Book Excerpt



New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2003. 6.75 x 9.75 inches. hardcover, dust jacket. 320 pages. First edition. The Book Collector (which started publication in 1952) has established itself as the one of the leading authoritative journals for those interested in all aspects of bibliophily. Nicolas Barker, The Book Collector's editor for the past 37 years, has produced an anthology taking the best essays printed over the last 50 years and combining them into one... READ MORE

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The Book Collector

Thoughts on Scoring a Century

In the summer of 1965, Macmillan’s the publishers, where I had just gone to work, moved from their old premises in St Martin’s Street to Little Essex Street. I had been very busy, too busy for a holiday, too busy even (to my lasting regret) to go to the funeral of my old friend Cosmo Gordon, whose bibliography of Lucretius had occupied many happy hours of joint labour. In the middle of September a brief respite came and we decided to take a week off in Cambridge. We were about to depart when the telephone rang. It was John Hayward. My heart sank because his calls were never short, and as the muscular dystrophy that disabled his body (but never his mind) afflicted his mouth, it was not easy to hear what he was saying. The question turned on a review to appear in the next number of the book collector, not by me but by someone else; without the text and with John half inaudible, I could not make out what the problem was. ‘John’, I said, ‘it’ll be easier if I can see it; we don’t have to leave this minute – I’ll come at once.’ I put the telephone down, and a quarter of an hour later I was in the familiar, stuffy, book-lined room overlooking Cheyne Walk and the river.

I cannot remember now what difficulty John had found. It was easy to resolve with a simple direction to the printer (the Shenval Press readers were used to John, his elegant hand as well as his exigent standard of accuracy). All seemed well, and I made ready to depart. ‘And you will see it’s all right, won’t you,’ said John. ‘Of course I will,’ I replied, ‘but you’ll be here and I’ll be in Cambridge – you’ll be able to see to it yourself.’ ‘Yes, but I want to be sure that you will see to it too – all of it.’ I was puzzled by his insistence, but gave him the assurance he wanted, said good-bye and left. That night he died.

A month later, as I sat at the back of St Luke’s, Chelsea, at John’s memorial service, among all his literary and bibliophilic friends, I still had no premonition of what was to follow. It was a cold grey day outside, and three or four men (I recall Percy Muir, John Carter and Tim Munby), their hands in raincoat pockets and – in John Carter’s case – hat pulled down over eyes, cornered me against the north aisle. I was, they said, I had to be, the next editor of the book collector. I protested my incapacity: I didn’t have a tithe of John’s bibliographic, let alone editorial skill, still less his wide circle of acquaintance; besides, editing the book collector had been a full-time job for John and I  had one already. The gang of three or four were reassuring. All I had to do was edit: others would help with the writing of editorial matter, rounding up articles and reviews; James Shand (I think his was the fourth raincoat and second hat), publisher as well as printer, would look after all the business side. All right, I said, I would see the next number through the press: that much, I realized, I had unsuspectingly promised. As to the future beyond that, it must wait.

It was John Carter who shouldered the burden of making that last number of 1965 a worthy memorial to John Hayward. He wrote to all the contributors: not one, I recall, refused – John’s masterful command reached beyond the grave. It was the largest ever number, and it exists in two states: one with the correct reading in Dadie Rylands’si quotation from Webster, ‘As the tan’d galley-slave is with his Oare’, and the other, earlier, reading ‘tam’d galley-slave’, of which I possess what I hope is the only surviving copy; the cancel was a last tribute to John’s rigorously enforced standard of scholarly accuracy.

The future, it turned out, was full of problems. John had some years earlier passed the hat round some of the book collector wealthier subscribers and amassed a small fund to act as an insurance against any future crisis. Another prescient intent had been Ian Fleming’s; as the main shareholder, he had planned to make over the journal to John, thus formally acknowledging, as Percy Muir put it, ‘what it had long been in fact, the exclusive product of John’s brain’. But the intent had never been fulfilled: Fleming had died the year before John, and the Inland Revenue was still wrestling with his estate, lately swollen by the enormous success of the Bond books. I had to go and see Ann Fleming, whose wit and beauty and kindness I shall not forget. She was only too anxious that Ian’s plan should go through, and was willing to give us the book collector; but this could not be achieved until it had been valued as part of Fleming’s estate and duty paid. The duty on Fleming’s estate was 98%, and so John’s crisis fund virtually disappeared. It seemed doubtful whether the the book collector could survive.

But before all this had been worked out, I had, in effect, yielded to the pressure not only of the first gang of friends and supporters, but of others, including the fifteen who had written tributes for that final Hayward number. Catherine Porteous, who had done secretarial work for John, and with whom I sorted out the papers and books (only partly provided for in John’s will), was encouraging. Walter Oakeshott, then as always a generous friend and supporter, produced a new idea for a series, ‘Collector’s Piece’, and the first article, on Sir Walter Raleigh’s copy of Petrus d’ Alliaco Imago mundi 1483. Stanley Morison, for whom I was also working in what passed for my spare time, gave his blessing with a remark I have never forgotten: ‘You will get a lot of books to review; spend all the time and space you can spare on saying what is good about the good books; few books are so bad that neglect is not the best way of seeing them off’.

So, almost before I knew what had happened, the Spring number of 1966 came out. All the book collector’s old friends, John Simmons, Howard Nixon, Julian Brown, came across; James Walsh described the library of Bill Jackson (another recent and unexpected loss to bibliography), William B. Todd, Bent Juel-Jensen, Harry Carter, and others who came to be friends, too, provided articles and reviews. With the second number of 1966, an editorial board was formally constituted, consisting of John Carter, Percy Muir, myself as editor and James Shand as publisher. Tim Munby and Simon Nowell-Smith, both early contributors, were active in reserve. With the first number of 1967, the book collector even achieved a little notoriety: moved by the plight of the libraries of Florence, devastated by the flood of 4 November 1966, we devoted the whole of the next issue to it, with an appeal for funds that not only produced a decent sum for conservation but also alerted the national press to the continuing need. In a modest way, the book collector can claim to have initiated the nouvelle vague of book, conservation that stems from the disaster.

Before the year was out, however, another and more domestic disaster struck. That November James Shand died, depriving the book collector of a loyal friend and supporter from the outset. He saw to it that its elegant typography and immaculate presswork were maintained, like everything that came from the Shenval Press at Hertford. But he had done more: he kept the subscription records, took the money that came in from subscribers and advertisers, paid the Press, and presented the accounts to the auditors. His death came after quite a long period of ill health, concealed from us and even from himself. All the records, we now found, were in confusion: subscriptions were unpaid, copies sent to subscribers long deceased, cash figures uncertain in the last degree. Inevitably, I was drawn into the task of sorting out the confusion, and from merely editing became involved in the ‘business side’ that I had hoped to be spared. It was to be almost a decade before some sort of security (at least the security of knowing where you are) began to emerge.

But help of a different sort was already at hand. When, in 1966, it seemed certain that the book collector was not to die with John, it became clear that I should need editorial help. John Carter heard that Joan Stevenson was free, following the sad and unnecessary demise of Argosy. We met for lunch in a rather dingy pub near the back gate of the Temple, and I realized at once that Joan had more to give than editorial experience: the loyalty once bestowed on Argosy would, I could see, be transferred to the book collector. I am, in general, a poor prophet, but I got it right this time. Joan became the devoted friend and helper of all who wrote for the book collector, not least the editor. She gave it the loyalty I had anticipated, and far more time than I had dared to hope, for over fifteen years. She took over the indexing from the admirable and long-serving Mrs E. M. Hatt of Faber’s; she prepared typescripts (and in the editor’s case manuscripts) with impeccable care and a curious but effective mixture of red typewriter, green ink and sticky labels. She earned the respect of the contributors and of the Shenval readers, and ruled the progress of the press with an iron hand. She became and remains to this day, a most valued friend.

We only differed, I recall, on two matters. I at first suggested that she might write a paragraph or two for ‘News and Comment’, but she was firm that writing lay outside her definition of her editorial role. The other matter was the definite article: I was apt to call our journal ‘The Book Collector’; to Joan it was always ‘Book Collector’, minus the ‘The’, which, following, I think, her admired uncle Wickham Steed, she reserved for ‘The Times’ alone. Where we would have been without Joan, I cannot imagine. First at Macmillan’s and then at the Oxford University Press, my daily life was full of other tasks; working with Stanley Morison ended with his death in October 1967, but then followed more work, finishing his great last book, Politics and Script, and writing his biography. His literary executors, Brooke Crutchley and Arthur Crook, were a great help: Brooke invited me to write a book on Morison and Robert Bridges in his handsome Christmas Series, and Arthur gave me books to review for the TLS.

But the increased scope of the editor’s life, with bizarre interludes like the Prokosch affair; the valiant attempts of Vallance Lodge the auditors to straighten out the balance sheet; all that Joan Stevenson did to make the book collector as accurate and, as well printed as it was when John Hayward and James Shand minded it; all this could not avert the bleak sense of cumulative loss in the middle of the decade. First Tim Munby, followed only three months later by John Carter, then Graham Pollard and, in 1979, Percy Muir, the last of the founders. While they were alive, there was always someone to whom I could turn for advice and help. How much they gave, only they and I know, but our annotated bound set of the book collector, with the authors of the anonymous pieces written in, is a partial record. More came by way of letters (John Carter, in particular, was a punctual correspondent), telephone calls, and, often enough, meetings – my last meeting with Graham a memorable and, as it proved, influential occasion.

But it was Tim Munby’s legacy that proved the most important through his friendship with John Commander, then responsible for the Scolar Press which was engaged in producing and publishing books of bibliophilic interest, and for Mansell, publishers of the pre-1956 NUC and, under Tim’s editorship, the series of ‘Sales Catalogues of Eminent Persons’. It was John Commander who came to the rescue when the Shenval Press decided to give up hot-metal composition and printing and arranged for the journal to be printed at the Scolar Press’s plant at Ilkley. Scolar’s successors, Smith Settle, remain our printers and maintain a valued continuum which has now seen us through some fifty-six issues. The typesetting, still ‘Monotype’, was done first by Ronset in Lancashire and now by Gloucester Typesetting Services. John refreshed the typography and created the new style of covers, making use of title-page borders and other designs from famous books of the past (it was time for a change, for the old design had been plagiarized too often). Finally, and most valuable, he offered us space in the Scolar Press office, first at 3 Bloomsbury Place and then at 90 Great Russell Street. He became our publisher and a member of the editorial board. It has been a happy association, strengthened by the possession of a room of our own, and it has lasted through all the moves that have now brought us to our present premises in Covent Garden. Whether, in the face of horrifying rent increases and the imposition of the ‘business rate’, we shall be able to stay there depends largely on the continued support and loyalty of subscribers and advertisers.

The other sad vacancies on the editorial board were filled by Theodore Hofmann, David McKitterick and Stephen Weissman, who were later to be joined by Alan Bell and, most recently, James Fergusson.

All this time, indeed for all but thirty years now, I have been fortunate enough to have the help of Mrs Patricia Cooper. She first came to work with me as secretary when we shared a room on the piano nobile of 36 Soho Square, an old publishing house, first occupied by John Russell Smith, later by the Oxford University Press and then by Rupert Hart-Davis. The ‘University of Soho Square’ was already a home for bibliophily – it was as a member of the board of the Soho Bibliographies that I had first met John Hayward. Then and later, with only a short gap or two, Pat and I worked together, until my summons to the British Library came in 1976. At this point, wisely, Pat decided to give up full-time work, and I, even more wisely, took a deep breath and asked her if she would work three days a week for the book collector. In a trice, it seemed, although Pat says it took longer than I think, the last muddles and confusions about subscribers, advertising and accounts disappeared. If the editorial is not quite what it was twenty-five years ago, the business side has never been in better shape.

So here we are, a hundred issues later, alive and not much changed in a world that has changed in many ways but not in one: there is still only one periodical that caters for the needs of book-collectors, booksellers and librarians. The roles of all three have changed, but not the need for a common ground where all three meet on equal terms. While that exists, the book collector will continue. But what a change has taken place! Twenty-five years ago our world was a small one: it was a club of people to whom the individual book was something more than article of trade, a possession, or a catalogue entry. It has grown enormously since, and it is worth reflecting on the nature of that growth and the change it has brought.

Twenty-five years ago, both booksellers and book-collectors were, in their own view, each a dying breed. There were only about fifty ‘serious’ old booksellers, and they were, like their stock, old. Their sons wanted to go into something more technological or a merchant bank, and there was no point in stopping them because there were no old books left. There were still fewer collectors and they were old too: collecting was becoming impossible, because there were no books to collect, except at prohibitive prices; the only moderately cheerful members of the club were the librarians. Life was not what it had been, of course, and the prices were ridiculous, but one way or another they could still find books to buy. This was particularly true in America, where a great deal of inventive thought, from the Texas Sweep to the Houghton Pick, went into what was now called ‘acquisition’ (‘collection development’ was still, mercifully, uncoined). Great collections were built in this way: the one that Larry Powell and Bob Vosper built at U.C.L.A., Gordon Ray’s creation at Urbana. Nor was it just straight academic libraries: the Wing Collection at the Newberry Library, the J.C.B. at Brown, had a virtual monopoly of ‘the book arts’ and Americana. European libraries were apt to be jealous, but even on this side of the Atlantic war-time austerity had become a thing of the past.

It was, however, pretty generally felt that this could not last. Soon the institutional libraries would tuck the last private collector under their arm, buy the last book from the last bookseller, and we would all retreat to some bibliophilic nirvana. But it has all worked out very differently. Now there are hundreds of new booksellers, hundreds of new collectors, and if the librarian can occasionally squeeze between them to pick up a book, that happens very infrequently because the acquisition budget has been cut for the tenth successive year.

What has brought this about? A number of factors come to mind. In 1965 the auction houses – Hodgson’s as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s (Bonham’s and Phillips did not then have book sales) – were all partnerships, and the almost simultaneous decision of the big two to go public a year or two later was at once a response to the market and a major cause of its change. The ‘flight from money’, whether into Krugerrands or old things of all sorts, was the cause of this event, which gave the houses much greater elasticity; at the same time, they had to grow, return a larger profit each year, to satisfy their investors. This may or may not be a good thing, but it has happened. At a later date, I recall talking to Mr Taubman, not long after he had ‘rescued’ Sotheby’s, about this. Art, he said, was not like root beer; you made root beer, you marketed it, and if you marketed right, you sold more, so you made more. Art was different, because there were only limited supplies of it; the answer to this dilemma was to persuade people to turn it over oftener: why, he said, people hold on to art for as long as thirty years – we’ve got to get that down to ten, or better still three years.

Well, no doubt people do buy and sell more than they used to, even books, though profit-taking still seems to be rarer in the book world than, say, in that of impressionist paintings. But this factor has certainly helped the book trade through what could have been a difficult stretch, when the rise in rents was making the old-fashioned shop harder and harder to maintain. Business by catalogue, stock held at home and viewable by appointment, above all book fairs, have all been fuelled by a faster turnover of stock, largely made possible by sales within the trade. It looks like the Indian rope trick or, perhaps, more like three antique dealers on a desert island – each has made a profit by the time they are rescued, but it works. Perhaps the success of book fairs has been the most startling element. In 1965, there was only the book fair at the National Book League, an agreeable but somewhat amateurish event which nevertheless was the precursor of the ABA fairs of later years. The growth of provincial book fairs, as well as the annual multiplex jamboree in London, if it provides opportunities for booksellers to meet booksellers, also gives the collector a chance to meet more booksellers in a day than in a fortnight of hard travelling.

Book fairs, then, are popular with the new collectors, and who are they? They are the product of the paperback revolution. Paperback publishing was in full swing in 1965, but some time was to pass before most new books would appear in that form. With it has come a new appreciation of old-fashioned cloth-bound hard-cover books of all sorts. Books that would once have been found on 3d. and 6d. barriers crept up to £I and were still underpriced compared with new books. King Penguins and the ‘Britain in Pictures’ series began to have an antiquarian appeal. The ephemerality of new books, their short life expectancy, both as material objects and as items in the publisher’s stock list, has given a new value to older and more durable books; it has also provided a welcome fillip to the booksellers who have regularly specialized in remainders as well as antiquarian books.

This may be welcome, but there is also a more sombre side to all this new growth. We live in an age of hype. The technique of promotion is inflationary: everything must be bigger, better, rarer, above all more expensive, than what went before. This is not merely due to the Press Officer and PR people employed by the auction houses and the ‘arts’ journalists who are their natural prey, though both have a lot to do with it. Booksellers and collectors alike, from the respectable West End houses to the shopless marchand amateur who ‘collects’ money rather than books, are galvanized by a new sense of excitement, not altogether healthy: it was just such excitement that fuelled the Kern sale in 1929 – read John Carter’s Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting for some wise words on that and its aftermath.

Perhaps the most novel of all the new features of the trade is the ‘leisure’ factor. If people have less time to browse in bookshops, they have more money to spend on subjects that interest them, whether books on their trade or profession, on the area where they live, on armchair travel, or the book beautiful, something to be admired aesthetically. It is significant that places like York that have (for good or ill) devoted themselves to tourism and the encouragement of leisure have sprouted bookshops. There is no sign of any waning in this enthusiasm, nor of book fairs or any of the other new phenomena that have given such a lift to the book trade. There is even hope that modern book production is emerging from the slough of the last two decades. More books are sewn instead of perfect bound, and the quality of paper is improving, if slowly.

So, as we enter the last decade of the century, it is hard to take a gloomy view of the book trade and book-collecting. Libraries may still have some way to go before they too benefit from these optimistic tendencies, but the growth of ‘Friends’ groups, a greater sense of community with other parts of the book world, is something to set against the general shortage of funds.

These words were partly written in Germany, where the old book trade is as prosperous as in this country and the U.S.A. We were part of an admirable tour arranged by the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie (another body that has grown and flourished over the last twenty-five years). We had visited a number of the public and private libraries of Franconia, culminating in a visit to the library of Dr Otto Schäfer, one of the great collectors of this or any other time. From the sublime to the ridiculous: returning via Frankfurt airport, we found the bookstall there advertised itself as ‘Moderne Antiquariat’. If old books, at least in posse (none were actually visible), can be found there, the future of the old book trade can hardly be in doubt.

But we end, as we began, with a death. Ted Dring of Quaritch’s has died, and with him has gone one of the longest links with the past, for he and his father between them spanned 113 years at the great firm.

Between them they saw it in its prime, through decline in the middle of the century to reach, now, a new pre-eminence in an increasingly international world. John Hayward and Ted Dring were, in their different ways, remarkable men, influential beyond the course of their daily lives. If we, looking forward to a next century, in some hope that the book collector too will find new prospects and new ways of engaging the interest of its readers, it is with the reassurance that men like these have thought it worth while to devote their lives to our world.