No book has elicited as much passion among our reviewers as Book Talk. While we were still trying to decide to whom, among many contenders, we should assign the review, two eminently qualified people sent in passionate commentaries. They offered informed and enthusiastic opinions, sometimes atonally disagreeing with each other. So we followed the book’s lead. An anthology of essays deserves an anthology of reviews. We present two opinions by reviewers from different fields. Rick Ring is a rare-book librarian and William Butts is a longtime antiquarian bookseller. Both are devoted collectors and bibliophiles. —Pasco Gasbarro, Book Review Editor
This predictably uneven anthology of eighteen essays will be attractive nonetheless to bibliophiles, who are almost always interested in anecdotes and booklore. Most of the essays originated as talks given under the sponsorship of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (hereafter FABS). The pleasing design and typography is unfortunately marred by rather slipshod editing—from simple spelling and punctuation mistakes to phrases that are repeated in a way that suggests the errors were introduced by the cut-and-paste function of a word-processing program.There are three excellent essays on very specific topics that seem out of place in this collection: curator Daniel De Simone’s article on late-fifteenth-century Italian woodcuts, collector Martin Greene’s description of Ernest Shackleton’s Aurora Australis, the first book printed in Antarctica, and Peter Koch’s essay on his philosophy as a fine printer. Jason Epstein, cofounder of the New York Review of Books and former editorial director of Random House, offers the obligatory essay on the future of the book—essentially a distillation of his Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (2001), which was timely when it came out, but is now rather stale. After spinning a few fantasies about book ATMs and the potentially profound impact of on-demand electronic distribution, he admits that e-book ventures thus far have been “disappointing,” and, with a verbal shrug, concludes “what the actual future holds is anyone’s guess.” Michigan bookseller Garrett Scott champions the collecting of “low spots,” or books everyone has forgotten, and makes a nice case for collecting the mass of books that have fallen through the cracks of literary canons. Tom Congalton of Between the Covers provides an engaging overview of how dealers have looked to various “messiahs” to save them (the Arabs, the Japanese, book fairs, Hollywood, the Internet), and concludes that, as ever, the trade will have to save itself by constantly shifting focus to satisfy new collectors. John Crichton (Brick Row Book Shop) uses his firm as a case study to view the development of the antiquarian book trade from 1915 to the present. Peter Kraus (Ursus Books), Ken Lopez, and Anthony Garnett offer similar articles on the state of the trade. Priscilla Juvelis reminisces about her apprenticeship with John Fleming, Dr. Rosenbach’s successor, and reveals how her own understanding of bibliomania—“the true nature of the illness”—did not crystallize until she began collecting and selling books about the woman’s struggle for place and voice in modern society. Collectors Paul Ruxin (Boswell and Johnson) and Arthur Schwarz (English history) offer meditations on their passion—the former muses on the future of collecting, and the latter talks about his enthusiastic growth from collector, to curator, to teacher of a rare-books course at New York University. Robert Jackson, one of the volume’s editors (he also wrote the preface) and a founder of FABS, contributes an important essay, which originated as a talk given at a special-collections symposium at the Library of Congress in 2001. He asks the question, “Will the book collector of today be the donor of tomorrow?” As a collector and a donor to special collections, Jackson’s remarks should make librarians sit up and take notice. He puts his finger on the sore, so to speak, by pointing to the largest problems facing special collections today: identity, funding, and a well-trained staff that can think outside the box. The librarians contribute an institutional perspective that is informative but did not inspire me. Bruce Whiteman, head librarian of the Clark Library at UCLA, offers an anecdotal reflection on that vexing term, “rarity,” the definition of which is a perennial challenge. Sam Streit (Brown University) and Geoff Smith (Ohio State University) emphasize potential new collecting paths for institutions and the importance of rediscovering unprocessed collections, respectively. Always the exception, Roger Stoddard, former senior rare-books curator at Harvard, delivers a rather opaquely erudite essay with the workman-like title “What Can a Librarian Do?” With this phrase Stoddard flings down a gauntlet to his successors in the field, and it is for us to take it up however we can. What a librarian can do, he suggests, is to “frustrate [read “challenge”] scholarship for a generation or more,” by acquiring and organizing the stuff—the materiel—of history. This dictum is aimed at librarians, but collectors and dealers can heed it as well, since we are all engaged in facets of the same work. Vision is the thing, and the more depth and breadth of vision we all employ in our collecting, the more our heirs will thank us. The real question is what can a bibliophile do? The great bookman Lawrence Clark Powell might have answered, “Collect with head, heart, and hands.”
Book Talk is an odd sort of book—enjoyable as a gathering of bookish essays, yet so eclectic that the overall effect is disjointed and splintered. The subjects are too broad and large to capture in eighteen essays, as much as I admire the editors for trying. Each one of these categories could easily occupy a hefty volume. But as problematic as is the sum, many of its parts have a lot going for them.Robert Jackson’s preface is provocative, even though he buys into some clichés. “Today’s dealers can no longer rely on one or two wealthy individuals for their livelihoods,” he writes. “Gone are the days when book dealing was the incidental pastime of a bored dilettante.” As endearing as I find that nostalgic image of genteel antiquarians doling out jaw-dropping rarities to stodgy Edwardian industrialists, the reality of antiquarian bookselling has long been far different. Only the tiniest fraction of booksellers has ever operated in this rarified world. At the risk of applying my own experience to dealers everywhere, I can honestly say that after nearly twenty years of full-time operation, I have yet to meet a bookseller who could be described as a “bored dilettante.” Despite my quibbles with the opening discussion of bookselling, the “Booksellers” section blows the rest of Book Talk out of the water. Tom Congalton’s “The Messiah Factor in Bookselling” is classic Congalton: witty, savvy, and perceptive. Switching from modern firsts to more traditional antiquarian books, John Crichton presents a different twist on the subject. Equally entertaining yet quite different in approach from Congalton, Crichton brings a scholarly, analytic, and less anecdotal style to the subject as viewed from his perch as the third owner of a nearly century-old, “successful, medium-size American rare-book firm.” In the face of the enormous changes of the past couple decades and the “mixed blessing” of the Internet, Brick Row’s business has evolved and adapted behind the scenes, though a candid indoor photograph of the Brick Row Book Shop in 1916 alongside a similar shot in 2005 startles. If not for the captions, you might easily assume these two pictures were taken only minutes apart. Other ABAA members contribute worthy chapters to Book Talk. Priscilla Juvelis’s “Adventures of a Bookseller” recounts her exciting early years with the ever-memorable John F. Fleming. The photo editor, however, seems to have used the wrong pictures as illustrations. Peter Kraus’s “Roxburghe to eBay: A Brief Survey of the Way Books Change Hands” is similar to the Congalton and Crichton essays, though his interpretation of the changing book market is filled with many idiosyncratic observations. (Readers should note that the captions for the two accompanying photographs are reversed.) Ken Lopez’s “Some Thoughts on the Maturing of the Rare Book Market” is a refreshingly clear and persuasive discussion of how today’s antiquarian book market operates. Librarian Bruce Whiteman’s essay, “Only Copy Known,” subtitled “Random Reflections on Rarity,” is a lucid discussion of this much-misunderstood concept. Rarity is a word so overused by so many that any book person who takes its meaning seriously and uses it sparingly will delight in this lighthearted and informative look at the word’s etymology and the various ways people employ it. Every collector should be either annoyed or amused by Whiteman’s painfully honest assessment that “We do not like to admit it, but rarity is to some extent a relative term, and it can be twisted when the point is to turn something common and unattractive into something desirable.” He describes the pitfalls of “the empirical theorem,” or basing conclusions on local knowledge: “I, who am a dealer in a single city in a certain country during a particular period of time, can extrapolate my own experience to a universal truth.” The examples he provides are as hilarious as they are outrageous. Ultimately, Book Talk is appealing and intriguing in theory, but it is too diffuse in focus. Some individual writers, however, will invigorate readers with their memorable contributions.