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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

The Art of the Book--A Collector's Choice[*]


I'LL tell you a story about this college. When I was an undergraduate, there was a professor by the name of James Cox, who was, with Herb West and Ray Nash, among the greatest teachers I encountered. Cox was clearly a man who lived in and for the eighteenth century. His lectures were legendary. One of his more memorable acts was to bring us into this room, which was then, as now, called the Treasure Room, and we would look at first editions, the first appearances of the books he was teaching. There was a notable decline in both tone and enthusiasm when he hit the twentieth century, and by the time he passed Joyce it was clear that civilization was in steep decline. I remember asking him in this room, 'Professor Cox, it occurs to me that you're not living in your favorite time and place, and if you could live in any time and place, when and where would it be?' And I remember him standing right here and, without a moment's hesitation, saying, 'Virginia, 1802.' He had really thought it through.

I want to set the stage for myself, what I collect, and how I collect. I came from a literate home. When I was six, my father bought a house in Brookline. I think the main reason he bought it was that it had acres of bookcases. He was at that time an assistant professor of political science at Harvard, but his interest was really contemporary affairs. The house was always loaded with books, and I have to say one of the main reasons I chose Dartmouth, in addition to the fact that it was in close proximity to skiing, was the fact that Baker was an open stack library, and still is. When I went here, you did not even have to have a card or any identification. You could wander into Baker until eleven o'clock at night and get whatever book you wanted and frequently get many books you didn't know you wanted but were on the shelf next to or on the way to the one you wanted. Baker was really my home; when I was a Senior Fellow here I had a little carrel upstairs. That's where I had all of my reference books. I was totally surrounded by them.

I think the formative influence on my career here was certainly Ray Nash. Nash was a very interesting person in many ways, and he becomes more interesting as one gets to know more about him. He was clearly not embraced by any of the standard disciplines here. His course was always something of a black sheep. He gave really two courses, one called 'Books and Printing' and the other 'Prints and Printmaking.' The interesting notion behind these courses was that they partook, I think quite deliberately, of the pedagogical methods Paul Sachs was developing at Harvard, where Nash had studied in 1936 and 1937. Sachs's premise, which was really quite original at that time, was that you learned about art or prints or books not by looking at slides and discussing them in the abstract but by physically handing the original material around the table and handling it. This was Nash's entire teaching method. We would sit around the table and Nash would bring a book or print and we would discuss its condition, its provenance, what it was printed on, what the printing process was, the kind of paper, when it was done, who did it, and the circle around it, like rings in a tree, would take off from this core. This made you think; above all, it made you learn to look. All of the exams were open book, which was very unusual at the time. The final exam was five objects placed on the table, and your job was to compose an essay on each of them, telling him everything you could.

Nash spoke very slowly and very deliberately, and you found your mind continually finishing the sentences for him. It was a great experience for me, and I think my collecting began in those courses because Nash, deliberately but insidiously, would always leave dealers' catalogs on the table. Those of us who were interested in what we were discussing would always find within them books at prices that, in those days, we could afford. As a sophomore, I remember buying my two first books, the Bremer Press edition of The Iliad and The Odyssey, because I was studying Greek and these were printed in a most glorious, uninflected Attic type face.[1] The library, of course, had copies on hand for me to examine.

Opening page of The Odyssey, from Homer, Homerou poiesis, 2 vols. (München: Bremer Presse, 1923-1924).

That ties me to another factor I would like to emphasize: If you are serious about buying any rare book, always go to the library to examine existing copies. That is what rare book libraries are for. If it is a twentieth-century press book, there is not going to be much variation between what you buy and what was advertised, but if it is a book of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the difference in the margins, paper, and binding could be considerable. I remember coming to this library and finding the Greek books I hoped to buy for fifty dollars each. That's where I learned about buying on time--something that I wish I had never learned. I wrote Mr. Menno Hertzberger, who was Dutch, and said, 'Dartmouth has these books and I love them. But I can't afford a hundred dollars.' He said, 'Well, what can you afford?' and I said, 'I could afford twenty dollars a month for five months.' He said, 'Fine.' And I followed Golden Rule Two: 'Don't send me the books until I'm paid in full.' I sent him twenty dollars a month for five months, and that is how I began to collect books. Life in those days was very different. You could buy wonderful books for very little money. I remember buying from Herman Cohen the deluxe edition of the Officina Bodoni's Alphabetum Romanum for fifty dollars.[2] You had to act on your impulses, and when your impulses appeared questionable, you came to the Treasure Room to examine the book.

My aim from the beginning was not to collect in one particular area or be a comprehensive collector of any press, printer, or author. It was to build a representative collection of fine book printing displaying the diversity and inventiveness of the graphic arts. That approach, in a way, opened up areas of collecting that would not be open to every collector. I could look at any book that was printed at any time and determine, on the basis of the book as an object, not on the contents of the book, whether it would fit in my collection. I've tried to be representative in the collection, so that I do not own every Bodoni or every Baskerville or every Jenson or every Aldus that was ever issued, but I try to get very good examples--in some cases, the best examples--of those presses. I can tell you, if you have the Doves Bible, you really do not need another book of the Doves Press.[3] It is the great book of the press, and you can then move on to another press. This, I think, expands one's horizons, but it is also the kind of collecting a lot of people do not understand, because most collectors do not collect the book as an object or the book as an example of the intellectual time within which it was created. Books, if you think about it, remain the most constant objects of civilized thought and practical experience, that we deal with. By that I mean that the printers of the fifteenth century could come into this room, could look at books printed today, and would immediately recognize these objects as books. They would understand the technology and typography and all the problems of book design. The practical problems of book design were really solved by the sixteenth century.

Design for the letter 'D', from Felice Feliciano, Alphabetum Romanum [Codex Vaticanus 6852]. edited by Giovanni Mardersteig (Verona: Editiones Officinae Bodoni, 1960).

People always talk about books imitating manuscripts. That is nonsense, as I think has been demonstrated. Books imitated manuscripts for perhaps a decade. But the manuscript was really a unique creation. A manuscript was commissioned by, written by, and executed by one human being and every manuscript is unique to itself. You can go to the Library of Congress and see the exemplar of the Gutenberg Bible in manuscript form. There is the printed Bible and there is the manuscript that it clearly imitated. There is a very strong correlation between the printed volume and the manuscript. Almost immediately, because of the number of ligatures that were cast, the number of variant letters, and the variety of word endings, publishers began to simplify the process. First of all, they realized that the Roman letter was far superior for the general reading public than the black letter and, with the sole exception of Germany, by roughly 1500, after only forty-five years, black letter had virtually disappeared from the printing scene. The alphabet constricted immediately until it was really the twenty-six letters we know today available in three separate fonts: roman, italic, and small capitals. This was very different from the manuscript in which the scribe could really do whatever contractions or emendations that were necessary to justify a line. Of course, the reason the book exploded, and it exploded phenomenally in forty-five years, was that it was a remarkably expedient invention. The time was ripe for texts that were uniform and consistent, and there was an explosion of curiosity about all things 'antique.'

The letter 'D', from Felice Feliciano, Alphabetum Romanum [Codex Vaticanus 6852]. edited by Giovanni Mardersteig (Verona: Editiones Officinae Bodoni, 1960).

I always ask audiences how many books they think were printed-- books, not titles--in the first forty-five years of printing between 1455, the year of the Gutenberg Bible, and 1500, the last year of the so-called incunabular period. The lowest estimate I've read is sixteen million books. That is a lot of books. The highest estimate I ever read is twenty-four million. Somewhere between sixteen and twenty-four is probably the real number. Clearly, this was no insignificant invention that made its way slowly through Europe. This really was a development that exploded on the scene. Books were embraced and produced and bought with phenomenal enthusiasm in every corner of Europe by people who were clearly a lot more literate than we suppose. Remember, this was a time when all of England had a population of only four million people, and printing was not even introduced in England until 1476. Thus, when you deal with this artifact, whether you deal with it as Rocky Stinehour and I do as people who produce it on the press, or as collectors, as some of you do, as artifacts from the past, you are dealing with something with a long and vibrant history, an object that has remained virtually unchanged in its essentials for five hundred years.

After all, we still print these books in lines of roman type, we still justify the lines, we still have margins, we still have folios, we still have running heads, we still print sixteen pages or eight pages to a side, that we then collate, and bind in signatures in a particular order. All of the essential techniques have remained the same for five hundred years, which I think is what makes the book such a wonderful artifact to consider.

After I left Dartmouth, I worked for a year for Leonard Baskin and Baskin was, I think, a marvelous artist, but he was the most incurable, omnivorous, avaricious collector I have ever met. I lived in Baskin's house for two summers, babysitting his estate while he went to Maine. This was memorable, because Baskin's clear ambition was to live in a wunderkammer, a wonder house. Those of you who saw 'The Age of the Marvelous' exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth a few years ago know what it was.[4] It is where you live surrounded by all sorts of objects of art: books, prints, shells, stuffed animals, renaissance medals, Greek coins, stamps, and prints. Leonard collected all of these and he collected them with a passion. I mean Leonard was a collector. I remember at one dinner I said, 'You know, Leonard, I don't understand how you can afford all this. I mean, how do you do it?' Well, Leonard gave me half of the answer. Leonard's half was, 'David, if you ever get out of debt, you're no longer a collector.' Then he looked at me and said, 'I will rue the day I am out of debt. I hope I die in debt.' What Leonard failed to mention was that he had not paid capital gains taxes for many years and that he was always trading up. He was a master trader. Leonard taught me a second great lesson, and that's never buy what you can trade. Never buy what you can trade. You will always do better trading than buying. Leonard would trade coins for books, or trade his lesser books for better books. He should have been a dealer.

A second influence in my life was Philip Hofer, who had the most prescient and exquisite taste I ever encountered. Philip collected books thirty years before anyone recognized their value. He collected French sixteenth-century books, Italian sixteenth-century books, manuscripts, and Japanese scrolls. I was at Meriden Gravure when his books were being photographed for Ruth Mortimer's remarkable catalogue.[5] Phil had marked in an easy code what he had paid for them. I don't think he paid more than $1000 for even the greatest of these books. The greatest period of book production, the great books, illustrated by the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

The third influence in my collecting life was Lessing J. Rosenwald, who had a lot more money than certainly Leonard did, and probably more than Philip did. He housed his collection outside of Philadelphia, a fantastic collection of illustrated books and incunables that went to the Library of Congress.[6] I spent many days at the Houghton Library with Hofer's books and many days with Lessing , who was a man of wonderful generosity to anyone seriously interested.

Remember, this is one man's taste, but not taste you should necessarily take seriously. Do your own investigation, and remember that every book really contains its own story. This is what I would like to leave you with. Look at the book's condition; consider it in every detail. Condition is so important when you are buying books. Look at the bindings, the margins. Compare the books to books in public collections. You cannot second-guess what is being offered but you certainly can compare it to what the library holds and see if your copy is going to stack up.

What to collect? Here are a few things I would collect if I were starting out. I would collect the works of Meriden-Stinehour Press without question. I think these are great volumes. They have not printed a bad thing since they started in 1950. Many of the books are probably still in print at the original published prices. The books produced at Meriden set the standard for offset printing. They really created the idea that offset printing could be as good as the original. I think the Beehive Press is another great press to collect. I think the Eakins Press, Leslie Katz's press, has done beautiful books in American history and American literature, and the Officina Bodoni in Verona, Italy, has done equally wonderful books. The publications of libraries and museums are books that are frequently subsidized and are being sold at or below cost. They usually stay in inventory for years, if not decades, if not centuries. Libraries and museums are delighted to sell them to you. And lastly, and perhaps most adventuresomely, eastern Europe. I think today someone with money could go to eastern Europe and could do what Philip Hofer did in France and Italy. Eastern European countries are enormously sophisticated graphically and printing has always been a part of their culture. I think anyone with a good eye and a few dollars could do wonderfully in eastern Europe.

[*] This essay is an excerpt from a paper read at the Book Collectors' Workshop, sponsored by the Friends of the Dartmouth Library, on 7 May 1994.

[1] Homer, Homerou poiesis, 2 vols. (München: Bremer Presse, 1923-1924).

[2] Felice Feliciano, Alphabetum Romanum [Codex Vaticanus 6852], edited by Giovanni Mardersteig (Verona: Editiones Officinae Bodoni, 1960).

[3] The English Bible, Containing the Old Testament & the New, Translated Out of the Original Tongues by Special Command of His Majesty King James the First and Now Reprinted with the Text Revised by a Collation of its Early and Other Principal Editions and Edited by the Late Rev. F. H. Scrivener, M.A., LL.D. for the Syndics of the University Press, Cambridge, 5 vols. (Hammersmith: The Doves Press, 1903-1905).

[4] The Age of the Marvelous, edited by Joy Kenseth (Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, 1991).

[5] Harvard College Library, Dept. of Printing and Graphic Arts, Harvard College Library Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts, compiled by Ruth Mortimer under the supervision of Philip Hofer and William A. Jackson, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964-1974).

[6] See Library of Congress, The Rosenwald Collection; a Catalogue of Illustrated Books and Manuscripts, of Books from Celebrated Presses, and of Bindings and Maps, 1150-1950. The Gift of Lessing J. Rosenwald to the Library of Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1954); Library of Congress, A Catalog of the Gifts of Lessing J. Rosenwald to the Library of Congress, 1943 to 1975 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1977); and Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Vision of a Collector: The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Library of Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1991).