The Library of J-P Mayer

Found among the papers of  J-P Mayer (1903 – 1992) – this appraisal of his massive library by his friend F.R. Cowell. Peter Mayer was  Professor Emeritus at Reading University and author of books on De Tocqueville, Max Weber, the sociology of films,  and French political thought. He fled to England in 1936 having been a leading figure in the anti-Nazi movement in Germany. He then worked for Britain in the Ministry of Economic Warfare.His library was acquired by us last year, many of the high price items having been taken by Bonham’s auction house. This included a presentation copy from John Stuart Mill to Alexis de Tocqueville and  signed material from Friedrich Engels which made £100,000 plus each. Oddly we (Any Amount of Books, Charing Cross Road) also bought in 2009 a large part of the library of F.R. Cowell another man with a very large and interesting book collection. Both men went on book hunts together, Paris being (then) fertile ground. Mayer also bought heavily while in America. F. R. Cowell was a historian and author of Cicero and the Roman Republic, The Athenaeum, and Leibniz Material for London and many other works on ancient history, horticulture, economics and bibliography. In the accompanying letter (shown) he invites J-P Mayer to join him for a meal at his London club – The Athenaeum (February 1962). It appears that Mayer was trying to sell his library to ‘Boulder’ -presumably the University of Colorado. Evidently the sale never happened and the books stayed in his house in Stoke Poges for another 50 years. The house was near St. Giles church where Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is believed to have been written. It took 5 large vans to move the books. F.R. Cowell’s book collection just two…

An Appraisal of the Library of Dr. Peter Mayer in Stoke Poges, England

by F.R. Cowell C.M.G. B.A. B.Sc. (Econ) Ph.D.

My friend Dr.Mayer has asked me whether I would be prepared to provide a brief appraisal of his library. I very readily undertook to do so for he has been a friend of mine for over twenty years. After such an avowal of personal interest and in case it may seem to reduce the reliability of my testimony, I must briefly state my credentials.

I first began bookcollecting while still a schoolboy during the First World War and it remains one of my major satisfactions in life. Beyond a fellow-feeling therefore, I can claim a lifetime’s familiarity with trends in the bookmarket and not only in England. Between 1929-1931 inclusive I held a Rockefeller Research Fellowship in the Social Sciences in the U.S.A. and Europe. The last twelve years of my career as a British civil servant were spent as Secretary of the United Kingdom National Committee for Unesco (1946-1958), a post which entailed a considerable amount of travelling each year, including frequent and sometimes prolonged residence in Paris for weeks together. Like Dr.Mayer, I never returned from these trips without a load of books. My visits often coincided with Dr.Mayer’s residence in Paris and we have made many joint expeditions, sharing our discovery of bookshops and bookstalls, talking to French booksellers and generally keeping up with the trends in markets and prices. My own fields of interest overlap with his to a considerable extent.

In the light of this experience, I have no hesitation in saying that anyone seeing Dr.Mayers collection of some 15,000 volumes in Stoke Poges would agree that it constitutes an admirable equipment or tool-of-trade for anyone active in the field of social studies. It is moreover one that I would despair of being able to duplicate. Cynics say that every man has his price and the same, in so far as it is true at all, may be true of books. A very rich library could no doubt eventually find many of the books it has taken Dr.Mayer and myself twenty years or more of patient searching to find. I do not think that could find them all and I am sure that what they did find would cost many years of effort and very large sums of money. Many scholarly books were printed in small editions of a few hundred copies only and most were soon absorbed in libraries and institutions from which they rarely if ever emerge. To all intents and purposes they are literally unobtainable. They never appear in catalogues. Friendly booksellers on the look out for them consistently report that they never see them. Advertising for them very rarely produces a report at any price. Nothing but the most prolonged and persistent personal searches could, in my opinion, have put together a collection of books in English, French and German such as Dr.Mayer has succeeded in assembling over the last twentyfive years. It could be won only by the unflagging zeal and devotion of a true scholar and book-collecter over years of patient searching. The personal investment of time and energy which has gone into the creation of such a library as Dr.Mayer’s, is, as al librarians and collectors well know, never realised or appreciated by the rest of the world. They only see the results which are tangible in the shape of volumes of books on shelves. They know nothing of the countless hours spent in searching, in reading catalogues, in sending orders for items in catalogues that yield no books.

Time so spent is a necessary and unavoidable investment of energy, so in acquiring a personal, specialist collection such as that put together over twentyfive years by Dr.Mayer, any College or institution not only adds enormously to its own capital equipment, but is able to spare its own personnel the immense effort which it would now take to buy such books on the open market.

From my close and intimate daily acquaintance with the market for scholarly books, through regular visits to bookshops and stalls and from the flow of secondhand booksellers’ catalogues every week, I know very well how infinitely more difficult it now is to find books than it was even ten years ago. To find the sort of books Dr.Mayer has collected would cost anyone else far more effort now than it has cost him, and I know very well that his effort has been prodigious. Who ever acquires his library is in effect profiting from opportunities to buy books that he was able to seize by the lucky chance of winter weeks in Paris, rounds of visits to bookstalls in London, quick action by telephone on getting catalogues, and not least, the friendly interest and help of bookseller friends. Such opportunities are fast dwindling but they were formerly more frequent and they may now be said to exist still for the fortunate inheritors of Dr.Mayer’s library.

It is interesting to note that in 1962 Cowell could say how ‘..infinitely more difficult it now is to find books than it was even ten years ago.’ Both men lead good long lives but died before the age of the internet when books have become somewhat easier to find.

4 thoughts on “The Library of J-P Mayer

  1. Paul Petzschmann

    How very interesting! Did you acquire Mayer’s papers alongside the books or were they stored separately somewhere?

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Many thanks. We bought most of J-P Mayer’s books, some of the rare ones went to auction (Bonham’s) where they made serious money especially De Tocqueville manuscript material. All the papers also went to Bonham’s and we managed to buy one large lot of his papers out of 3 lots. We now have that archive listed at abebooks.

    1. Peter

      The University of California, Santa Barbara apparently bought 14,500 volumes from Mayer in 1962. Surely those volumes made up the bulk of the library referred to in Cowell’s 1962 letter. Perhaps you bought a different library of books that Mayer compiled after 1962.



      1. Jot 101 Post author

        Many thanks Peter. Very useful new information. Mayer was a voracious buyer and lived another 30 years. At a rate of just buying 30 books a week (quite low for a bibliophile) he would have added over 40000 books and there were many books there that dated back before 1962. His wife Lola also dealt in books.


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