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…

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