwriter Charles Dibdin. Thomas Frognall Dibdin went racing around the British Isles, bursting in on the gentry and waxing rapturous about the Aldines and Elzevirs that their illustrious ancestors may have more or less absently acquired, and describing these treasures in books which were in the main just glorified lists. Though Lord Chesterfield had briefly warned his son against something he called “bibliomanie,” it was Dibdin, in 1809, who developed the notion of bibliomania, or book madness, mainly, one suspects, as a sales pitch. Some book collectors are nice, some are obnoxious, many are dull, few are mad; calling them mad is to romanticize them. Nonetheless, the notion of book madness has filtered through the decades, all the way to Nicholas Basbanes, whose first book is called A Gentle Madness, even though the text soon makes hash of its title. The dealers and collectors he describes who happen to be gentle are not mad, whereas those who happen to be mad are not gentle.

It’s hard now to believe that any-one ever actually read the works of Thomas Frognall Dibdin, but he became one of the more popular types of book-chatterer: the Enthusiast, or Panegyrist. Since his day many bookmen have found that they need do little more than enthuse. Probably the main contemporary effect of Dibdin’s enthusing was to make the gentry happy in the knowledge that they owned such pricey books. Little did they suspect that hard times would soon come knocking; even before Dibdin’s death in 1847 country house libraries had begun to spill into the market.

If we skip the book gush of a number of minor Victorian men of letters, probably the next really successful popularizer of book collecting was A. Edward Newton, in humble youth a stationer’s stock boy in Philadelphia. In a few years, with the help of an astute partner, young Eddie Newton got rich enough to start a book collection. For a time he seemed merely a kind of hopeful tricyclist, pedaling along in his spats behind the great engines of Morgan, Huntington, and Folger. He never got rich enough to play in that exalted league, but then nobody else did either, and unlike the great tycoons, Newton could write a little. The early decades of the twentieth century were the high-water mark of book collecting as a gentleman’s sport. In 1918, handily catching this wave, A. Edward Newton published The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections; it sold well, and many similar romps through Bookland followed, all of them offering their readers a sense of the coziness of the world of rare books; this insight I owe to the great John Carter, of whom more later.

The coziness A. Edward Newton’s books suggested was that of a Main Line mansion with many fireplaces, all blazing; or, perhaps, of an Edwardian gentleman’s club. As a collector A. Edward Newton bit and scratched with the best of them; competing, as he did, in a savagely competitive era, he would have got no books at all if he hadn’t gone into the pits and fought. But, in his pages, book people are mostly courteous, high-minded (which is not to say, God forbid, intellectual!) gentlefolk who like, now and then, to read.

In our time the biggest book-collecting best seller has probably been Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. Helene Hanff was a reader of modest means who, for many years, nursed a long-distance love affair with London—or at least with an idea of London. This idea, or, as it became, ideal, took the form of a correspondence with a courteous English bookseller, Mr. Frank Doel, of Marks and Co. Mr. Doel sought out the books Helene Hanff wanted to read, and sold them to her at very modest prices. She could easily have found most of the same books, also at modest prices, in bookshops in Manhattan, but Manhattan, alas, wasn’t London—getting them from around the corner wouldn’t have been quite the same. By the time Helene Hanff finally gets to London and visits Marks and Co., Frank Doel is dead and Marks and Co. is just soldiering on; but London is all she had hoped it would be. Helene Hanff, in her way, picks up coziness pretty much where A. Edward Newton laid it down—in a vanished time when a busy London bookseller was willing to patiently serve the modest needs of a lady in New York who just liked to read.

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