Tuesday, December 4, 2012

C. F. Russell: The Occultist as Book Collector

Cecil F. Russell, 1897-1987

Sometimes you stumble across a book that has all the elements of biblio-intrigue: rare, relatively unknown, interesting text, and surprising author.  Such was the following I picked up on Ebay recently.

C[ecil]. F[rederick]. Russell.  PROVENANCE. Los Angeles: The Bookhaven Press, 1944. [2] xi 95 [3] p. 8vo. Blue cloth, front cover and spine stamped in yellow, dust jacket.  Limitation: 50 copies.  Notes:  A vanity press publication by the author.  “First Edition, First Issue, 50 copies” on title verso.  WorldCat also records a “First Edition, Second Issue, 50 copies” with the same pagination. 

Cecil. F. Russell (1897-1987), one-time follower of Aleister Crowley and founder of his own splinter sect devoted to the philosophy of Thelema, published mainly pseudo-spiritual works.  Information can be found here (http://cfrussell.homestead.com/files/intro.htm) and elsewhere on the net.
However, there is little mentioned of his book collecting and it is readily apparent from this work that he was also a dedicated bibliophile.  Provenance is a guide to book collecting and overview of Russell’s library showing a taste for association copies and his ability to connect seemingly disparate titles / authors.  An introductory leaf  states: “For experienced bookmen only, not for sale.”
Russell’s unusual background makes for perhaps the most uniquely written preface in the books about books field.  He says, in part, “Whoever collects books, either as a whole or as a part-time job, soon assumes a peculiar form of personality easily recognized by the initiate as that of the book-collector.  Primarily such is one who loves books, but this to speak  with utmost generality, for the motivation, mediate & immediate, wears a myriad masks, some fascinating & others horrifying.  But the extremist is not the best example of any cult. . . What I wish to emphasize is that book-collecting can be an art & that there is a science of this art.  In this book you will find the result of some practice of this art. . .       this book will establish contact with your other books; together they will, assisted by unseen forces, attract not merely books but what will in many ways alter your life & future in the grand manner. . .  Approach each new book positively, fortified with thought, feeling & volition of your own invention.  Peer deeply into the roots of every phenomenon so that you may interpret it as a particular dealing of God with your soul.  Seize the imponderable that has solidified.  See that which can be found in all books because it was first conceived in the hearts of humanity & then by free expression given correct form by all the eight & ninety rules of art.  Thus speaks the humble author to the gentle reader, enigmatically, perhaps, but your own soul in a mysterious manner will make its own reply to mine, for we dwell under the same spell, our blood is signed with the same absolutely specific blazon.”
                After this build-up the author spends the rest of the book recording the acquisition of a couple hundred collectible books over a few months from local Los Angeles dealers and bookstores.  Many of the acquisitions are books about books, literary items, and Americana.  One book literally leads to another and Russell’s notes highlight the provenance of copies—a number are from the libraries of A. Edward Newton and Eugene Field, for example—as well as stories about the booksellers and the book themselves. He takes a brief bypath and includes a list of thirty-four alcoholic spirits bought for his liquor cabinet during his book spree.  Another section provides an overview of his entire library holdings including occult works, mathematical treatises, literature, and bibliography.  (He describes his copy of Rosenbach’s Unpublishable Memoirs inscribed to A. Edward Newton!)   Interspersed throughout all this is some well-seasoned collecting advice.  Although the book did not alter my life and future in a grand manner as promised, I enjoyed this creative biblio-romp and found a particular passage right on the money, so to speak:  “Books are profitable financially, first of all, to the professional book dealer.  Unless you intend fully to become such, keep the money idea subordinate.  Maintain the viewpoint of the collector & you can still be a good business-man.  The book’s the thing; get it for its own sake, without too much haggling.  Know what you want & why; have the courage of your own conviction; profit by experience.  Stay young; be romantic, adventurous, look for surprises; cultivate the capacity for wonder; enjoy the game; keep your sense of humor & don’t take yourself too seriously.”


  1. Well written and most enjoyable, Mr. Zimmerman. I like when you say biblio-romp. Makes me giggle. I think the last would be well applied to all..."Stay young; be romantic, adventurous, look for surprises; cultivate the capacity for wonder; enjoy the game; keep your sense of humor & don’t take yourself too seriously.”


  2. Great piece about a little known book. Thanks for sharing this.