I suspect that most booksellers (whether they are willing to admit it or not) have half a shelf or so (rather more in my case) of books that became in some way problematic in the course of cataloguing. Books which were then put aside to be dealt with on another and perhaps more auspicious occasion. An occasion which in most instances never quite seems to arrive, but full of New Year resolve and resolution I thought I might rescue one or two of these lost souls from their period in limbo.
Immediately I ground to a halt again. What am I to make of this? A 1926 privately printed book of memorial tributes to that great librarian Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (1856-1925) – “The Incomparable Mac” – Librarian and Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, founder and editor of “The Library”, Hon. Sec. of the Library Association, etc. – you can look him up in ODNB or on Wikipedia, if you feel so inclined, and there is a 1983 Library Association biography by Shane Godbolt and W. A. Munford. It’s a book I acquired years ago from the late Barry Bloomfield, himself a librarian of great note, also known as the bibliographer of Auden and Larkin, a much-missed friend who at one time was Director of Collection Development at the British Library.
It is a copy that has evidently been specially bound, although whether it is one of the twelve special copies bound by Cedric Chivers (as apparently are copies in the British Library and National Library of Scotland) is not made clear. It probably is (needs checking), because as internal inscriptions make plain, this copy once belonged to MacAlister’s widow, Elizabeth MacAlister (1854?-1939). The inscriptions, in the hand of the MacAlisters’ eldest son, Donald Alexander MacAlister (1875-1968), also make it clear that he was the editor of this graceful little volume, which is something I don’t think we knew before. In addition, there are pencilled notes identifying the anonymous authors of several of the tributes.
So far, so good. Nice little book, not exactly rare, but at least uncommon, and with a very attractive provenance. But then on checking it – there should be five photogravure plates (all portrait photographs of MacAlister taken by his son) – and this copy only has four. One has pretty obviously been forcibly removed. The book is defective, which would normally be the end of the matter – not worth cataloguing. But then again, we all like a book with a narrative to go with it – a book with its own personal story to tell – and this one does. An inscription by the editor spells out exactly what happened: “My mother hated the full face photo which I had had placed here & cut it out. I can quite sympathise with her action for Sir John was ill & I ought not to have printed a photo which so obviously showed it. D. M.”
I note in passing that one of the British Library copies is also catalogued as having just four plates – has this been similarly doctored? We have the evidence that the editor regretted including the photograph – perhaps it was removed from copies not distributed immediately. But the problem remains that however interesting my copy might be, who is going pay good money (or any money at all) for a defective book? It runs counter to everything we understand and have been taught about book-collecting.
But then again, unless you simply wanted a soulless text to work from, would you not rather have this copy with its close family connections, its back-story and its special binding than a run-of-the-mill copy? And if that is the case, should I be pricing it at more than a complete copy? Surely not – but why not? While I ponder these questions, I think you may find that the book has once again quietly made its way back to its place on the limbo shelf.