Wednesday, January 8, 2014

“Sparks to the Dry Tinder in the Mind” -- A. Edward Newton’s The Amenities of Book-Collecting

Few collectors have ridden the book collecting hobby harder or with more enthusiasm than A[lfred]. Edward Newton (1864-1940).  Indeed, none have been able to infuse into others a virulent contagion for the grand sport like Newton did through his writings.  Even now, almost 100 years later, his wide-ranging biblio-essays continue to provide inspiration and entertainment.  His first and most famous contribution to bibliophilic literature was The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections (1918).  This diverse collection of essays reflects Newton as a man and as a collector.  The book would go through eight printings in his lifetime and be honored with a separate edition in the Modern Library series.

            Newton, a self-made Philadelphia businessman with no formal higher education, started humbly enough working for others until he began his own stationary and fancy goods store.  It eventually employed over 100 people.  He regularly wrote ad copy for his businesses which helped sharpen his writing skills. Newton took a gamble and bought into the financially troubled Cutter Company, the first producer of the push button switch and the ITE Circuit Breaker.  The venture paid off handsomely and eventually brought him comfortable wealth—not Croesus level financing like some of the mighty collectors of his day such as Henry Huntington and Pierpont Morgan—but enough to indulge his book collecting with relish.
            He recalls in The Amenities his earliest collecting experiences, “My first purchase was a Bohn edition of Pope’s Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey in two volumes—not a bad start for a boy; and under my youthful signature, with a fine flourish, is the date, 1882.”  The young Newton was influenced by Ferdinand J. Dreer of Philadelphia “who formed a priceless collection of autographs, which at his death he bequeathed to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  Mr. Dreer was a collector of the old school.  He was a friend of John Allan, one of the earliest book-collectors in this country. . . Mr. Dreer spent the leisure of years and a small fortune in inlaying plates and pages of texts of such books as he fancied.  I remember well as a lad being allowed to pore over his sumptuous extra-illustrated books, filled with autograph letters, portraits, and views, for hours at a time.”
            Newton in his mature years was not overly fond of extra-illustrated volumes but the collecting seed had been sown.  His natural inclination was toward literature—specifically English literature and most enthusiastically for Dr. Samuel Johnson and his circle.  He writes, “In 1884 I went to London for the first time, and there I fell under the lure of Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb. After that, the deluge! . . . My love for book-collecting and my love for London have gone hand in hand.  From the first, London with its wealth of literary and historic interest has held me; there has never been a time, not even on that gloomy December day twenty years ago, when, with injuries subsequently diagnosed as a ‘compound comminuted tibia and fibula,’ I was picked out of an overturned cab and taken to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for repairs, that I could not say with Boswell, ‘There is a city called London for which I have as violent affection as the most romantic lover ever had for his mistress.’”
            Newton’s primary bookplate quotes Boswell, “Sir, the biographical part of literature is what I love most” and he writes in The Amenities, “A man (or woman) is the most interesting thing in the world; and next is a book, which enables one to get at the heart of the mystery.”  This philosophy was fundamental in his approach to collecting. “My secret is out.  I collect, as I can, human-interest books—books with a provenance, as they are called . . .  In recent years, presentation, or association, books have become the rage, and the reason is plain.  Everyone is unique, though some are uniquer than others.  My advice to anyone who may be tempted by some volume with an inscription of the author on its flyleaf or title-page is, ‘Yield with coy submission’—and at once.  While such books make frightful inroads on one’s bank account, I have regretted only my economies, never my extravagances.” 
            These extravagances began to multiply and Newton eventually felt the urge to share his collecting adventures.  He records in The Amenities, “It was while I was poking about among the old book-shops that it occurred to me to write a little story about my books—when and where I had bought them, the prices I had paid, and the men I had bought them from, many of whom I knew well; and so, when my holiday was done, I lived over again its pleasant associations in writing a paper that I called ‘Book-Collecting Abroad.’  Subsequently I wrote another,--‘Book-Collecting at Home,’—it being my purpose to print these papers in a little volume to be called ‘The Amenities of Book-Collecting.’  I intended this for distribution among my friends, who are very patient with me; and I sent my manuscript to a printer in the closing days of July, 1914.  A few days later something happened in Europe [beginning of WWI], the end of which is not yet and we all became panic-stricken.  For a moment it seemed unlikely that one would care ever to open a book again.  Acting upon impulse, I withdrew the order from my printer, put my manuscript aside, and devoted myself to my usual task—that of making a living.”
            “It had frequently been suggested by friends that my papers be published in the ‘Atlantic.’  What grudge they bore this excellent magazine I do not know, but they always said the ‘Atlantic’; and so one day I came across my manuscript, it occurred to me that it would cost only a few cents to lay it before the editor.  At that time I did not know the editor of the ‘Atlantic’ even by name.  My pleasure then can be imagined when, a week or so later, I received the following letter:   
“Oct. 30, 1914.  Dear Mr. Newton, The enthusiasm of your pleasant paper is contagious, and I find myself in odd moments looking at the gaps in my own library with a feeling of dismay.  I believe that very many readers of the ‘Atlantic’ will feel as I do, and it gives me great pleasure to accept your paper.  Yours sincerely, Ellery Sedgwick.”
“Shortly afterward, a check for a substantial sum fluttered down upon my desk, and it was impossible that I should not remember how much Milton had received for his ‘Paradise Lost,’—the receipt for which is in the British Museum,--and draw conclusions therefrom entirely satisfactory to my self-esteem.  My paper was published, and the magazine, having a hardy constitution, survived; I even received some praise.  There was nothing important enough to justify criticism, and as a result of this chance publication I made a number of delightful acquaintances among readers and collectors, many of whom I might almost call friends although we have never met.”
            And A. Edward Newton was off and riding.  The Atlantic Monthly Press eventually gathered thirteen essays including “Book-Collecting Abroad,” and “Book Collecting at Home,” and published in November 1918 The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections.   Newton explains in the introduction that the book was not “written by a scholar for the scholar,” but rather “My book is written for the ‘tired business man’ (there are a goodly number of us), who flatters himself that he is fond of reading.”  This accessible approach spiked with humor and personal stories resonated with contemporary readers and continue to do so today. 
The first printing of 4,000 copies sold quickly and a second printing of 5,000 copies followed soon after in March 1919:  the continued popularity of the book through the 1920s and 30s necessitating eight total printings totaling some 25,000 copies.  The book was also reprinted in the 1960s.  Used copies still abound for the current reader.
Rare prospectus for the first edition
The first third of The Amenities comprises his two original essays cited above along with “Old Catalogues and New Prices,” and “’Association’ Books and First Editions.”  These four chapters sparkle with book hunting stories, collecting witticisms and advice, as well as accounts of Newton’s relationships with prominent dealers and collectors--now a glimpse into one of the great book collecting periods.  Six additional chapters focus on various historical personalities, many related to Dr. Johnson and Boswell, and draw upon books and letters in Newton’s collection.  Two more chapters, “A Great Victorian,” on Anthony Trollope, and “Oscar Wilde,” are remarkably prescient essays championing the genius of two then-neglected writers.  Newton’s literary evaluation of Wilde, separating his personal downfall from his work, is uncommonly impressive, especially given the age’s general condemnation of homosexuality and the still contemporary nature of Wilde’s troubles.  Newton shows himself to be open-minded and not afraid to tackle a controversial subject when literature was involved.  He finishes the book with a fine chapter memorializing his young friend, Harry Widener (1885-1912), destined to be a great book collector, who was unfortunate enough to accompany his family on a return trip from England aboard the Titanic.  Widener’s mother survived and built the Widener Library at Harvard to house Harry’s already impressive collection and to honor his memory.  The Amenities is heavily illustrated throughout with pertinent examples from Newton’s library that combine text and image into a cohesive whole.
The success of The Amenities made Newton a celebrity in the book world.  He played the role to the hilt, his outsized personality punctuated by his trademark checkered suits and red bow ties.  He corresponded with collectors, dealers, and book lovers--famous and obscure—apparently finding time to compose a letter or note to all.  He also wittily inscribed his books in abundance.  He gave innumerable talks on books to various organizations. No one had more fun book collecting than Newton.
Over the next fifteen years he published four additional collections of biblio-essays mined from the same vein: A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book Collector (1921), The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers (1925), This Book-Collecting Game (1928), and End Papers: Literary Recreations (1933).  He also wrote a play, a travel book, and many other miscellaneous jottings.
My recent re-reading of The Amenities confirmed my first impression from years ago—I liked the man when I was done and felt through his writings the transfer of enthusiasm for book collecting.  My library currently contains fourteen examples of The Amenities, spanning the dedication copy inscribed to his wife, the copy inscribed to the publisher, to the copy of Eleanor Roosevelt.  One favorite belonged to Clifton Waller Barrett (1901-1991), pre-eminent collector of American literature whose collection is now at the University of Virginia. Barrett wrote in 1950, “The insidious works of A. Edward Newton. . . are like sparks to the dry tinder in the mind of the budding bibliophile.”
            Newton would have certainly enjoyed Barrett’s description of his influence on beginning collectors.  For Newton writes in The Amenities, “We collectors strive to make converts; we want others to enjoy what we enjoy; and I may as well confess that the envy shown by our fellow collectors when we display our treasures is not annoying to us.  But, speaking generally, we are a bearable lot, our hobbies are usually harmless, and if we loathe the subject of automobiles, and especially discussions relative to parts thereof, we try to show an intelligent interest in another’s hobby, even if it happen to be a collection of postage-stamps.  Our own hobby maybe, probably is, ridiculous to someone else, but in all the wide range of human interest, from post-stamps to paintings,--the sport of the millionaire,--there is nothing that begins so easily and takes us so far as the collecting of books.”
            Amen, Mr. Newton.

Bibliographic Notes on the First Edition:

The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1918.  xxi 355 [1] p. Colored frontis, plates, text illus.  8vo. Quarter cloth and boards, paper spine label, dust jacket.

Tipped-in errata slip often found at page 268.  The slip refers to Newton mistakenly locating in the text his hotel in Piccadilly instead of Pall Mall.  Examples without the errata slip and error uncorrected are also common.  However, the errata slip was present in the earliest copies (ie. in my collection his daughter’s copy and the copy inscribed to the publisher both contain the slip.)   See the variety of examples with and without slip in Robert Fleck’s bibliography A. Edward Newton: A Collection of His Works.  [New Castle, DE]: Oak Knoll Books, Catalogue 86, 1986. 

The second printing as noted by Fleck corrected the error and reads instead “Pall Mall.”  But as is frequent in bibliography all is not cut and dried.  I possess an unrecorded variant of the first printing with the error on p. 268 corrected and the slip present.  The copy is in the second issue dust jacket  (see below).   This variant is apparently scarce—I have not encountered another.

The first printing has two issues (states?) of the dust jacket.  The first issue has no printing on front or back panels, only the title and author on the spine of the jacket.  The second issue jacket contains a publisher’s blurb for the book on the front cover.  Copies in jacket are now uncommon.  Copies in the second issue jacket are in my experience more difficult to find.
Second issue jacket with publisher's blurb
 The second printing of The Amenities adds an index and the dust jacket, when found, clearly states “Second Large Edition.”

The first British edition, published in 1920 by John Lane, the Bodley Head, London, was bound from sheets of the second printing of the American edition.  Fleck records two binding variants:  one with pages uncut except for top edge, the other with all edges trimmed.  Copies in jacket are rare.  I know of only two, one being illustrated below from an example in my collection.
Jacket for the first English edition


  1. You can read it online until you pick up a copy. Here's one version in color.

    James D. Keeline

  2. Also in various formats at -

  3. Great article, and I love the bibliographic note.