Thursday, September 12, 2013


English bookman John Carter came into my life in early 1990 and has made frequent appearances since.  Our initial introduction was inevitable…  I was a novice book collector eager for guidance when I stumbled across a reprint of his classic guide ABC for Book Collectors, standing fine in jacket on the shelves of a retail bookstore.   I purchased the book for full price-- a rare occurrence then and now.  Today, I hold the book in hand and I see my scattered annotations from that first reading.   The foundation was set.
John Carter
            Before I discuss the origins and publication of ABC for Book Collectors a brief outline of its author is in order.  John Carter (1906-1976), educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, became a bibliophile early on and found himself so keenly interested in the field he made a career of it.  He entered the rare book trade in 1927 with the London branch of Scribner’s New York.  The New York office would be in a few years overseen by notable American bookman, David Randall.  The two men formed a formidable duo.  Carter & Randall’s natural tastes ran to new paths in book collecting and bibliography.  They published, via Scribner’s, a number of innovative bookseller catalogues designed to promote untapped or nascent collecting areas such as Mysteries, Familiar Quotations, Modern First Editions, & Musical Firsts.  However, the rent must be paid and many classically expensive items were also sold with aplomb including a Gutenberg Bible.  Carter became managing director of the London office in 1945 and remained at Scribner’s until 1953. In 1956 Carter joined Sotheby’s auction house and was also a director of Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York.  His wide circle of associates lay at the heart of bookselling and book collecting of his era and included John Hayward, Graham Pollard, Michael Sadleir, and Percy Muir.

            Thankfully for posterity, Carter was also a writer—a writer whose finely-crafted prose and witty style has rarely been equaled in the books about books genre.  His most well-known work, besides ABC for Book Collectors, is An Enquiry into Certain Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets (1934), the investigation and exposure of notorious forger and bibliographer, Thomas J. Wise.  Carter and fellow bookman, Graham Pollard, laid the evidence out with understated brilliance.  This shocking expose by the two upstart bookmen would forever cement fame for young Carter throughout the rare book world.
            Carter in 1948 published a series of essays for the advanced bookman entitled Taste and Technique in Book Collecting. Praise was high but sales were modest because of the limited audience.  Carter saw an opportunity to create a book aimed at the beginning collector with potentially wider reach: an annotated dictionary of terms commonly used by bibliographers and dealers.   He tapped a select group of friends to help draw together a list of entries.  He announced, “I have undertaken to produce . . . an ABC FOR BOOK COLLECTORS.  This is intended as an annotated glossary for explaining to the novice collector or the layman, the variegated jargon used in the descriptions and notes in antiquarian booksellers’ catalogues.  Many of these terms are borrowed from bibliography, sometimes with special glosses or commercialized connotations.  Others are native to the book market.  The collector needs to be familiar with both.”
            Don Dickinson writes in his biography John Carter: Taste and Technique of a Bookman (2004): “Carter organized his dictionary in the manner of Henry W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, with definitions ranging from one or two lines to page-length articles.  Using another Fowler technique, Carter often included personal comments.  He explained the approach in the preface: ‘Although, as a professional, I can hardly be expected to avoid some bias, I have tried to be impartial in those matters where buyer and seller do not always see eye to eye.  It would be too much to hope that I have succeeded, in a book from which I have not attempted to exclude my own opinion.’   His opinions were generously spread throughout the book’s 190 pages.”
            Dickinson continues, “The book was deliberately titled ABC, instead of encyclopedia or glossary, because Carter wanted to imply a text for beginners.  His audience was to be made up of novices, would-be-collectors and that section of the literate public which takes an interest in our pursuit without necessarily wishing to share it.’”
            Negotiations over both format and royalties with publishers Rupert Hart-Davis in London and Alfred Knopf in New York were tedious.  They began in 1950.  No one expected a bestseller, but Carter had a tough time swallowing the modest terms of 10% royalty on copies sold.  The proposed two hundred entries swelled to over double that number in the final draft.  Knopf was not pleased with this, however, the usefulness of the work was apparent.  Knopf predicted a long and steady sale of copies but maintained reservations about making a profit.  The book was finally published in London and New York in September 1952.   It is still in print 63 years later – the best selling, longest running Books about Books title of all time.
First English edition
First US edition
           The reviews were universally good upon publication and remain so.  Mighty collectors, Michael Sadleir and Wilmarth Lewis, gave it strong praise.  Carter’s favorite remark was from eminent type-historian Stanley Morison who dryly remarked the book “ought to be a serviceable thing by the time it reached its fifth edition.”   Morison would have raised quite an eyebrow if alive today to see it currently in its eighth edition.
             The best review, though, was Carter’s own.  In September 1952, Edmond Segrave, editor of The Bookseller, commissioned a spoof review from Carter himself.  Carter approached his task with gusto and perhaps a couple of dry martinis.  He writes, in part:
 “The author of this book must be either a fool or a knave.  If he supposes that serious collectors are going to tolerate any man’s laying down the law and airing his views, to the tune of about 450 alphabetical entries, on book-collecting, bibliography, taste, technique, tactics, the auction room, printing, binding, paper-making, illustration, publishing history and a dozen other associated subjects, then he clearly knows very little about bibliomania, which breeds doctrinaires as opinionated and contentious as can be found in any walk of life.
“If, on the other hand, he has conceived the base notion that beginners are humble enough to believe any claptrap about the bibliophile mystery that they read in print, just because an otherwise reputable publisher has been bamboozled into undertaking a book like this, then he is a cynical ruffian: far more of a menace than the issue-mongers, mint-condition fetishists, point-maniacs, and other strange fry whom he holds up to disapproval . . .
“Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a great many people will buy this book: for a number of reasons, mostly discreditable.  Antiquarian booksellers, of course, will buy it to foist on their unsuspecting customers as propaganda.  People interested in outlandish cults and esoteric rituals will buy it out of curiosity.  People wanting a Christmas present for an uncle who is ‘a great reader’ will succumb to the fallacy that book-collecting is connected in some way with literature, and the old boy won’t like to send it back.  People who hate book-collecting and despise collectors will buy it out of malice, as ammunition for ridiculing their bibliophile friends and catching them out on some technical point.
“Novice book-collectors (the poor, credulous creatures) will fall on it with grateful cries, in thousands, under the fond impression that here, at last, is someone able and willing to tell them in plain language the meaning of all those weird terms which clutter up booksellers’ and auctioneers’ catalogues; to explain why books constantly described as rare sometimes seem so common, or why there is all this fuss about original boards; to elucidate the hundred and one other taboos and conventions which lend spice to their pursuit.
“Finally, the experienced collector will buy it—not, of course, because he expects to find anything useful or informative in it, but on the contrary because he happily (and quite correctly) assumes that it will be full of idiotic mistakes which he will then be able to impale, with a withering comment, on a postcard to the author.”
I’ve been fortunate over the years to find a number of interesting association copies of ABC for Book Collectors.  The inspiration for this essay stemmed from a recent magnificent acquisition.  It is the very copy inscribed by Carter to his biblio-cohort, Graham Pollard, co-author of the classic An Enquiry among other works together.  Pollard is cited by Carter in the acknowledgements as being one of the chosen to “scrutinize and correct the whole work in draft.”   The two men remained life-long friends and worked on projects together for over forty years.  Carter was able to personally award Pollard in 1969 the Bibliographical Society’s Gold Medal in honor of his bibliographical achievements.  The citation, read by Carter at the ceremony, says in part: “In presenting to you Mr. Graham Pollard, I take a more than special satisfaction; it is indeed a sensation so intimate as to be almost incestuous.  For in half a dozen of his minor published works my own name is joined with his on the title-page. . .  despite a certain procrastination in recent years (known to our publisher as ‘Pollard’s pace’), no collaboration. . . can ever have been more harmonious; nor, I think, has any co-author been more comfortably conscious of his debts than I am.”

Another important copy in my collection is humorously inscribed to Sir Sydney Cockerell utilizing bibliographic abbreviations found in the ABC.  Cockerell (1867-1962) was an eminent bibliographer, collector, and Director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.  In an 1897 notice in the Athenaeum-- long before Carter was born--Cockerell and colleague F.S. Ellis were the first to question the authenticity of a number of Thomas J. Wise forgeries in print.  Both men served as the executors of the William Morris estate and several suspicious Morris reprints had come to their attention.  Cockerell would be directly involved with Carter over 50 years later in 1951 when Cockerell acted as an intermediary for the owners of a Gutenberg Bible.  The bible had been purchased in the eighteenth century by Sir George Shuckburgh and passed down through several generations of his family.  Cockerell delivered the book to Carter and Randall in New York.  They eventually sold the gem to Arthur Houghton, Jr.

I also have a first American edition inscribed to Frederick B. Adams, Jr. “from his old friend the author, with considerable diffidence.”  Adams (1910-2001), collector, bookman, and eventual director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, became friends with Carter in the early 1930s while he was an editor of The Colophon: A Book Collectors’ Quarterly.  Many of Carter’s earliest essays appeared in its pages.  Shortly after the publication of ABC for Book Collectors Carter reached out to Adams for advice on taking a job at Sotheby’s. Carter would accept the Sotheby’s job and became the London consultant for the Morgan Library.  Adams would also sponsor Carter for membership in the Grolier Club.  Dickinson provides details in his Carter biography and writes, “Carter sent Adams hundreds of notes on books, manuscripts, drawings, and painting he felt might fit the library’s needs. . . The two men were close friends, shared many professional interests, and saw each other socially as well as at meetings of various bibliographic societies.”

Carter until his death in 1976 oversaw five editions of the ABC for Book Collectors, each revised and updated as necessary, with the fifth edition being published in 1972.  After numerous reprints of the fifth edition a sixth edition appeared in 1980 edited by Nicolas Barker incorporating Carter’s last changes and his own revisions.  Barker, well-known bookman and editor of The Book Collector, was mentored by Carter.  Barker edited two further editions to keep them current: a seventh edition in 1995 and the eighth edition in 2006.  Bob Fleck of Oak Knoll Books, New Castle, Delaware, has published these last three editions.   He deserves kudos for recognizing the value of the work and keeping it in print for the last twenty years.   It remains a steady seller.
And yet I return to the 1952 first edition, the wellspring, for pleasurable reading on occasion.  It provides the closest link to Carter’s unexpectedly long-lived burst of biblio-creativity.  Whether my recent purchase be deemed CURIOUS, ESTEEMED, or perhaps, EXCESSIVELY rare, Carter spells out the nuances and foibles.  And if that purchase be an ASSOCIATION COPY, more the better! 

Further reading:  The latest edition of Carter’s ABC and Donald Dickinson’s full-length biography John Carter: Taste and Technique of a Bookman (2004) can be procured, mint in jacket, from the publisher, Oak Knoll Books 


  1. This made for very enjoyable reading. It was also delightful to see the inscribed copies. My first (and thus far only)Carter signed/inscribed copy was a very recent purchase. Luckily, it turned out to be an association copy as well, to Major J.R.Abbey. Carter inscribed: "For Jack Abbey, a small tit for a large tat. from John Carter.
    20 Nov'56". While I admire Carter's writing, another Biblio-Boy whose writing I like even more is A.N.L Munby -especially his collection, "Essays and Papers". Kings College recently held a centenary conference to celebrate Tim Munby. He's quoted often, this one of course being the most familiar: “Book collecting is a full-time occupation, and one wouldn't get far if one took time off for frivolities like reading.”

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. The inscribed Carter to Abbey is nice. Munby is also one of my favorites. Although my main collecting focus is American material, I like to read it all, and I succumb more than I should to UK association items....