When Iain Sinclair was a book dealer…

Found in a pile of books at Jot HQ, list 53 compiled by Iain Sinclair, the cult author of Downriver and Orbital to name but a few, when he was a bookseller. The catalogue is dated Autumn 1992, by which time he had already published several books, and is signed by him. 

When I interviewed him for Book and Magazine Collector in 1999, I knew only a little about his tastes in literature. Had I obtained a copy of this, or any other of his lists, I should have gained much more and the interview would have been longer and more wide ranging.

Having said that, I was happy with the interview, which was a very early one, and so it seems was my companion, the poet, drinking pal , Loch Ness Monster expert and author of ‘ the Bar-room Bum from Brum ‘, Dr Paul Lester, who managed to stay almost silent ( quite a feat for him) throughout the interview. Later on, Sinclair disguised two other drinking pals of mine from Brum as ‘the Ketamine Creeps in one of his books.

But back to the list. The books for sale are listed and described under several heading, viz Cardinal & Corpse: Checklist of characters , the Quests: search for a story line, The Beats, Fellow Travellers, Counter Culture, Low Life, Pro Lit, Bohemian Excesses, Youth, JDs, Teen Style, London Novels and London Novelists, The Terrible Triad: Jazz, Drugs, Rocks, Luvvies, Losers, Legends, Film, Theatre, TV, Hollywood, PIs Hardboiled Crime, Mean Streets, Thrills, Mysteries, Spies, Romance, Sailors, Science  Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Gothic, Black Lit and Novels dealing with question of Race, London, Dimestore sex, Vietnam and other wars , Conspiracies, Comics, Bin Ends…

It seems to me that librarians, literary academics and especially dealers in rare books are well paced to become decent novelists, or in the case of Sinclair, discursive writers of fiction. They absorb so much information in their everyday lives among books that they have an advantage over others, including journalists, when it comes to communicating stories .Apart from Sinclair, there have been a few writers in the category of dealer or rare book expert. One thinks of Ian Fleming, for instance and perhaps most recently Joseph Connolly, who I’ve also interviewed. The catalogues of some of these dealers   show that they are writers manqué. One thinks of that now dead dealer in modern firsts Peter Joliliffe, of Ulysses Bookshop, who, perhaps taking his cue from Sinclair, used to add rambling anecdotes and musings to his catalogue entries.

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Now and Then

This was a literary magazine published sporadically by Jonathan Cape to promote their own new books.

The idea of such a magazine is unusual, to say the least. Your Jotter is not familiar with any other periodical of this type ( though doubtless there must be one or two) , and it is certainly sneaky to design a magazine to look almost exactly like an independent  literary review, rather than a book promotion. The name of the publisher does appear on the cover of the Winter 1936 issue, which we found in our archive at Jot HQ, and in the case of The Book of Margery Kempe, the name ‘ Jonathan Cape’ appears under the blurb in an advertising panel in this issue , but in every other advert in the magazine  the publisher’s name is absent, as indeed it is in every review of the books. This is surely misleading to everyone reading the magazine except those who were familiar with it and its aims. A casual reader picking up  a copy of Now and Then from a bookstall back in 1936 would conclude that here was yet another literary review and only on close inspection would he or she perhaps be suspicious of its independence. The inclusion of the words ‘Jonathan Cape’ on every advert and in every review would have immediately given the game away. However, any reader sufficiently impressed by a review to seek out the books in a store might easily be offended at being taken in by a blatant piece of puffery. I wonder if Jonathan Cape lost any customers this way. Few would have expected a reputable and long established publisher, such as John Murray, to indulge in such chicanery. But the comparatively recently founded Jonathan Cape, which had begun in 1921, was evidently keen to boost its sales.  

The trick, which  probably began in the company’s marketing department, originated with the first issue of Now and Then in the 1920s, but was further enhanced in the ‘thirties when it adopted the art deco cover style of  Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse, with its trendy sans serif font. Up to this point Now and Then had used the conventional roman font for its cover. However, the main text and back cover remained resolutely Roman throughout its existence. 

To their credit, the people at Jonathan Cape did not choose many of their own authors as reviewers. In this Winter 1936 issue, only Muriel Stuart could be classed as such. Most of the others were under fifty, although there were few older , well-known authors , such as Winston Churchill, William Beach Thomas  and Grant Richards.  Most were well known literary figures , although one or two, such as short story writer and novelist L. A. Pavey, James Curtis, a screenwriter and novelist, best known for ‘They Drive by Night’, and Muriel Stuart, a poet and writer on gardening, were less eminent.

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Book collecting for fun & profit by Bill McBride (1997) Part 4


Music, vaudeville, movies, dance, theatre, television, radio, circus, the carnival, etc. If it amused, it was documented in books.

We have already looked at television and radio under ‘communication ‘. Under the heading ‘ music ‘ we can find bound volumes of sheet music going back to the mid eighteenth century, biographies of composers, songwriters and performers, and collections of folk music and old ballads. Some in the latter category are rare and sought after. Under the American term ‘ vaudeville ‘ are grouped the British Music Hall, Variety and Reviews and those interested in this type of entertainment may look for biographies of leading figures, such as Dan Leno or Marie Lloyd. However the most revealing ‘ literature ‘ relating to vaudeville are still theatre and concert programmes and copies of magazines devoted to this field, such as The Stage. One even more revealing source of information, particularly on Music Hall and Reviews are the manuscript Wages Books. Your Jotter found the Wage Book of the Wood Green Empire from 1912 – 24 in an auction a few years ago. From it he learnt that the leading performers of the day, such as George Robey and Marie Lloyd, were earning huge sums —£200 a week in some cases –compared to some lesser ‘turns’ who were lucky to receive £15 or £20. These star attractions were the movie stars of the day. The Wage Book also revealed the sad story of the faux Chinese illusionist, Chung Ling Soo, aka an American called William Ellsworth Robinson, who was shot on stage at the Empire in March 1918 after a bullet catching trick went horribly wrong. A real bullet had been loaded by mistake into the ‘gun’ aimed at him by his assistants. Robinson later died of his wounds. The Wages Book doesn’t pay tribute to the dead man, but it does record a large sum of money given in compensation to his widow. Boris Karloff later portrayed Robinson in a popular film.

Books on movies and movie stars, of which there are many, are collected by film buffs around the world. Years ago your Jotter interviewed one of the biggest dealers in the performing arts, the American Elliott Katt who revealed, that  most of his customers were professionals from the movie industry, notably in Hollywood, and that one particular star, Michael Jackson, always insisted that he close  his shop when he visited, such was the clamour from fans. Katt also had a fund of anecdotes relating to the very rare and valuable books on early cinema that he always kept in stock.

The history of dance is a popular field for collectors, though books on this subject are few. The most valuable items usually date from the eighteenth century and are often written by dancing masters. 

Books relating to the theatre can be plays dating back to the time of Shakespeare and here the most elusive ( and expensive) are the so-called ‘quartos’ of single plays by the Bard printed (often badly)  in small numbers for the use of actors and perhaps theatregoers at the time. Back then Shakespeare’s plays were well regarded and popular, but their author had yet to attain the status of genius and national figure that the appearance of the First Folio in 1623 helped to foster. Thus the original quartos weren’t valued and most were thrown away when they fell to pieces through over-use. If a quarto of one of his greatest plays were to come onto the market now it would cause an extraordinary furore and command a price close to a million pounds for its rarity value alone, particularly if it contained annotations by one of the Bard’s company. Copies of the First Folio and subsequent Folios also fetch large sums, but are much more common. More common still are the various, often bowdlerised editions of Shakespeare that appeared from the press throughout the eighteenth century. These are always quite cheap, reflecting as they do the tastes and morals of their editors rather than the inimitable greatness of the Bard. For this reason they are probably best avoided as texts, though they have a novelty value. 

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Autograph collecting (some notes)

There is a story behind every autograph. Idly fossicking about online I have retrieved a few such stories and added some of my own. It needs courage to be an autograph hound so much respect to those who have hunted down celebs and obtained signatures. The best collection I ever bought (about 2000+ inc Walt Disney, Ian Fleming, Bogart and Bacall, the Dalai Lama, Frankie Lyman (and the Teenagers) Tony Hancock and Lester Piggot) was from a very minor celebrity who was able to get into receptions and first nights etc., He had written jokes for the likes of Bob Monkhouse. The greatest groupies and name droppers are often slightly famous themselves and a minor name will often have accumulated a few major names. The most common type of autograph story usually ends ‘and he was a really nice guy…we had a good chat’. It seems to come as a surprise that celebrities are not monsters, although great scorn is reserved for those who refuse autographs. A star cannot disappoint his fans. Graham Greene had a good line when refusing to autograph a book–something along the lines of ” I would like to but it would devalue those I have already done and I don’t want that to happen, sorry.’

Rudyard Kipling received a note from a fan saying ‘…I hear you get paid $5 for every word you write. Enclosed is $5, please send me one word. Kipling replied with the one word “Thanks.” It is hard to imagine now how besieged Kipling was by autograph collectors–in this age only JK Rowling comes near to his fame.

George Bernard Shaw was more generous (and wittier). To fans writing to ask for his autograph he would often reply “Certainly not! George Bernard Shaw.”

The painter Utrillo could, after a few free drinks. be induced to sign canvasses that he had not painted. Caveat emptor!

Damien Hirst sometimes signs things (books, tee shirts) as David Hockney. They still have value as he is known to do this and, in its way, it is quite witty.

James Ellroy (above) signed every one of 65,000 first-edition copies of his 1996 memoir My Dark Places. You can buy a copy on ABE for $5, where there are over 180 signed copies for sale with a few over $100. As the signing progressed his signature degenerated to an unreadable, minimalist scrawl. One optimistic dude manages to make a virtue of this: “…wildly scrawled signature, as frantic and vigorous as the author’s crackling prose. £45”

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Book Collecting for Fun and Profit by Bill McBride (1997)

Part three

What do you like?

5) History:

Periods, politics, wars, monarchs, presidents, suffragists, leftwing, rightwing or in-the middle politics, abolitionists etc.

History is a huuuuuge field, and McBride doesn’t specify if the collector should stick to the history of his or her own country or focus on the history of another country or continent. Collecting in the field of politics, military history, royalty and presidents follows on from there. Collecting in this area is self-explanatory really, but a particular focus on some of the topics he lists under the banner of ‘ history ‘ ( such as monarchs, suffragists and abolitionists ) does indicate what the personal politics of the collector might be. Also, collecting, say, books on a particular monarch, such as Henry VIII or George III, would be pretty boring if only scholarly works on the monarch were collected rather than contemporary works in which the monarch was mentioned. The same applies to ‘ wars ‘ and ‘ politics’. In these two areas contemporary pamphlets, such as those which appeared during the English Civil War, or the period in which the movement for parliamentary reform gave rise to radical works for, and reactionary responses against, reform, would contribute an immediacy to the period. In the reign of George III, for instance, the collector might look out for the radical pamphlets of John Wilkes, William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, Thomas Paine and William Hone , or as a right wing response, the Anti-Jacobin squibs of George Canning and the Tory  John Bull newspaper edited by the brilliantly witty Theodore Hook. In other words, McBride’s section on history is far too vague and lacking in significant detail.

6) Science and Technology:

‘biographies of inventors, naturalists, scientists of any ilk, books about the development of space travel, communication, transportation, computers, mathematics, genetics etc.’

No amplification is needed here. Collectors will have their own areas of interest and biographies of famous scientists are always a good place to start. The late lamented Eric Korn, a marine biologist by training, but a dealer by inclination, was fascinated by Charles Darwin and his lists reflect that passion. Unfortunately, books recording the lives of scientists that were published before, say, 1800, are often too anecdotal and downright gossipy, to be of genuine use. As for books about space travel, collectors should be advised that early science fiction books can broaden the perspective in an entertaining and often amusing way. After all, a collection of works on the development of space travel which is dominated by technical manuals must inevitably be boring. Some rare mid Victorian works eked out by the speculative fiction of H. G. Wells and later writers will prevent your collection becoming too dry. Communication can mean the history of the telephone, the radio and TV, and here the opportunities for assembling an exciting collection of books might start with  copies of the first telephone directories, copies of the Radio Times from the early 1920s and the first book on television, Television: Seeing by Wireless ( 1926) by Alfred Dinsdale—a classic of its kind (see above). The latest collecting field in communications is, of course, the  development of the computer. A worthwhile one to follow, though the field has many rich collectors who have driven up prices.

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Book collecting for Fun and Profit by Bill McBride (2)

Rule three: Know what you buy.

Do your homework. Yes, you will make mistakes early on. But the more knowledge you bring to the marketplace, the better equipped you are to buy wisely and well. Learn all you can about the details of the field in which you collect. Learn to recognise the common titles. Learn the differences between trade (bookstore) editions and those sold by the Book Clubs. The differences are many, but some of them are slight and easily overlooked, even by experienced dealers and collectors.

Obvious advice, this. You wouldn’t collect art if you thought Jack Vetriano was a good painter or you couldn’t tell the difference between a painting done in acrylic and one painted in oil, or couldn’t differentiate between an etching and an engraving or a lithograph and an aquatint. Unfortunately, many amateurs who think they are as experienced in art as the professional dealers are, make mistakes simply through ignorance. It’s the same with books, although book collectors do have an advantage over art collectors in that books are very rarely forged ( too expensive), which cannot be said of art works. As for learning the differences between trade editions and Book Club editions, it’s pretty easy to tell, unless you have defective eyesight. Book Club editions advertise themselves as such and no dealer worth his salt  could be misled. As for identifying first editions, the words ‘ first published in …’ are highly suggestive for modern firsts. Much older firsts are a different matter. In the old days ,like London cabbies, collectors and dealers used ‘ the knowledge’, to identify the first publication of literally tens and thousands of significant titles. Nowadays, a mobile phone with a connection to the Internet will furnish this important information on most older first editions worth collecting, which is only a tiny percentage of all the first editions in the world.

What do you like ?

‘ You can build a book collection  around many things in your life:

1) A hobby: gardening, knitting, cooking, flower arranging, handicrafts, collecting of any kind, etc.

Can gardening be classed as a ‘hobby‘? In the opinion of this Jotter, a serious gardener is someone who understands the basics of botany, which is after all, an academic subject. You don’t have to know what the professionals at Kew learn at University, but the more you know about the science behind the plants that give you pleasure and cure your illnesses , the more you will be drawn towards books on botany. As for knitting and flower arranging, good luck with assembling a significant library that covers these topics. Cooking is a different matter, and today, at least in the UK, this has become one of the hottest ( excuse the pun) collecting areas. 

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Book Collecting for Fun and Profit by Bill McBride. An American perspective (1).

Mr McBride, an American dealer based in Hartford, Connecticut, published his pocket-sized guide to book collecting and dealing for  $9.95 in 1997, but twenty six years later, things in the second hand book world haven’t changed that much, except perhaps that the Internet now plays a much bigger part in the whole business.

This Jot is a commentary on what McBride has to say on collecting and dealing from an American standpoint, though it should be emphasised that throughout the Western world there is very little difference in how collectors and dealers regard books today compared with how such a book maven as Slater ( see previous Jots) saw the business back in 1892.

Let’s start with McBride’s first piece of advice.

Rule One: buy what you like.

‘ Books can be proven to be good investments, but the wisdom to know what to buy seems clearest only in hindsight: “ twenty-five years ago, if you had bought such-and-such a book, it would be worth a hundred times its original price.”. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to pick the ones that will perform that well out of the millions of new books published in English, world-wide.’

‘ Almost impossible’, perhaps, but not impossible. McBride is talking about new books. But if the author in question  is an established figure with a world-wide reputation (perhaps he or she is a Nobel prize winner) the possibility of that author’s latest novel or collection not rising in value is a no-brainer. If you had bought, for example, a first edition of Philip Larkin’s High Window when it appeared in 1974 you could put your house on it rising in value considerably within twenty years, even if you didn’t know that it would be the poet’s final collection.

But new novelists? Yes, ‘almost impossible ‘.In the same year (1997) that McBride’s guide appeared someone called J. K. Rowling brought out Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone , following its rejection by a number of leading publishers of children’s fiction. Each year literally thousands of new books for children are published in the UK. No-one could have predicted that Ms Rowling’s book would turn out to be the international sensation that it became. Bloomsbury obviously had faith in their new author, but not faith enough to bring out more than a smallish edition. The book received mainly rave reviews for the originality of its plot and characterisation. The edition sold out and a new edition was reprinted. Fans of the book couldn’t wait for the next Harry Potter story and they didn’t have to wait long. Readers who had bought the debut novel  because they liked stories about schoolboys defying their parents and adults and getting mixed up in magic in a special school for magicians found, twenty years later, that their  pocket money had bought a book worth many thousands of pounds. They had bought what they liked and had ended up with a good ‘investment ‘. 

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The Strawberry Hill Press

Strawberry Hill, the ‘Gothick‘ pile near Twickenham, which dilettante Horace Walpole began to build in 1749, continues to fascinate lovers of architecture and design. No only is it the first building of its kind, and as such was responsible for inspiring the taste for Gothic architecture, but it was the brainchild of a man whose life and work has been the subject of so much scholarly attention. Indeed, the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale began as a private collection devoted to Walpole and today it houses the biggest holding of Walpoliana in the world.

Much of the interest in Walpole among bibliophiles focuses on the Strawberry Hill Press, which was launched by the collector and connoisseur in 1757. The works which issued from it are sought after by collectors around the world and have always commanded high prices. Your Jotter was reminded of this when in leafing through Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) he came across a sub-chapter entitled ‘The Officina Arbuteana’.

In it Dobson discusses the two Strawberry Hill Press books he owned. The first was An Account of Russia as it was in the Year 1710 by the British Ambassador at the time, Charles Lord Whitworth. This is what Dobson classes as mainly ‘politico-statistical’ which he declares to be largely ‘dull and dry’, but he does admit that the anecdote supplied by Walpole in his Introduction is noteworthy. It concerns a remark made by Catherine I to Whitworth on the dance floor that referred obliquely to some relationship the couple had had when the Czarina was much younger.

The other, distinctly more interesting book, was in fact the first work to issue from the Press. This was Odes by Mr Gray (1757), ‘printed at Strawberry Hill, for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall Mall.’ Walpole thought these rather ‘ obscure ‘poems written in Greek ‘ sublime ‘, while Dobson noted that as later reprinted in English as ‘ The Progress of Poetry’ and ‘ The Bard’ they contained ‘ thoughts that breathe and words that burn’ which have ‘passed into the commonplaces of the language’.

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A few years ago your Jotter invited that celebrated expert on the Western tradition in book binding , Mirjam Foot, to give a talk on bindings to the local literary society. She was then married to the late Michael Foot ( not that Michael Foot, but M.R.D. Foot, the great authority on the SOE as well as William Gladstone , who very likely would have been more to the taste of her audience), but this distinction didn’t have the effect of filling the hall that I had hired. My idea in asking her was an attempt to educate literary types on a subject that few bibliophiles know anything about. I was also keen to discover if any of the audience might recognise the lady with the slight Dutch accent as the woman who for years helped man book stalls at garden fetes in that particular corner of north Hertfordshire. The talk seemed to go well, though I am still not sure whether any of those who heard it could understand what she was talking about with such authority.

I was reminded of Professor Foot when I came upon the section of Slater’s Book Collecting which dealt with bindings. After discussing with great enthusiasm the exquisite and sumptuous bindings created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by great craftsmen for the super rich Popes, kings and aristocrats on the European continent, Sadler turns with less enthusiasm to England, where the art of fine binding had not progressed anything like as far. Presumably in a book aimed at middle and upper middle class  collectors he was aware that the average lover of decorated bindings was not likely to encounter any of the class of European bindings he had drooled over in most book stalls or auction hoses here in the UK—at least at prices they could afford. Indeed, Slater is a tad sniffy at the quality and innovation shown by binders ‘ up to the reign of Elizabeth ‘.

‘We seem to have persisted in the use of clumsy oak boards or stiff parchment covers, and when a really choice and expensive binding was required , it took the form of embroidered silks and velvets. Queen Elizabeth herself was very expert in this method of ornamentation, which continued to exist, in all probability, simply because it was fashionable.

The first English bookbinder of any repute was John Reynes, a printer who lived in the reigns of Henry VII and VIII. Specimens of his work are very rare, though, when compared with the French bindings of the same date, they appear miserably inferior. The truth is that England was—and, indeed, is —much behind some other countries in everything relating to bibliography, and binding in particular. 

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Slater on does and don’ts, fads and fashions,  in book collecting

J. H. Slater was often scathing about certain types of printed book and the dealers/collectors who handled them. However, he was positive concerning which books ought to be valued by collectors. Here are some of his views on what bibliophiles should avoid and what they must appreciate.

Privately printed books.

Slater was not a fan of this class of book.

Privately printed books are those which are issued either from a private press or for the benefit of private friends. They are never published in the ordinary acceptation of that term and cannot be bought at first hand. A good collection of these is of course difficult, though by no means impossible, to acquire; and for the benefit of those who may wish to devote themselves to this department –uninteresting though it undoubtedly is—Martin’s Privately Printed Books ( 1834, 2nd ed.,1854—in 1 vol. 8vo, is readily available . Many of these so- called ‘ books ‘ consist of single sheets of letterpress; others, on the contrary, are more pretentious….

Early printed American books.

‘Early printed American books, or those which in any way relate to the American Continent, provided only they were published during the 16th or 17th centuries, have lately become exceedingly scarce. In June 1888 one small quarto tract, bound in one volume, brought £66by auction, a record entirely surpassed by the preceding lot, which, consisting of twelve similar tracts only, brought no less a sum than £555. These prices of course are highly exceptional; but so great is the desire to obtain books of this class that the amounts in question, exorbitant though they may appear to be, were perhaps not excessive.’

Slater goes on to urge collectors not to pass by books printed in America, or indeed Scotland, before 1700.

‘In both cases it is probable that the specimen offered for sale will have a most unprepossessing exterior , and in some instances the price asked may be small. This frequently happens, since the more uneducated class of dealerscommence by valuing a book from its appearance (since) ….there is nothing about books of this kind which looks valuable. It is no disparagement to the trade as a whole to say that some booksellers, particularly those who carry on business in small provincial towns, are absolutely ignorant of anything more than the first principals of their trade, and it is out of them than bargains are made…

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The Early English Presses

Our old lawyer friend and bibliophile J. H. Slater seems to have been particularly attracted to English incunabula as well as some early sixteenth century books, such as those printed by John Day. It was the latter who printed the early editions of the great John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. By some good fortune your Jotter picked up, for the ridiculous sum of £50, a nice copy of the second and best edition of this very famous book, possibly in its original binding, and dated 1570, on one of Mr George Jeffries stalls in the Farringdon Road around 1988. Less than a month later a copy of a later edition, in a larger format but without a title page, was secured at the same establishment for the equally low price of £25. Such bargains were not uncommon features of the Farringdon Road stalls, at least in the period that your Jotter frequented them regularly, which was throughout the eighties and early nineties. It is quite possible that Slater himself acquired early English books there in the 1880s and 90’s, though the Jeffries family, who may have run the stalls back then, did not specialise in antiquarian books.

The rarity of fifteenth century books coming to light unexpectedly on bookstalls or in junk shops at any time is highlighted by Slater:

‘…a single discovery of a hitherto unknown book of the fifteenth century acquires an importance proportionate to the exceptional nature of the occurrence; and though the book hunter never despairs, he knows only too well that such rarities fall only to fortunate mortals like the French bibliophile Resbecq, whose extraordinary luck was proverbial , or to those whose ignorance is so dense that they seem provided , as compensation, with more than a fair share of attractive power. It seems a pity that the unappreciative should often obtain chances which are denied to those who could utilise them to advantage, but it is often the case. The merest tyro sometimes experiences a success which the experienced bibliophile sighs for in vain…’ 

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Books to buy in late Victorian Britain

J. H. Slater, a lawyer by training, who became the doyen of late Victorian writers on rare books, deserves to be far better known than he is. It is scandalous, for instance, that someone with so much influence and practical discernment  has no Wikipedia page ). He often comes across as  a grumpy, somewhat world-weary and cynical guide to the world he knew so well. Though occasionally inspirational ( particularly on incunabula ), his observations on the second hand book trade in general were often shocking when he made them, and continue to be distressing to many collectors today. Take some of the comments in his chapter entitled ‘ books to buy ‘.

‘ Few collectors, who are not specialists, care very much for the utility of their libraries; in many cases, indeed, it is not a question of utility at all, but of extent, though I apprehend that no one would wish to crowd his shelves with rubbish merely for the sake of filling them. As an immense proportion of the books which have been published during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries clearly come under that category, the collector has much to avoid, and stands in need of considerable experience to enable him to make a selection…’

Such a statement might be regarded as sacrilegious to many collectors who feel that any writing that has reached the stage of publication must, ipso facto, be worthy of respect. The fact that a book printed in the sixteenth century has survived into the twenty-first doesn’t mean that it is worth collecting. The often argument that such a book reflects the morals, taste or intellectual climate of the time is not a valid one. Discernment must be another factor and that can only be acquired through knowledge and scholarship, or ‘experience ‘,as Slater goes on to argue.

Slater cites the example of Naude, the seventeenth century bibliophile whose method of purchasing, was ‘ if not unique, was at any rate, uncommon’.

‘His favourite plan was to buy up entire libraries, and sort them at his leisure; or when these were not available in the bulk , he would, as Rossi relates, enter a shop with a yard measure in his hand, and buy his books by the ell. Wherever he went, paper and print became scarce: ‘ “ the stalls he encounters were like the towns through which Attila had swept with ruin in his train”  

Then there was the notorious bibliomaniac Rev. Richard Heber (1773 – 1833 whose great wealth was spent on a vast library that occupied eight houses in Britain and the Continent. His dictum was ‘ no gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use and one for borrowers ‘. In 1834, after his death, the sale of his books occupied 202 days, and in the words of Slater, ‘ flooded the market with rubbish —a worthy termination to a life of sweeping and gigantic purchases, made in the hope of acquiring single grains of wheat among his tons of worthless chaff’.

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Association copies

Hedda Hopper

Having pre-booked an event on ‘ association copies ‘ at a book fair, not knowing exactly what this would entail, I was looking forward to a scholarly disquisition on the subject ranging over the centuries, from the sixteenth to the twentieth. Perhaps I’d be shown association copies containing comments and marginalia by genuinely important figures such as Charles Darwin or Samuel Johnson, or perhaps J.M.W Turner or Oscar Wilde. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the event would consist of one of the dealers visiting three of the stalls at the Fair, including his own, and picking out a book from each of the stalls  to illustrate the three type of ‘association’ copies. O, well, I thought, the three young people who had also booked looked excited by the prospect, so perhaps I’d wait to see what might happen.

The first type of association copy, we were told, was when a book bore the signature of a famous person, plain and simple. No presentation and no annotations, just the signature on a flyleaf, or whatever. In this case it was the signature of the future George V on a book about the monarchy. So far, so boring. Our guide moved on .The next type of association copy, we were told, was one containing an inscription  presented by someone associated with the book in question . In this case it was the illustrator Arthur Rackham inscribing a book he had illustrated to someone close to him. I can’t remember who this was. The third and last type, and in theory, the most appealing, was a book containing a comment of great interest by its author on someone to whom it had been presented. In this case it turned out to be a very barbed comment by the bitchy Republican showbiz ‘ celebrity gossip’ and failed actress  Hedda Hopper ( aka Elda Furry ) on her arch enemy, the  liberally-minded  Democrat and gifted actress Olivia de Havilland .I cannot recall the actual words used by Mrs Hopper, but they undoubtedly elevated the art of sarcasm to a new level of bitchiness. Unlike the other two association copies, I did find this particular one appealing, in a rather perverse way, but was less impressed by the four figure price attached to it, especially as both protagonists are rather forgotten figures today.  

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Nicolaus Claudius Peiresc: scientist and antiquary as bibliophile

Austin Dobson, himself a learned bibliophile and antiquary, was evidently a great admirer of the seventeenth century savant and bibliophile , Nicolaus Peiresc, as his anthologies De Libris (1911) and A Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) demonstrate. In the latter Dobson quotes his biographer Gassendi on Peiresc’s generosity as a lender of books:

‘ He sought books, not for himself alone, but for any that stood in need of them. He lent an innumerable company, which were never restored; also he gave a world away…of which he could hardly hope ever to get the like again\: Which he did when learned men had occasion to use them.’

Nor, Dobson added, was Peiresc content to be an ideal lender; he was also an ideal borrower:

‘ Such books as he borrowed ( Gassendi continues) , being neglected by their owners and ill-bound, he delivered to his binder to be restified and beautified, viz. when their subject matter or rarity  deserved that cost; so that having received them , ill-bound, and ill favoured  he returned them trim and handsome.’

Nor did Peiresc shrink from marking or annotating his books. Here’s Gassendi again:

‘He was not therefore of their mind, who having gotten fair Books, are afraid to blot them  with such lines ( underscorings) , or marginal notes: for he esteemed those Books most highly, into which he could insert most notes; and therefore he commonly caused all his Books , when they were in quires, to be washed over with Alum-water, and when he foresaw their margents would not be large enough he caused white paper to be bound between the printed leaves.’

What was the purpose of alum-water? Well, since antiquity alum (typically aluminium sulphate) had been used as a mordant ( a drying agent ) in dyeing fabrics. In paper-making a solution of it was used to strengthen paper and make it less vulnerable to damp and therefore to mould growth. Presumably, Peiresc was aware of this property of alum and saw its use as contributing to the longevity of the paper on which his notes were written. This would make sense at a time when libraries were often damp, which environment contributed to the destruction of books through the growth of mould.

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Books burnt in the Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London, which claimed most of the medieval and Tudor city in the summer of 1666, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guildhall, also destroyed the centre of the London book trade, Paternoster Row, which lay just south of St Paul’s . Doubtless there are many anecdotes concerning the efforts of booksellers and bibliophiles to rescue books before they were consumed. In exploring the smoking ruins of the city John Evelyn noted that the vaulted roof of St Paul’s had smashed  into St Faith’s church, ‘ which being filled with the magazines of books belonging to the Stationers, and carried thither for safety, they were all consumed, burning for a week following ‘. But the anecdote that most intrigues your Jotter has to do with Samuel Pepys, who buried his prize ‘Caxtons’ in his garden to protect them. That the diarist was a genuine bibliophile is obvious to anyone who has visited the Pepys Library in Magdalene College, Cambridge, but how many are aware of his interest in the earliest years of printing in England ? One wonders if Pepys’s ‘ Caxtons’ still form part of this library, and if they do, which books are they ?

Perhaps lesser known are the books which perished, either in whole or in part, in the conflagration. One of the most famous must be the Third Folio of Shakespeare, which was published in 1664. Apparently, many copies of it were still being warehoused when the fire broke out. We don’t know exactly how many volumes were stored in this warehouse, but we must assume that all of them were destroyed and that the only the volumes that survived were those that had already been sold. One of these is currently for sale at an eye-watering price . Not too long ago another copy ( perhaps the same one)  made a high price at Cheffins in Cambridge. I know because I was at the sale. 

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John Harris junior (1791 – 1873)—facsimile artist 

One of the more extraordinary figures in the art world of the early nineteenth century was not really an artist in the true sense of that word. He was not an imaginative  ‘creator’ of art, nevertheless in the annals of the British Museum, where he worked for much of his life, John Harris, in the words of a contemporary, was ‘ probably unrivalled ‘ in the curious field in which he chose to work. Harris was a ‘facsimile artist ‘, which meant that today he would be classed as a ‘conservator ‘. At the British Museum his job was to repair or replace sections of books where pages were missing or damaged and in this he was so expert that contemporary reports state that his facsimile work was entirely indistinguishable from the original’.

In his book conservation activity Harris worked almost entirely in pen and ink. He would trace the piece of missing text from another copy of the same book and apply the tracing onto old paper using a pen and black ink. Once completed, the facsimile text would be incorporated into the damaged book. Whole pages were sometimes replaced this way and although Harris signed his work ‘ by I.H. junr. ‘ it has fooled some scholars.

Harris’s accomplishments began a fashion for such facsimile work in the nineteenth century’s bibliomania. When such exacting work became too difficult for Harris, his   son replaced him as a facsimile artist at the British Museum. But there were other very skilful artists who were doing similar work. The current exhibition on ‘ Fakes and Forgeries ‘ at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the USA features a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton in which sixteen pages of missing text were replaced in facsimile, probably  by the printer and bibliographer William Blades, who had carefully studied Caxton’s typefaces.

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Rare book anecdotes from J. H. Slater’s Book Collecting

In Book Collecting ( 1892) J. H. Slater, that doyen of the rare book trade in late nineteenth century England, provides some wonderful anecdotes, the best of which  concerns a certain Mr Day, ‘ a well-known book hunter of the earlier part of the present century’:

‘One day, upon removing some books at the chambers of Sir William Jones, a large spider dropped upon the floor, upon Sir William with some warmth said “ Kill that spider, Day! Kill that spider!”  “ No”, said Mr Day, with that coolness for which he was so conspicuous, “I will not kill that spider, Jones: I do not know if I have a right to do so. Suppose, when you are going into your carriage to Westminster Hall, a superior being, who perhaps may have as much power over you as you have over this insect, should say to his companion, ‘ Kill that lawyer!’ Kill that lawyer!’ How should you like that? I am sure to most people a lawyer is a more noxious insect than a spider.” 

Slater evidently did not suffer fools gladly, and believe me back then, as now, there was a good deal of nonsense talked (and written) by so called bibliophiles. is chock full of Slater’s withering observations on his fellow dealers and collectors, of which one of the most withering can be found in his chapter on the venerable Elzevir Press.

 It seems to be an almost universal belief that all the works issued from the Elzevir press are small in bulk, and various terms, more or less foolish, have been invented by careless or incompetent persons to give expression to this idea. One of them, and perhaps the most hideous of them all, is “ dumpy” twelves. In the first place, works issued from the Elzevir press in 12mo are perfectly symmetrical in shape, and not at all dumpy; and, secondly, many books are in 4to and some even in folio…The amateur must avoid being misled by the poetical effusions which from time to time make their appearance, and which for the most part are written by persons who know nothing whatever of the subject…’

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Everybody’s Rebound: sustainability in the 1940s

156 Charing Cross Road

Found in a pile of books here at Jot HQ—a paperback copy dated 1943 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot Investigates. It’s exactly the same size as a Penguin, but was in fact published for the British Publishers Guild by John Lane at The Bodley Head. These ‘Guild Books’ were originally designed to rival Penguins, which were dominating the paperback market at the time. However, they never proved as popular and the Guild later folded.

But this particular Guild Book is different from most others in the series in that the original covers have been removed and replaced by what appears to be brown salvaged card. There is a panel for the title which is rubber-stamped, underneath which is a triangle bearing the legend ‘ EVERYBODY’S REBOUND’ 1/6. There then follows an explanation of what ‘Everybody’s Rebound was trying to achieve.

This is a rebound copy of a book worth reading published by a well-know publisher.

We are rebinding books such as this, in order that as many books as possible may do their job twice and so help the vital “ Save Paper “ Campaign.

If you have any books of any kind, and in any condition, that you can spare send or bring them to us and we will make you the highest cash offer.

                                         EVERYBODY’S BOOKS

                                    156, Charing Cross Road, W.C.2.

It is questionable whether this or any other book ‘rebound ‘ by Everybody’s Books was ‘ worth reading ‘. What is not in dispute is the merit of salvaging paper at a time of shortage. The thinking seems to have been that at a time when reading was an important way of distracting people from the War ( after all, the sales of poetry went sky high during the conflict), any means of giving damaged  paperbacks a new lease of life was worth doing. Better to rebind a coverless book than print a new edition using paper which was a scarce resource. What was not revealed was whether hardbacks without covers could be saved in the same way. Nor was there any indication as to when this Guild Book was rebound. An inscription on the inside cover shows that a certain Ann Seabrook owned the book in September 1948, and as paper salvage continued until 1950, the rebinding  may have occurred around 1948.

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Austin Dobson’s famous ‘ lost books ‘

In his Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) the writer and book collector Austin Dobson asks why early copies of certain famous books are so thin on the ground.  One of the books he has in mind is the first edition of Walton’s Compleat Angler, ‘ very few ‘ of which ‘ are in existence now ‘.

‘that little octavo of 246 pages, price eighteen pence, Printed by T. Maxey for Rich. Marriott in St Dunstan’s Church-yard, Fleet Street’ in 1653 ‘.

Dobson fancifully speculates that the copies of this first edition:

 ‘were worn out in the pockets of Honest Izaak’s  ‘Brothers of the Angle’, or left to bake and cockle in the sunny corners of wasp-haunted alehouse windows, or dropped in the deep grass by some casual owner, more careful for flies and caddis-worms, or possibly for the contents of a leathern bottle, than all the ‘ choicely-good ‘ madrigals of Maudlin the milk-maid’ .

Possibly so, as The Compleat Angler, may have been seen by anglers as a book of practical or technical advice rather than a work of rare literary qualities. It is certainly true that many a rare tome has been neglected by bibliophiles who ought to know better. When I interviewed Germaine Greer back in 1999, she shocked my by confessing that some of her more valuable old books ended up eaten by insects or ruined by the heat of the Italian sun while left on the window sills of her Tuscan villa.

Ale spilt over first editions in taverns doesn’t do them much good either. Vade mecums such as firsts by Walton can be left out in the rain, ruined and subsequently thrown away. There is possibly a whole book to be written on valuable tomes that were badly cared for and afterwards chucked out.

But Dobson isn’t just thinking about Walton’s masterpiece.

‘ That other eighteenpenny book, put forth by Nath. Ponder at the Peacock in the Poultrey near Cornhil’ five and twenty years later—The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That which is to come ‘; why is it that there are only five or six copies, none quite perfect, now extant, of which the best sold long since for more than £1,400? ‘

One copy, Dobson declared, was placed in a ‘ great library’ ( presumably the British Museum), but the others have ‘ all gone’. It could be that they, like Walton’s Angler, were regarded as practical guides and therefore were not valued as, say, a volume of poetry might be. Or were the editions small enough for copies to be ‘ dog-eared out of being?

We don’t know, of course. What we do know is that an exceedingly rare copy of the Compleat Angler was sold by Sotheby’s not too long ago with an estimate of £60,000 – £80,000 on it. It was an octavo, and as Dobson notes, it had an engraved title page and contained ten very cute engravings of fishes in the text and a double page of sheet music by the eminent composer Henry Lawes. This ‘ choice copy’ was once owned by the amateur chess player and collector of books on chess, Rimington-Wilson ( 1822 – 87). The most recent owner was Armin Goyder (1908 – 97), a businessman and Blake enthusiast.

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The Library of E. M. Forster

Found in the archives at Jot HQ, this catalogue from Heffers in Cambridge of a large portion of E. M. Forster’s library.

In the introduction by King’s College Librarian, A.N.L. Munby, who knew Forster well, we learn something of Forster’s ancestors, who included his grandfather, Charles Forster, friend and Chaplain of John Jebb ( 1755 – 1833), Bishop of Limerick. Of the books bequeathed by Jebb to  Forster, by far the most valuable was a ‘superb’  copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which came down to E. M. Forster in 1904. He in turn donated it to Kings College Library on his eightieth birthday. One book from Jebb that Forster owned at his death was a piece of incunabula dating from 1494. Sacrii Eloquii Celeberrimi Preconis Venerablis dni Alberti Magni Epi Ratisponess Sermones Aurei de Sacrosancto Eucharistie Sacramento had covers bound from a vellum manuscript. 

When Forster left the family home at West Hackhurst, Surrey, for King’s College, Cambridge in 1946, he had to downsize his library. Many books were sold and in his new accommodation on A staircase in the College Forster was obliged to settle on a library totalling 2,500 volumes. So, as new acquisitions were made, other volumes had to be given away to friends or to the College library.

On Forster’s death in 1970 Professor W. H. Sprott, one of his executors, inherited the contents of his rooms, including the library. After King’s College was allowed to purchase five hundred significant items from the library and friends were invited to choose books in memory of the writer, the rest was retained by Sprott. On the latter’s death in 1971 Heffer’s bought this remaining portion of Forster’s library.

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