Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Journey's End


Nicholas Basbanes, in his remarkable and wildly successful study of book collectors and collecting, describes the disease as 'the eternal passion for books.'[1] He continued on this subject in his Friends of the Library lecture on 10 May of this year by suggesting that there are many themes and subthemes in passionate collecting and the study of passionate collectors. The Friends attending the lecture were pleased to learn that Mr. Basbanes is working on another book, tentatively titled Life after Life, in which he will further delve into the mania that drives collectors of the printed word.

One of the earliest and most delightful books about collecting is that of Richard de Bury, or rather, Richard Aungerville, known as Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham, who lived from 1287 to 1345. He served as bishop of the see of Durham from 1333 until his death in 1345. It was late in his life, often thought to have been during his last year, that he wrote what we now know as the Philobiblion.[2] In this wonderful treatise, the bishop proclaims in almost biblical terms the joys of books:

In books I behold the dead alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books the affairs of war are displayed; from books proceed the rightful laws of peace. . . . Oblivion would overwhelm all the glory of the world, had not God provided for mortals the remedies of books.[3]

Unfortunately for de Bury, his library was dispersed at his death, and many of his treasures disappeared. Most of the books were sent to Oxford, and only a handful can now be identified as once belonging to a splendid library.

This century has been enriched by a number of collectors and book dealers who wrote about collecting and selling books. One of the most enjoyable of the collector-authors writing on books and book collecting is A. Edward Newton. Newton began his career as a collector early in life and, when he died in 1940, had amassed a library of over 10,000 first editions, primarily of British authors. The sales of Newton's library were the high points of the 1941 auction season.[4] One of Newton's earliest books, The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections, is a classic of the genre and can be read with great profit by the beginning or advanced collector.[5] From this first volume through his delightful Rosenbach lectures of 1936, Newton provides his audience with wit, detail, and excitement.[6] It is interesting to note that Newton's books on books and book collecting are now prized by book collectors. He would, it would appear, be rather pleased by that.

Herbert Faulkner West 1926, Professor of Comparative Literature, bookseller, publisher, founder of the Friends of the Library, creator of great Dartmouth collections, and bibliophile; the list of descriptive terms for Herb West could go on at length. West was the author of several fascinating books on the subject of books and book collecting. In 1933, he published An Apology for Book Collecting, Being Random Reflections Together with an Account of London Bookmen in Their Native Haunts.[7] The comments about bookish London in the 1920s and 1930s remain one of the most concisely written accounts of the trade. West's Modern Book Collecting for the Impecunious Amateur is yet one of the finest books ever written about collecting.[8] This volume, along with others he wrote on books and book collecting, can easily serve as the basis of a collector's education.[9]

The firm of Rostenberg & Stern-Rare Books is known throughout the world for the quality of its catalogs and the superiority of its stock. The partners in this firm, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, have written extensively about their adventures, the books they love, and on the trade. Old and Rare; Thirty Years in the Book Business is one of the more insightful views of the trade and a book well worth acquiring and reading-and re-reading.[10] Rostenberg and Stern have contributed a great deal to the bibliography of book collecting over the years. Two that are both a pleasure to read and full of information and advice on books are Between Boards: New Thoughts on Old Books and Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad.[11]

One of the great figures in the London booktrade for decades was Percy Muir. Beginning in the business shortly after the First World War, Muir soon opened his own shop. In the 1930s he was associated with the firm of Elkin Mathews and continued to buy and sell rare books for the next several decades. In the 1950s, he began to write a series of reminiscences for The Book Collector. The series was exceptionally popular and was soon published, with additional material, as Minding My Own Business: An Autobiography.[12] One of the more interesting aspects of Muir's bookselling career is that his wife, the novelist Barbara Kaye, has written two sequel volumes recounting the bookselling story from the beginning of World War II until the middle of the 1950s.[13]

The 107 catalogs of George Sims, from his first in 1947 to his last in 1987, are a remarkable record of modern British literature. George Sims specialized in both books and manuscripts, and it is quite possible to follow the growth of interest in collecting many modern British authors by studying the Sims catalogs. The catalogs themselves are now sought after by scholars, collectors, and librarians. As an author, George Sims is known both as a mystery writer and as one of the most astute modern students of collecting. Beginning in 1985, his essays, some of which were published earlier in The Book Collector, The Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, and London Magazine, have been gathered in four volumes.[14] These are important essays on the history of the book trade in England from the immediate post-war period to the present. Any student or collector of modern British literature should be aware of this rich body of information.

In 1988, as a part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Friends of the Dartmouth Library, a series of three lectures on books, libraries, and collecting were presented. In the second lecture, Bernard Rosenthal, a senior member of the rare book trade, noted a number of scholarly reasons to collect rare books and manuscripts. He continued by stating, 'An equally powerful and perfectly valid reason is the emotional and the sensual pleasure that can be derived from holding in your hands a volume that was held by readers like you, or unlike you, hundreds of years ago.'[15] In the same series of lectures, President Freedman evinced clear signs of Nicholas Basbanes's 'eternal passion for books' when he noted that 'Whenever I go to a distant city and have some extra hours, I search out its second-hand bookstores, hunting for those elusive titles that will round out my collection.'[16]

A very different and thoroughly enjoyable view of the onset of the 'eternal passion' may be found in a recently-published volume written by a couple as they began to collect. The book recounts their education, from readers seeking reading copies of books to collectors seeking the first, the best edition of very specific titles.[17]The tales told by the Goldstones are cautionary and enlightening. Reading about collecting can certainly alert a collector or potential collector to new areas of interest, to pitfalls in the game, and to the joys of the fellowship of collecting. Collecting books about book collectors can also bring great pleasure.

P. N. C.

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[1] A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1995).

[2]The best edition remains The Philobiblion of Richard de Bury, ed. from the best manuscripts and tr. into English with an introduction and notes by Andrew Fleming West, 3 vols. (New York: Grolier Club, 1889). Special Collections also holds the copy owned by the great book collector George Ticknor 1807, Philobiblion, a treatise on the love of books: by Richard de Bury, Written in MCCCXLIV, and translated from the first edition, MCCCLXXIII, With some collations (London: T. Rodd, 1832).

[3] Philobiblion, 2:19.

[4] The Rare Books and Manuscripts Collected by the Late A. Edward Newton. Public Sale: Part 1 on April 16, 17 and 18; Part 2 on May 14, 15 and 16; Part 3: dates to be announced (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1941) and Rare Books, Original Drawings, Autograph Letters and Manuscripts, Collected by the Late A. Edward Newton (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1941).

[5]Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1918.

[6] Among his other publications on books and book collecting are: A Magnificent Farce, and Other Diversions of a Book-Collector (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921); The Greatest Book in the World, and Other Papers (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1925); This Book-Collecting Game (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1928); and Bibliography and pseudo-Bibliography, The A. S. W. Rosenbach Fellowship in Bibliography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936).

[7] The Arts Chapbooks, No. 2 (Hanover: The Arts Press, 1933).

[8] Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1936.

[9] The Mind on the Wing, a Book for Readers and Collectors (New York: Coward-McCann, 1947) and The Impecuious Amateur Looks Back; the Autobiography of a Bookman (Hanover: Westholm Publications, 1966). Professor West's papers, including published and unpublished manuscripts on books and book collecting, are Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Manuscript ML-51.

[10] New York: A. Schram, 1974. A revised edition, with the subtitle Forty Years in the Book Business, appeared in 1988. Old and Rare: A Lifelong Passion for Books (New York: Doubleday, 1997), has just been published and is highly recommended.

[11] Montclair: Allanheld & Schram, 1977; and New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 1996.

[12] London: Chatto and Windus, 1956. The volume was a great success and too soon was sold out. It was reprinted by Oak Knoll Press of New Castle, Delaware, in 1991.

[13] The Company We Kept (London: Werner Shaw, Ltd., 1986; reprinted in 1995 by Oak Knoll Press) and Second Impression: Rural Life with a Rare Bookman (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 1995).

[14] The Rare Book Game (Philadelphia: Holmes Publishing Co., 1985); More of the Rare Book Game (Philadelphia: Holmes Publishing Co., 1988); Last of the Rare Book Game (Philadelphia: Holmes Publishing Co., 1990); and A Life in Catalogues and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Holmes Publishing Co., 1994). The records of the firm G. F. Sims are Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Manuscript MS-637.

[15] 'Rare Books and Rare Libraries,' Three Lectures Presented on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Friends of the Dartmouth Library, 1988, Extra Number Two of the Library Bulletin (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1988), 42.

[16] James O. Freedman, 'Collecting Books,' Three Lectures, 56.

[17] Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone, Used and Rare. Travels in the Book World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

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