Thursday, December 31, 2015

Paramours of Print: Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett

As my very fine 2015 book collecting campaign comes to a close this New Year’s Eve and the champagne awaits, I’m taking a few moments to reflect on my latest acquisition —three Christopher Morley titles inscribed to Vincent Starrett.  Morley (1890-1957) and Starrett (1886-1974) were two of the most prominent biblio-writers of their time and still remain in the upper echelons of the pantheon.  The men were also close friends, Sherlock Holmes aficionados, book hunting partners, and drinking buddies.
Ex Libris Carissimis (1932) is the most important title for my biblio-collection.  These bookish essays were issued as a publication of the Rosenbach Fellowship in Bibliography.  The second title, Hasta la Vista, or, Postcard from Peru (1935), is an entertaining travelogue, and the last is Thorofare (1942), an under-appreciated late novel.  The three books reflect the diversity of Morley’s writings.  All retain their original dust jackets and have Starrett’s ownership signature in addition to the inscriptions.  As an added bonus, the books were later in the collection of pre-eminent Morley collector, Herman Abromson, with his bookplate in each.  Vincent Starrett specifically cites below that both Ex Libris Carissimis and Hasta la Vista were two of his favorite Morley titles.   
Christopher Morley. Ex Libris Carissimis "from his friend and fellow-paramour of print"
Starrett provides a magnificent, lengthy homage to Morley in his autobiography Born in a Bookshop, pp. 268-272He writes, in part, “Among the American men of letters whom I have known, Christopher Morley stands first.  I knew him longer and better than any other professional writing man of my acquaintance. . .  And I was drawn to him more warmly than to most others by the peculiar correspondence of our interests.  Whenever I am inspired to write a gay little piece of bibliofoolishness, or shout my appreciation of a forgotten story-classic, I always wonder if I am not repeating something already uttered by Morley. . .
            “I don’t remember when I first met Christopher Morley. . . I have no clear recollection of one particular time or place: the experience, as a memory picture, is a montage of jovial alarums and discursions, of wistful flashbacks and exhilarating close-ups, of 221B culture and three-star Hennessy.  We had been in correspondence for some years before we met.  I had reviewed his enchanting fable, Where the Blue Begins, for Llewellyn Jones when it was first published, and he had written to thank me for a notice that he found ‘graceful, generous, and perspicacious,’ that is to say, a notice highly favorable to the book.  Obviously this was a good beginning for a literary friendship, and that is really how it all began.
            “Ultimately, when he began to visit Chicago several times a year. . . we saw a great deal of each other and one us at least found the association stimulating. . .  Sometimes we just rambled about Old Loopy, his name for Chicago, sampling books and Bourbon here and there and talking torrents of nonsense; and if occasionally we missed a barroom we never missed a bookshop. . .  Suffice it to say that, whenever Christopher Morley came to Chicago, his friends had a lively time. . .
            “Morley’s services to me over the years were numerous and helpful.  He contributed entertainingly to several of my books and anthologies.  He compiled an index for Books Alive (1940) that was so amusing it had to be moved from the back of the book to the front. . .  My file of Morley letters is a bulky one; it is difficult to single out any one or two for special attention.  They are literary letters in the best sense, crowded with references to his reading, his thinking, his drinking, his wrestlings with the muse, his opinions of the nuisances who interrupt writers at their work; the sort of chit-chat and gossip that bookmen love to read in the letters of Lamb and Fitzgerald. . . .
            “I have several shelves of Morley’s books, of course, all suitably inscribed.  I don’t like them all equally well. . . On the whole, I think I like certain of his essays best, such essays as one finds in Ex Libris Carissimis, Hasta la Vista, Letters of Askance, and Streamlines, more especially those concerning Sherlock Holmes and days and nights in Baker Street.” 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Tasty New Classic: Rebecca Rego Barry's RARE BOOKS UNCOVERED

Rebecca Rego Barry’s Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places (2015) is one of the finest books about books ever written (and I’m not just saying that because one of my stories is featured within).  This book is a genre busting mix of Nicholas Basbanes style biblio-journalism, John Carter-esque  ABC of Book Collectors, Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers, and the irresistible details found in classic bookseller and collector accounts authored by the likes of A. Edward Newton, Charles Everitt, and David Randall.  Heady company.  I can think of no other book that is a better introduction to the culture of book collecting, nor one that so concisely captures the wide range of book hunting and the associated enthusiasm which enraptures the participants.  The book’s primary focus is on the adventures of fifty-two individuals.   But intertwined amongst their stories is a multi-layered view of book hunting that exemplifies the breadth of the field.
            Barry writes in the introduction, “The oldest [story] occurred in 1976, the latest in 2014.  This is not a historical review of literary discoveries, for that would take several volumes.  Instead, it is a collection of tales from living booksellers, collectors, librarians, and other seekers about their best find in a surprising place—‘best’ and ‘surprising’ being rather subjective terms.  I allowed for items with artistic, financial, or sentimental value found outside the ritzy galleries and major auction houses where rarities like this typically surface for sale.  That said, a handful of the items profiled within did indeed crop up at country auctions, in cluttered bookshops, and at book or paper fairs, not in themselves unusual places, but points were given for stories rich in serendipity and sleuthing.  And because rare and antiquarian books cohabitate with manuscripts and historical documents on collectors’ shelves and in dealers’ catalogs and showrooms, I welcomed them here too.”
I anticipated a good read—which it certainly is—but about a third of the way through the book I felt a growing sense of excitement akin to discovering a favorite dish for the first time.  Barry is a master chef seasoning the stories with information about the items, providing background and context, and she digs deep into a number of the controversial stories with first-hand interviews, revealing new facts, and shows a penchant for behind-the-scenes details (including prices paid) that are rarely encountered.  Some examples of this digging are her chapters on Eric Caren and the deaccessioning of New York Public Library material (Ch. 32) and the discovery of the Richard Greener papers (Ch. 43).
            While Barry is accomplishing this, she is also threading throughout her book tapestry the varied approaches taken by book hunters.  We see an insider’s glimpse at negotiating and reselling techniques used by scouts and dealers, the sometimes wily ways of determined collectors, and plenty of advice from advanced bibliophiles.  She even morphs into the aforementioned John Carter at times, defining book terms separately within the essays.  And did I mention enthusiasm? The passionate pursuit, the rush, the thrill of discovery--whether physical or factual—is amply represented here.  This critical element is often downplayed by those of too serious a bent, but in truth, it underlies every great bookish endeavor.  The whole eco-system of the wonderfully peculiar book world is revealed by Barry.
            No less an achievement is the accessibility of the book to a variety of readers. A general reader with a literary inclination will find it entertaining;  a book hunter who is frustrated that relatives, friends, or co-workers think him or her a bit nutty can offer this book in self-defense; a beginning collector will learn much in taste and technique and draw inspiration; and an advanced book hunter will enjoy not only the details involving current players in the field but also the armchair chance to step out of one’s focused circle of interest -- perhaps sparking new avenues of pursuit. 
            Do I have any quibbles with this newly minted classic?  Only a few and they don’t spoil the dish.  There is some repetitiveness that is naturally going to occur in a work compiling fifty-two stories within the same general theme.  The order of the stories occasionally appears haphazard but then again how does one group such an exercise?   One final quibble, mentioned because of my distinct focus on the books about books genre, is a wish that the selected reading list was meatier and not so random.  That, however, could be an easy fix for the next printing.  All these points pale in comparison to one major “Thank God” kudos – the inclusion of a detailed index that allows easy access to the book as a reference work.
Barry’s position as editor of Fine Books and Collections magazine has her fully immersed in the book hunting world on a grand scale.  If not a unique perch, it is certainly a rare vista, and we should all be grateful that she found the time and enthusiasm to write this book.  And patience, too, as I would guess dealing with all these book hunters and their stories must have been akin to the proverbial herding of cats.

Rebecca Rego Barry.  Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places.  Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2015.  Foreword by Nicholas A. Basbanes.  $25.

For anyone interested in further biblio-reading see my article, “Armchair Adventures: Ten Classic Accounts of American Book Collecting,“ in Fine Books & Collections, November / December 2007.  I highlight ten books to read and provide a brief essay on each.  The authors include Nicholas Basbanes, Edwin Wolf & John Fleming, Henry Stevens, David Randall, Wilmarth Lewis, Charles Everitt, Matthew Bruccoli, Lawrence Clark Powell, A. Edward Newton and Margaret Stillwell. Many other books are mentioned in the essays and the magazine put additional information from my article online.  The article is due for an update which I plan to publish on my blog early next year.