Wary, Not Weary

The draft minutes of the Presidents’ Meeting in Weimar (see below) report me as saying that I am “weary” of giving advice to people on what books they should or should not collect.  Not quite true – I believe I said “wary”.  And, I think, properly so.  I devote part of the course on Modern First Editions at the London Rare Books School each summer to a brief disquisition on the history of those numerous guides to collecting – who and what to collect – that have been with us since at least the late nineteenth century.  And how very, very, poorly they have served their readers.

The voices were unanimous eighty years ago that the authors to collect for the future were J. M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, W. H. Hudson, John Masefield, G. B. Shaw and James Stephens.  No mention at all of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse or Virginia Woolf, all of whom had by then published major works and who might (with hindsight) have been a rather better bet.  Iolo A. Williams went so far as to say that collecting modern firsts was “to a large extent a waste of time … and a waste of money too”.  Again, not a terribly impressive piece of forecasting.

That is why I am wary – we aren’t able to forecast the future. The truth is surely that the most interesting collectors are those who collect against the grain – those who mark out their own paths, collecting what appeals to them, collecting the otherwise unfashionable or ignored, rather than those who follow whatever rules are currently in place. It’s a matter of personal judgement and taste. It’s the difference between art and painting-by-numbers.  And it may well mean actually reading the books to understand their history and value in terms of your collection – to establish the parameters – and how they relate to and illuminate the rest.  That of course has implications – a book can’t be both read and unread.

Which brings us to what must be the most false of all the current rules – the tyranny of “condition, condition, condition”.  All those collectors who won’t look at a book unless it’s flawless and are thereby doomed to gap-toothed collections – at least if they are collecting beyond the very recently published.  We all love a book in exquisite condition – but that should be a rare bonus, not a basic requirement.

And all those inane internet descriptions telling us that the book doesn’t have an inscription in it – as if that somehow makes it more interesting.  It doesn’t – it really doesn’t.  Part of the value of the book is its own history – both the history of its wider reception into the world and the history of the individual copy.  As G. Thomas Tanselle wrote years ago – “the books are there, holding clues to their own history, and we must try to learn all we can from the physical evidence they preserve. They are, after all, the primary evidence … physical objects that are themselves pieces of historical evidence”.

Wouldn’t we all rather know who the original owner of the book was – and all that can tell us – than not know?  It’s one of the things that can make the collecting of books so much more interesting and rewarding than the collection of other types of material. Who writes their name on a plate or a vase?  A concrete example by way of illustration to follow tomorrow.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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