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Thursday, 14 June 2007

Those Darned Dustwrappers


There are times when I seriously doubt the propriety of my claiming to be a bibliophile. Yes, I love books - but it is that which is between the covers that really claims my devotion: information to feed my indiscriminate craving for knowledge; a fine turn of phrase; a new word that has to be explored as to meaning and derivation; a tidy plot; a twisty ending to the story; a beautiful map of far-flung places to be pored over and lastly - a workmanlike illustration that elucidates on the text but does not detract from it.
But what of the binding; the fine paper; the painstaking gilding of textblock edges; masterly lithography of the plates; the marbling of the endpapers; the fine tooling of the leather and the blind-stamped decorations ? I hear the anguished cry of the real bibliophile. True, true, I must admit - all these, and many more attributes contribute to some small part of the fascination of mankind with his intellectual legacy. What is commonly termed 'eye-candy' for one, may not be another man's Mona Lisa. There are other aspects that delight some of us rugged individualists - such as minutiae of bibliography; differences that may have occurred in the print run after copy 127 of 503 total copies, of which it may be that the printing works' fire accounted for 278 copies lost in the inferno, while in the heat of the moment, the accountant fled with the housemaid, the cash-box and another copy, leaving only 222 copies actually accounted for as two more copies were probably shoplifted from a prominent dealer's shelves - but which fact only emerged during the biennial stock-take two years after publication. Ah, the intricacies of bibliophilic history don’t have to take a back-seat to the microscopic imperfections of even stamps and coins.
There is one glaring omission from this catalogue of delights that I have to confess to: the dustwrapper, or dustjacket - call it a dw, a dj, a dustcover or anything else - it remains in my eyes an abomination. This accoutrement to that fine work of intellect, the book, has become an integral part, a sine qua non of collectability, without which no self-respecting tome should be seen in public - not even in the privacy of the bibliophile's home it would seem! The dustwrapper has evolved into the canvas onto which the marketing department of the publishers can run riot. Lurid pictures adorn the dw, snazzy fonts, red banners, proclaiming loudly "Buy me - 10% off". The front flap normally sports a blurb, to let you know what you should find inside the covers. This presupposes that the writer of the eulogy has actually read the book - which is not absolutely necessary, since it could negatively impact on what should in all honesty be classed as something different from ' an engrossing book '. Just to complicate life a little, there is a suggested retail price in £ or $, sometimes Rands or Rupees - which presents the purchaser with the dilemma of whether to clip or not to clip the offending corner. If he does the dastardly deed, be assured the value of the book plummets. If he doesn't, the recipient gets a fair idea of the donor's generosity or lack thereof. Either is not desirable.
The back flap normally runs a short biography of the writer - not a crime as such, but even a moderately priced hardcover novel by Mary Wesley manages to put both her portrait and life-story on one of the prelim pages, where it is perfectly safe and will be kept in as good a condition as the rest of the textblock. Speaking of authors' portraits - why is it that whenever I do a little sum to find out how old a paragon of literature is, I mostly land up with an age between fifty and seventy, while the face staring at me from the dw is that of an infant of thirty odd summers? Then we still have the back of the dw. Once more this is an open invitation to run riot with ' soon to appear on your friendly bookdealers' shelves', rave reviews of the book, or other totally unrelated volumes. No matter, your friendly publisher has decided to let no space remain untouched by marketing efforts. One of the more unattractive inventions of modern publishing, only exceeded by the ubiquitous paperback, is the laminated hardcover. Some excuse can be found in that this type of publication can stand some rough handling, hiking and exposure to poor weather. But why in the name of all that makes sense would a laminated hardcover book need another dustwrapper of exactly the same design and finish over its covers? To save on manufacturing costs? Perish the thought. I have it from reliable sources that the serious collector of modern ‘firsts’ buys a book from the bookseller, if possible in shrink-wrap, and hides it in his safe for the next twenty years to acquire some dubious value – without ever perusing the contents! If books are not already shrink-wrapped, there are criminals out in the dark alleys who may do that dirty deed for the brain-washed victims of the marketers.
Now to the hated thing itself - 'Das Ding an sich' as the immortal Emmanuel Kant once said, although in a more philosophical context than this diatribe. Does it actually keep dust from the covers ? Certainly not; in fact it promotes the hidden assembly of ragged weeping lines of dustmotes from the top edges of the bindings, not to speak of fungus spores galore. The dw becomes a refuge for all that chews, stains, slithers and defecates over and through your beloved volumes. While it can be said to hold at bay the deleterious effects of ultra-violet radiation, no bibliophile worth his calling would expose his treasures to the inimical glare of the sun anyway. From the many tatty and droplet-stained dws I have been forced to examine, one could conclude that spatters of liquid would certainly be one of the hazards of librarianship from which books could be protected by the dw. On the other hand it could be argued that books don't belong on the lawn under the sprinklers, nor should they be read in the shower.
How then does one hold a book in a dw, when reading it? The book having a certain mass, has a downward trend. The dw being light and porous (or glossily sticky) tends to adhere to the hand. The net result is that either the book drops out of the dw, or the dw curls up, tears, crumples or otherwise interferes with the reading pleasure of its new owner. Its only use is for marking one’s place with the backflap – a practice only marginally better than dog-earing the corner of a page. Many is the hour I have pondered on solutions to this problem. So have many other readers, judging by the multiplicity of 'protectors' that I have come across. Of course, these 'protectors' have the disadvantage that they, in turn, are loose and can themselves slip off the dw when the book is held. So the problem is doubled, instead of halved. Enter sellotape. I seem to recollect that a company with several M's had a hand in creating this curse in the form of salvation to would-be dw-saviours. I am sure we have all got several dozen fine books in our collection that have the sticky tell-tale tracks of the dreaded sellotape on the endpapers. Little did we know what would happen in twenty or more years to that innocuous strip of clear plastic. Say no more.
So now we are saddled with protecting our no longer inconsiderable investment in a literary work, bound in various finishes (even the occasional paperback) with a supernumerary sheet of paper folded about the whole. THIS WE DARE NOT DISCARD. No, we have to cling to this steadily degrading bit of kit, which robs us of savouring the vision of a fine linen - or cloth - or leatherbound volume, intricately decorated in some cases, certainly with gilt titles, in colours that delight the eye - all because the market forces dictate that the value of a book shall be halved if it is incomplete, to whit, it does not have a dw.
So to you, bibliophile, I say: free yourself from the tyrrany of the marketeer and his weapon, the dustwrapper. Liberate yourselves, rip off your dustwrappers and cast them into the fire on a cold winter's evening.

by Arne Schaefer

Published in Philobiblon 2006
Journal of the Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Arne Schaefer & Zainu Vigis

Look upon book-collecting as a vice...

Book collecting for pleasure and for the future

It was Norman H. Strouse, head of the successful J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, an avid book collector and learned amateur bookman, who said: “Look upon books frankly as a vice, but one which leaves some respectable evidence of its pleasure to show for it. It's cheaper than a mistress, and far more amenable to your mood and convenience. And if you pursue book collecting properly, chances are you can't afford a mistress and that alone will save you a peck of trouble! “ He amassed a fine collection of printed work and donated his personal collection of rare and unusual materials by and about nineteenth century man of letters, Thomas Carlyle, and his era. He maintained the collection and the accompanying UCSC Carlyle lecture series throughout his lifetime and on his death, bequeathed an endowed fund to support the collection in UCSC Special Collections in perpetuity.
Now this is not to say every book collector will automatically end up a millionaire at the end of his allotted span. Just as it is not true to assign huge values to volumes based on their fancy leather bindings, the weight of their gilt adornment and their undoubted age. An old ‘un isn’t necessarily a good ‘un. The chances are that if you embark on this tricky voyage as a novice, without a pilot to steady your maiden course, enough provisions ( read: funds ) for the trip, or a map to chart the progress of your endeavours ( read: plan of collection ) – you could just as easily leave your heirs with heck of a headache. Believe me, a haphazard collection of hundreds or thousands of books in varying condition, on a multitude of subjects, is likely to land up as a donation to a charity shop at best, and landfill or pulp at worst.

So what is the alternative? There are a number of scenarios that will help towards making the addiction to the printed word in its many manifestations a pleasurable one, which can be savoured without incurring too many hangovers, without resulting in the screaming of irate spouses or hungry children. As a starting point one should at least cultivate an interest in reading; it helps to have an eye for illustration; some basic knowledge of the architecture of books can be an advantage; a little easily acquired lore of paper and the terms connected with printing. All these are good – but none are absolutely essential. What you need is to enjoy books. The appearance, the feel, the smell, the promise of the contents that lie between those covers, the serendipitous discovery of fine engravings and lithographed plates – these are qualities the bibliophile and collector should appreciate. Then, no book that is bought in the heat of passion, will ever disappoint. No matter if it is a poorly produced privately published little memoir costing a few Rands, or alternately, a finely crafted, exquisitely bound classic which can set you back the price of a small motor car.

Some twenty-five years back I met a collector; a mechanic by trade, whose wife had an interest in flowers. She started a business picking wildflowers, drying these and having them exported to countries around the world. The business flourished, and later W. her husband joined in these efforts. His wife’s interest in botanical matters kindled an interest in him to start collecting illustrated books dealing with the flora of his country. Since they made many overseas trips promoting their product, he was able to comb bookshops the world over for bargains. Sadly his wife passed away some fifteen years back, but his collecting didn’t stop. At the time of his passing, last year, at an age of 95, he had the most complete botanical collection in the country, which filled an entire apartment. Some of these volumes were priceless early treatises, some five hundred years old, many had hand-painted illustrations, others were ordinary run-of-the-mill guidebooks of no great value. But in total the collection was worth a staggering amount. Yet, when I asked him if he had become an expert botanist through being involved with so much knowledge he said “ I know nothing about botany. You see, I don’t read these books, I just look at the pictures”. That was his way of enjoying the collection.

One needs focus. No one can collect all the books on all subjects. To have any hope of stilling that craving for more, and yet more items to add to the collection, a certain amount of discipline must be accepted. Most collectors start off with bits and pieces, items that caught the eye or snared the fancy in passing. These will accumulate until they become an unwieldy mass, with no rhyme or reason. A word of advice: sort it out while it’s still manageable. If you want to collect books on poetry, decide whether it should be American, British Victorian, South African – or Samoan, or whatever; but decide on a limited field, because the world’s output of poetry is probably too much for your family home to absorb – not to speak of your family. If you want to collect books on modes of transport – choose between trains, planes or cars – not all three. If it’s voyages of discovery you hanker after, be prepared to specialise, pick an area, say the Arctic – or Antarctic. The Pacific is terrific, but don’t mix it with the Atlantic. If America grabs you, well, decide on north or south. If you have a penchant for Africa ( as I have had for the past 56 years ) then it’s best to opt for a small spot somewhere, instead of trying to cover the history, exploration, people, fauna, flora, geology, meteorology and whatever else there is to write about the entire dark continent.

I knew a man, who spent his life travelling Africa, talking to Africans, writing about them, and above all buying books about the continent in all its glory. His huge collection ended up in the university where he was lecturing. He was retired some years back, and the university gave him notice that he would have to dispose of his books. They just didn’t have the space to house these thousands of volumes, many in poor condition, since he had bought whatever he could afford. He believed in quantity over quality and in the final analysis his hobby cost him a huge amount of money for very little return.

Modern first editions are a popular choice for many an aspirant collector. The trick is, to find, (by guess or good fortune) a rising star. A new author who has just published his first book; an offering that was accepted reluctantly by an obscure publisher, who grudgingly printed a few hundred copies to dip his toes into the wild waters of the market. One should buy a copy or two, get the author to sign or suitably inscribe them, and then put them into airtight plastic sleeves in a dark cupboard. Then you sit back for several decades, and wait. You wait for the author to repeat his tour de force, to become wildly acclaimed. You buy each of his subsequent efforts and add them to your growing stash. You count your appreciating hoard and gloat over it. Problem is, you can’t even take them out to read them, feel them, or otherwise enjoy them, for fear of diminishing their ‘mint’ condition. You have to become a Scrooge of book-collecting. If, as so often happens, the author fades into obscurity instead of becoming a supernova, one is left with so much wastepaper – in very good condition. Better to enjoy your collection. Read them, admire the illustrations, pore over the maps, feel the silky touch of the fine covers and savour the smell.

Ignorance is a natural condition, not a disgrace. The good thing is that one can take remedial action. All you need is someone a little more knowledgeable, who is willing to jiggle your elbow, when you need a hint. Someone who has your well-being at heart in a self-interested sort of way. This may sound like a contradiction, but let me explain. If you want to collect seriously, passionately, with one eye to the future and the other on the depth of your pocket, find yourself a sympathetic dealer. It helps if he has been touched by a similar madness to yours, and if you confide your hopes and aspirations to him, he will probably bust a gut trying to find what you want. Because he has helped you, you will return to him with further requests. This is how he makes a living; so the more often you return, the more you get, the more he gets. This is known as symbiosis – a partnership of two disparate beings, each with different aims in life, combining their efforts to the benefit of both parties. So cultivate your guru, dealer, soul-mate, chum – whatever you want to call him. Accept the fact that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You’re going to have to pay him for his time, his efforts and his expertise that he puts at your disposal – not to mention the ruinous cost of keeping all those ancient tomes on his shelves for years, while he waits for some wonderful collector/client to come into his premises only to swoon over.

Most aspiring bibliophiles have at one or other stage in their lives been wooed by an old, rare or otherwise wondrous book – in poor condition. In the majority of cases, they would have regretted their purchase after the first heady flush of acquisition had passed. If there is one cardinal rule in this game, it is: buy the best example you can afford. Many collectors buy a copy of a desirable book, then stay on the lookout for a better copy, for which they may then try to trade in their now second-rate darling which has fallen from grace. It’s rather like buying an up-market house every few years as one’s circumstances change. The better the condition, the more likely it is that the book can appreciate in value over time, while the likelihood of a tatty item staging a miraculous recovery are somewhat less likely. There is, of course, the possibility of rejuvenating a damaged item – but only with expert care, not by slapping on a generous application of superglue or causing irreversible damage in any other amateur way. Total re-binding is sometimes resorted to, even by bookdealers, who cannot bear to throw away a mouthwatering textblock which has had the covers ripped off. With the exception of truly scarce and desirable works, this mostly does not increase their value in the eyes of potential purchasers and purists will often sneer at such offerings.

In assessing the desirability and potential value of this paragon of the printer’s art that you are about to purchase, consider the following. Are all the pages present, all plates and illustrations, and maps, if any? If not, then be warned – steer clear of it. Is the textblock soiled – as in showing grubby thumbprints, or traces of the last supper ? Is there any foxing; those ubiquitous brown spots that especially afflict books in the tropics and coastal locations. These are only a few of the basic caveats to consider. If you are a collector of books on African exploration, for example, it is good to know that during Victorian times readers on both sides of the Atlantic were hungry for news of new discoveries. Works were often printed in London as well as in New York. To the uninitiated they look much the same. Not so – since the London versions inevitably command far higher prices. Yet many US publishers during different periods have produced some stunning work in other fields of literature. Only experience, the scanning of many catalogues containing the opinions of the sellers as to condition, desirability and scarcity – which is finally expressed in the asking price, will educate the bibliophile in his passion – with a little help from his bookseller.

A price is only an opinion in this business. If the seller’s opinion coincides fairly closely with the buyer’s opinion – a deal can be struck. In these days of easy access to information on the internet, don’t be fooled by finding an item you want to evaluate, priced at the top end for $1000. This does not mean that is what it is worth; it is merely an opinion. The moment that book is sold for that price, that is its worth – at that time. Knowing how to distinguish between ‘ I wish ‘ prices and ‘ can get’ prices, is part of the trick. The chances of locating a bargain tucked away on a shelf in a little bookstore in a back alley of Auckland, NZ, are greater than finding it priced way below its ‘real value’ on the shelves of a well-known antiquarian dealer in London. Go to fleamarkets to browse through the offerings. On a number of occasions I have picked up books worth thousands for a few Rands. This treasure-hunting is the exciting part of the hobby – serendipity will strike now and then, be assured. On the other hand, if books have been chosen with care, taking into consideration the intellectual effort and craftsmanship that went into them, their continued relevance and popularity – then, taking into account their increasing scarcity – they should appreciate in price. Out of print books are very much like good real estate – they don’t make ‘em any more. The ravages of fire, insects, water and plain neglect, will always ensure that fewer and fewer examples of certain publications will survive.

Arne Schaefer

Africana Books