As you may already have realised, I like books which have a story to tell. By this I mean not just the book’s own internal narrative, but a copy of the book with its own individual history. Not necessarily a fine and obviously important provenance (although that’s always very welcome), but just a tale of its own career in the world. I’m not deterred by a book with a previous owner’s inscription, far from it – this can lead into that narrative and document some evidence of the book’s initial audience and reception. Who bought this book when it first came out? Where did the book fit into that world rather than ours?
Sometimes there is evidently a story – but no answer at all. I was just cataloguing a bound assembly of views of nineteenth-century Torquay, one of those ubiquitous albums produced by Rock & Co. of Walbrook (William Frederick Rock, his brothers Henry and Richard – all Devon men themselves – and their brother-in-law, John Payne). In this case a collection of fifty small vignette views published by the firm at various dates between 1850 and 1876, bound up as an ad hoc publication presumably aimed at the hordes of summer visitors to that fashionable resort. Pretty enough. Interesting enough. And not far into the book is a view of Belgrave Road, Torquay, on which a childish hand has pencilled “Our House” – a three-storey villa on the eastern side of the road shown on the extreme left of the image and clumsily ticked with the same pencil.
I hurry back to the front of the book (and the back and all points in between) – but no clue at all as to who owned the book, or who lived in this ample house, with its view of the sea to the south. Could it have been one of the Kirkpatrick girls, daughters of Temple Kirkpatrick, “retired diplomatist”, then living at “Sanremo” on Belgrave Road? Or one of the Pulford children at “Rosenau”? Or perhaps a child on holiday just passing through? Who knows? I certainly don’t – but I can well imagine the excitement of a child at having his or her house pointed out in a handsome book – the pleasure of the parent in pointing it out. I weigh up the possibilities of pursuing this further: a weight of work out of all proportion to the value of the book and ultimately probably not possible. We could almost certainly establish who was living in the house (which I suspect no longer exists) in the 1870s, but the inscription could have been added many years later. Why didn’t someone write their name in it?
A frustrating absence, a story that isn’t, but does it matter? Something of a theme this week with the publication of Rick Gekoski’s latest book, “Lost, Stolen or Shredded : Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature” (Profile Books). A tame and modest title, but we have certain expectations of Rick, here (once more) amply fulfilled. The book simply grabs us by the collar and demands attention. It opens with, “He collected absences. For him they were more intense, vibrant and real than they presences they shadowed …” and takes us straight to join Franz Kafka and Max Brod queuing at a crowded Louvre to see, not the Mona Lisa, but the gap on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to be (after it was stolen in 1911). Rick is always compelling. He has that extraordinary knack of subsuming real scholarship and genuinely original thinking into essays that read like stories, stories that are as easy as conversation.
We all know him as a great talker – the best I know in a book-trade full of good talkers. It’s always a highlight of the Modern First Editions course at the London Rare Books School to take the students over to see Rick and let them sit at his feet for an hour or two. A mine of experience and reflection willingly shared. But what is so skilled about his writing is that it replicates this conversational rhythm and fluidity on the page – and that’s not easy, not easy at all. Talk is flat without nuance, expression, emphasis and inflection: this has to be engineered back in to make it work in print.
I’m not going to summarise the rest of the book, because you are all going to go out and buy it and find out for yourselves. Why read me, when you could read this? Fifteen stories. Those of us in the rare book world or in any way concerned with literary history or biography will buy it for “The Archive of the Penetralium of Mystery” alone – “When first encountered, an archive reminds me of a monkfish”. Why wouldn’t it?