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I once met…Eric Korn

Eric in Red Square (from ABA Newsletter )

Eric Korn (1933-2014) seems to have been a much admired man, if all the many recent tributes in the Letters pages of the TLS to the polymath, ex-marine biologist, bookseller and brain-box star of Round Britain Quiz, are any indication.  All these encomia remind me of a visit I paid to his home over fourteen years ago.

Having been impressed for years by his performances on Round Britain Quiz on which the current less demanding TV show  Only Connect  is loosely based, and having some notion of his special areas as a book dealer, I was curious to discover how he had become so well read in so many disparate subjects. Locating him was easy enough. Like so many dealers nowadays, his home was also his shop, and this turned out to be a rather conventional looking Edwardian terraced house in Muswell Hill. I’ve interviewed a few booksellers in my time but not one of them  answered the door wearing scruffy jeans and a T shirt. I took to him immediately.

The voice, of course, was immediately recognisable as belonging to that playful mind which ranged across great landscapes of knowledge, from anthropology to zoology via poetry and psychology.  And when I sat down and my eyes surveyed the spines of the many battered volumes somewhat carelessly shelved on book racks and piled up in towers, I realised the extent of his astonishing intellectual curiosity.

I learnt that he had got into bookselling by accident. Having abandoned his neuroscience D Phil on snails’ hearts ( “ Some Problems in Neurophysiology: the Heart Muscle Junction in Helix Aspersa as exemplified  by the behaviour of acetycholinesterase. Stuff like that “), which he had spent seven years studying to very little effect, he was looking for some other career when he happened to buy a job lot of books at an auction. Discovering that his bid of £4 10s has landed him ‘ several hundred books’ that included a battered copy of Bartlett’s Canadian Scenery, he looked it up in Book Auction Records and found it was worth £200. From that point he had never looked back. He went on to become one of the most learned specialists in Natural Sciences, with a particular knowledge of Charles Darwin and his circle.

I learned that although he enjoyed selling rare and exotic books, some aspects of the trade annoyed him. For instance, he always got stroppy when fellow dealers overpriced ordinary books. On one occasion at a book fair he ‘snarled’ at someone who was demanding  £350 for a thirty-third thousand copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and when he walked away he saw the dealer busily altering the price to a fraction of the original sum. He himself tended to err on the side of generosity when pricing and confessed that he had made ‘hideous‘ mistakes by leaving a couple of noughts off the price.

He also told me that those new to the business were too often obsessed with the monetary value of books. When an amateur with very little experience of dealing asked him if he had ever found a little book that contained the values of every book that had ever been published, his rejoinder was ‘I know the one. It’s about this length by that width and I’ve got one, but you can’t have it.’ What a brilliant answer, I thought.

He believed that dealers must justify the prices they demanded and the terms they used. He would write ‘scarce ‘on a flyleaf, but avoided the word ‘ rare ‘, unless he knew that there were only 4 copies in the world. As for the rarities that had passed through his hands, he told me of an inscribed First Men on the Moon for which he paid just £6 , Darwin’s own copy of Galton ‘s Natural Inheritance , with the owner’s extensive notes, and an 1845 edition of The Voyage of the Beagle, which had once belonged to a shipmate, who had sketched Darwin’s cabin on one of the back pages.

One wouldn’t expect such a scholarly dealer to tolerate some of the absurdities associated with the collection of modern firsts. For instance, he deplored the obsession with the condition of such books. Nor did he go along with the fashionable practice of encasing modern firsts in plastic film, which he saw as a sort of ‘ fetishism’.

Lastly, when he told me that he would take Finnegans Wake, The Bible in Many Languages and the Works of Chaucer to a mythical desert island, I asked him why he didn’t include a single science book. His answer was short and sweet. ‘Well I’ve read them. I would just run them in my head’.[R.M.Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Eric is much missed, awesomely intelligent but not arrogant with it (or only when he came across a really duff bookseller). There's a good obit in The Independent and a very amusing article on him in the A.B.A. Newsletter by Ian Jackson (not yet online) with some interesting stuff about his great friend and business partner Jeff Towns (Hastings to Eric's Poirot!) Ian also points out he was the Pete Best of a trio of wunderkind from St.Paul's School (Jonathan Miller and Oliver Sachs). They had almost indistinguishable exquisite voices, Eric's most memorable from the radio. I received an email from another bookseller when Eric died, some of which is worth quoting:

"…a wonderful person-the polymath's polymath…at a book fair party in San Francisco he stood on a table and 'performed' the whole of Gungha Din from memory. In the states people tried to get him on million dollar quiz shows. He wasn't exactly Basil Blackwell when it came to book selling- he didn't really get condition and overpriced and underpriced rather wildly... I was with him once at a hotel bar in York where he was refused a drink because of his scruffy attire by a woman of uncertain age in a tight gold dress-- he muttered 'mutton dressed as lamé' as we were ejected. On Round Britain Quiz he came out with some multi-layered puns worthy of Joyce which I've forgotten; there was a half-hearted attempt to nickname him 'thick Eric' as a response to a very dim dealer known as 'bright David' or tall blokes called 'Shorty.' Not understood Stateside so dropped. As Dury said: 'there ain't half been some clever bastards.' "

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3 thoughts on “I once met…Eric Korn

  1. Roger Allen

    I always visited Korn's stall at bookfairs as it was nearly always completely different from the last visit and completely unpredictable. I don't know if he was teasing, but he used to claim that his best books were all in his ex-wife's house and she only let him take them out after she'd checked their value and the prices inside.

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  2. Anonymous

    He was often fair and generous with collectors he knew had more passion than cash, qualities often lacking in dealers today. I have no idea who is buying some of the obscenely-priced books that would have been considered middling at best years ago, but bless 'em. When I attend the finer book fairs it feels like the books are only being sold back and forth between booths and the prices marked up.
    And if you think Only Connect is less challenging than Round Britain, you need to join my pub quiz team.

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