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Mad About the Book

1.

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.

2.

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.

There’s no need to quarrel with that picture, except to observe that Frank Doel was not doing anything exceptional. Finding books for customers—often customers of modest means—is what good antiquarian booksellers do; of the hundreds of bookshops in the world very few are so highfalutin or so well capitalized as to neglect the Helene Hanffs who just happen to want a particular, often inexpensive, book.

There are, of course, other, less cozy aspects of bookselling. There is a brilliant counterstatement to 84 Charing Cross Road: it’s called Not 84 Charing Cross Road and it’s the work of the renowned English book scout Drif Field, a man now so famous that his names have been welded together into a kind of generic: Driffield. His book is extremely entertaining, but it’s written for book trade professionals, while Helene Hanff wrote for the general public.

3.

Mention of Driffield and his book raises a sticky point, which is that the very best writing about book collecting is likely to be interesting—or even intelligible—only to professionals. A good example of what I mean is a slim volume called Anatomy of an Auction: Rare Books at Ruxley Lodge 1919, by Arthur Freeman and his wife Janet Ing.* Arthur Freeman is an American poet who was, for twenty-five years, a director of the great London bookselling firm Bernard Quaritch Ltd.; Janet Ing is a historian of printing. The sale of books at Ruxley Lodge, in Surrey, was held over three days in October of 1919, and contained, among many other things, the four Shakespeare folios. Freeman and Ing not only were lucky enough to get their hands on a coded copy of the sale catalog but were also allowed to examine manuscript records of what happened after the public sale, when members of the Ring—that’s a bookseller’s Ring, not Wagner’s—got together and divided up the spoils on terms very lucrative to themselves. “Ringing,” an agreement among certain booksellers not to compete against one another at public auction, with the understanding that the real division of goods would take place between themselves, later, was not illegal in England until 1928. At this very moment, of course, our two major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, stand accused of doing what the Ring once did: colluding to keep down costs.

The Freeman and Ing’s detailed and scrupulous account of the “ringing” of this one sale makes absolutely fascinating reading for a bookseller, but my guess is that it would lose most collectors and cause the general reader to yawn and reach for the remote.

The same judgment must apply, I fear, to most of the work of the late John Waynflete Carter, in my view the best writer ever to write about book collecting. John Carter was many things: Old Etonian, scholar of King’s College, Cambridge, Latinist, bibliographer, journalist, diplomat, and book dealer. He maintained a long relationship with the rare book division of the Scribner’s Bookshop in Manhattan (of blessed memory), when, in the course of his duties, he probably became the first man to fly the Atlantic with a Gutenberg Bible under his seat. He was also the author of a rigorous but much-admired tract on the dry martini—this is to be found in his wife Ernestine Carter’s cookbook Flash in the Pan—the title he had suggested was Home on the Range.

In his writings about the book trade Carter always bluntly stated that he wrote as a tradesman—he just happened to be a very superior tradesman. His glossary ABC for Book Collectors remains the one tool all bud-ding collectors must acquire. Printing and the Mind of Man, the great exhibition he organized in 1963 (catalog 1967) with Percy Muir and a number of other highly professional bookmen, is probably the most influential (and most informative) book show ever mounted.

With his colleague Graham Pollard, John Carter made his name early, by way of an astonishing coup de foudre, a book called An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain XIXth Century Pamphlets (1934) which exposed Thomas J. Wise, then the leading figure in English book collecting and bibliography, as a crook who helped finance his own collecting by cleverly forging and slipping into the market many bogus Victorian rarities. The book had a thunderous impact—it was as if DNA testing had come to the book world and revealed not coziness but corruption. In this case DNA testing amounted to a chemical analysis of the papers used in the forgeries, plus a very close study of the typefaces available to the forger. The two young Turks had little difficulty in proving that these long-suspected and very pricey pamphlets could not be what the eminent collector had claimed they were.

Thomas J. Wise was later shown to be an even worse crook than Carter and Pollard supposed. Besides the forgeries he had developed the very unattractive habit of slicing leaves out of books in the British Museum and using them to perfect his own defective copies of various seventeenth-century books. A packet of these leaves, evidently purchased at Mrs. Wise’s garage sale and never opened, turned up in a dim stockroom of a London bookshop in the Eighties, and the leaves were duly returned to what had by then become the British Library.

John Carter worked in and wrote about books for almost fifty years, leaving a myriad of extremely well-written reports. If he ever wrote a bad sentence I haven’t found it. To select one quotation is hard, but a particular favorite of mine is his subtle but steely deflation of Lord (Victor) Rothschild’s celebrated collection of eighteenth-century books, of which a sumptuous two-volume catalog was issued in 1954. This, from John Carter’s review:

…The possessor of two copies of the Bristol Lyrical Ballads may view with equanimity the accusation that he has dispensed with a first edition of Garth’s Dispensary. It is perhaps unreasonable, when we are given so much, to ask for more. Yet one does….

To assemble a splendid collection, rich in rarities and masterpieces, and remarkable for its very high average of condition is an enviable thing. To publish a scholarly and ample catalogue of it is an admirable thing. Many bibliophiles have done the former: a few the later: and Lord Rothschild has an honored place among the best of them. The very quality of his achievement, however, and still more its deliberate restriction of period and scope, inevitably (and perhaps to him unwillingly) provoke the question whether the Rothschild library has exerted, or will exert, any significant influence on the taste, as distinct from the technique, of other book collectors. His design called for concentration rather than initiative, for devotion rather than imagination. He has ridden—and won—an extremely stylish race over a well known course, rather than explored open country. It is doubtful whether, even in twice the dozen years of his activity, anyone could do what he set out to do, either in assembly or exposition, better than he has done it. And if he has no ambition to open anyone’s eyes to unexplored avenues of bibliophily, who shall say that incipit is necessarily a more deserving word than explicit?

So take that, noble lord!

John Carter’s best book, in my view at least, Taste and Technique in Book Collecting, was initially delivered as the Sandars lectures in bibliography at Cambridge University in 1947. I don’t think there is a better book about book collecting: the prose is splendid, the judgments acute, the suggestions reasonable. Yet I can’t really imagine anyone but a book dealer reading and rereading it, as I have done. The book-chat of even the most superior tradesman may make its strongest appeal only to those who practice the same trade.

The Wise forgeries which Carter and Pollard exposed continue to be studied; they are now, ironically, worth a great deal more than wouldbe the case if they were genuine scraps thrown off by the great workshops of Arnold, Ruskin, the Brownings, etc.

Today, both in art and book collecting, the detection of forgeries has become an expanding discipline. A case in point is the work the English bookman Nicolas Barker—heir to John Carter in felicity of style and analytical tenacity—has done on the so-called Butterfly Book forgeries of the writer Frederick Prokosch: tiny booklets containing mostly one poem by a great variety of modern poets, including Prokosch himself. Frederick Prokosch, both a connoisseur of papers and a butterfly collector—bound these little booklets in a variety of marbled papers that resemble butterfly patterns. He began to print the booklets in the Thirties as acts of homage to various poets—Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Pound—that he was then sucking up to, usually securing the poets’ blessings on his efforts. Though more elegantly done, these booklets didn’t differ too much from the kinds of Christmas offerings that both Frost and Edmund Wilson liked to produce. Prokosch’s early novels, The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled, brought him considerable celebrity—but it didn’t last. By the Sixties his reputation and possibly his bank account were much shrunken and he began, again, to produce the Butterfly Books—without securing the authors’ blessings, for reasons that he himself could not convincingly explain. For mischief? For money? For both? The forger’s motives are seldom simple—of course successful deception brings its own potency, as countless adulterers learn. But, in literary forgery, money is rarely absent from the equation for very long.

4.

Nicholas Basbanes, for the past decade or more, has functioned as a kind of rickshaw coolie to the book world, trotting his readers around to this dealer, this collector, this library. In his new book, Patience and Fortitude, he ranges far and wide, hopping over to Cairo to have a look at the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, skipping up to Milan to chat with Umberto Eco amid his 30,000 books, slipping into Paris for a visit with Pierre Berès, a book dealer for more than seventy years; then we might fly off to Berkeley, to check out a great dealer there, or back to New Haven and another great dealer there.

Many of these chats with the mainly deshelved princes of the book trade are enjoyable enough. One is grateful, in A Gentle Madness, for the author’s investigations into the career of the collector Haven O’More, a man about whom even the dealers who served him knew little.

But the two books between them amount to nearly thirteen hundred pages of book-chat, which is way too much. They read like strung-together feature articles, mixed with short profiles and often pointless vignettes. Here a bit about the author and library activist Nicolson Baker, there a bit about the librarians who are even now writhing under his lash. My complaint about these books is the opposite of John Carter’s about Lord Rothschild’s library: the noble lord didn’t put in enough, the tireless journalist has put in too much. The stern minimalist motto of our day—that less is more—is one Nicholas Basbanes would have done well to heed.

I’ll offer one last tale, as an illustration of the irrationality of markets and the migratory nature of rare books.

Students of the Wise forgeries now think that the Victorian man of letters Harry Buxton Forman had more of a hand in the making and marketing of the forgeries than was first supposed. In 1896 Buxton Forman bought Shelley’s own copy of his poem Queen Mab, paying six pounds. At Buxton Forman’s sale in 1920 Dr. Rosenbach bought the Queen Mab for $6,000. It took him seven years to sell it, but he finally fobbed it of on Jerome Kern, of Show Boat fame, for $9,500, a far more modest profit than the Doctor was accustomed to realizing.

Then, only two years later, in January of 1929, Jerome Kern’s flashy library was auctioned in New York, where the same old Buxton Forman Queen Mab suddenly soared to the shocking, astonishing, bewildering price of $68,000. The New York dealer Gabriel Wells bought it over Rosenbach. The Doctor, veteran of many high-profile auctions, most of which he casually dominated, went as high as $67,000 for a book he had been unable to get $10,000 for only yesterday. Does that make sense?

Gabriel Wells died with the Queen Mab—not surprisingly—unsold. The collector Carl Pforzheimer acquired it from his estate for $8,000 in 1951. When, recently, the Pforzheimer Collection was broken up, the early English literature went (thanks to a loan from Ross Perot) to the University of Texas, while the Keats and Shelley went as a gift to the New York Public Library. So the Queen Mab rests for now between the lions on Fifth Avenue, whose mottoes, Patience and Fortitude, provided Nicholas Basbanes with his title.

If there is a moral to the story it is that, in what the anthropologist Mary Douglas has called the world of goods, great jewels, great books, great art can only with caution be said to have reached a final home. In my own time as a bookseller two seemingly impregnable fortresses, the General Theological Seminary and the Pforzheimer Collection, have coughed up their Gutenbergs. As long as fortune is fickle, the common fate of great objects is to be sold and sold and sold.

  1. *

    London: The Book Collector, 1990.

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