Sunday, November 6, 2022

Extreme Book Collecting

Sir Thomas Phillipps' idea of a family photo

Extremism is trending nowadays -- weather, politics, sports, food portions.  Even travel, an area with a historically wide latitude for adventure, is trending extreme.  At least it appears so on those ubiquitous, addictive YouTube videos where an armchair traveler may lose themselves for hours.  I’m readying for an actual trip to Colorado, real mountains, breath-taking vistas, cascading waters, and a modest bit of hiking and jeeping.  But do I want to hang precariously over a plunging precipice, my life attached to a thin cable as I dangle in the air like a circus performer, my well-paid guide, conditioned as an Olympian, encouraging me, his (or her) can-do attitude quickly wearing thin like my cheap pair of hiking boots?  Do I need this kind of adrenaline rush / confidence boost?  You can guess the answer.   For I’m a book collector and the betting odds find me seated at a craft brewery simply enjoying the mountain air, thumbing through an old-school travel guide, and admittedly googling to see if there are any bookstores close by.
            Yet is book collecting really a staid and pleasant past-time, intellectually rewarding, but free of extremes compared to the whirl of the world we live in today?  I have a one-word answer to the uninitiated – bibliomania.  Physical demise may not be at stake, but in any other form book collecting ranks high on the extremism scale.

Monday, October 24, 2022

American Book Collecting Blog Anniversary: 2011-2022 and Still Bookin’


My American Book Collecting blog celebrates its eleventh anniversary on October 24.  I almost missed it, but unlike a wedding anniversary, there would have been no harm, no foul.  However, I just received two emails only a day apart that referenced my August 23, 2014 post on American literature collector extraordinaire Stephen H. Wakeman (1859-1924).  This was certainly unusual, but also reminded me just how long I’ve been serving up essays to those who enjoy such a meal.  I began my blog on October 24, 2011 with a welcoming post that spelled out my plans:

This blog is dedicated to the history of American book collecting.  Private book collectors will be a primary focus.  However, there are many other kinds of book hunters who will receive attention such as dealers, rare book librarians, bibliographers, writers, and auctioneers.

My main interest is in the biographical side of book collecting.  The bookplate motto of famous collector A. Edward Newton exemplifies the spirit of it, "Sir, the biographical part of literature is what I love most."   Stories of association copies, letters, manuscripts, and photographs are going to be added in abundance.  Images will amplify the stories.  This is a forum serious in nature but not blogged down in detailed collations, bibliographic minutia, or dry lists.  All material is from my own collection unless otherwise noted.  Please read, comment, and share.   Amor librorum nos unit!

I’m pleased that I’ve stayed mostly on point with my original intentions.  There has been ebb and flow with the number posts over the years (now at 90 with this one), as I set no firm goal per annum.  But I decided early on to make most of them meaty—essays that could stand alone, not just tidbits or tantalizing appetizers one sees with many blogs.  This decision played out well when several of them formed the backbone of my first book Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades (2021).  It is doubtful without my blog writing that my tome would have come to fruition.
            In terms of attendance, I must say I have been surprised at the reach of the readership.  Spreading the gospel of book collecting has also been a goal of mine.  So, looking at the numbers, not as an author, but as a proselytizer, I see as of today there have been 475,247 views of my eighty-nine previous posts.   My most read essay according to the blogger analytics is “Peter B. Howard: Serendipitous Bookman” (Nov. 29, 2011) with 9,381 views.  Many other posts have surpassed 5,000 views and counting.  These exact figures are not as important as the realization that a substantial number of readers are interested in the history and adventure of rare book collecting / hunting.   This is exciting and motivates me to keep writing; a virtual tip jar of sorts.
            My posts have ignited hundreds of interactions over eleven years, typically via email, on all sorts of bookish subjects.  Usually it is an inquiry, comment, or amplification related to what I’ve written.   The expansion of my circle of books friends has been wonderous and gratifying.  And as icing on the proverbial cake, it sometimes leads to new acquisitions!  I recall one memorable occasion when a descendant of Vincent Starrett, who had read my post about her illustrious ancestor, sold me a number of Starrett’s books inscribed to his brother, most notably the famous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Unique Hamlet (1920).
            This brings me back to those latest emails about my post on famed collector Stephen Wakeman.  A dealer had acquired a couple of nice literary gems with Wakeman’s bookplate.  He discovered my essay doing research and had further questions.  The very next day, I received an email from a collector, hitherto unknown to me, saying he had just acquired books from Wakeman’s library and asking a different set of questions!  I was bemused and replied he must have just purchased said books from a certain dealer.  The answer was a surprised affirmative, and all three of us—writer, dealer, and collector—got a good biblio-chuckle over the whole thing.
            I anticipate with relish what future bookish happenings await me.   And I have some essays brewing to get us through the winter.
            Thanks to all who have read and supported my blog over the years.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Portrait of The HRC Director Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022)

Thomas F. Staley, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Lean, hesitant Kurt Zimmerman came from the hallway that led to director Thomas F. Staley’s office. His bright white shorts and flip flops matched uneasily with a buttoned, brilliant blue shirt; for he was young, only twenty-two.
            “Hello. Come in, Kurt,” Staley summoned, springing forth from his chair. He robustly rounded his desk, dapper in appearance, fully outfitted with jacket and tie, hand extended for a firm shake.  He projected larger in appearance than actual size.
            “How are you?  How do you enjoy being at the Ransom Center?” he said quickly, for he always spoke quickly, as I was to learn.
            “I like it a lot.  I’m volunteering with Frank Yezer, and I just made some preservation boxes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism albums. . . “
            “Yes, Doyle, interesting.  Lot more to him than Sherlock Holmes.  So, you like working with Frank Yezer?  He has good things to say about you. Recommended you for this internship.  I reviewed your application.  Do you know the idea behind the internship?”
            “I haven’t . . . “
            He patted me on the back and motioned for me to be seated.  I almost lost a flip flop in my haste to settle.  He resumed his director position behind the desk.  Most of his office was devoted to his collection of James Joyce, one wall of glass front bookcases housing rarities and another wall of shelves overflowing with virtually every secondary item ever written on Joyce and his contemporaries.  I was intrigued.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Clubbing with the Book Fellows

The Book Fellows Bookplate

I haven’t done this much clubbing since college.  But that is a far different story involving an energetic redhead, the thumping bass of dance music, and my free-form dancing skills that generated much laughter.  Thankfully, no videos exist.  But I digress.  My recent excursion into the history of the Quarto Club of the 1920s-30s involved no such risk of injury or embarrassment.  It was a pleasurable way to resurrect a nearly forgotten group of dedicated bibliophiles.  But just as in those memorable college days, one clubbing experience was rarely enough and I was left wanting more.  I pushed back further in time in my research, still New York City, but now the early 1880s.  I recalled a book first spotted online years earlier, its importance not realized at the time. And thank the book gods it was still available! 
            I have on my desk now Frederick Locker’s London Lyrics (NY: 1883) the first publication of The Book Fellows’ Club (est. 1881), a tiny but influential wellspring that served as the genesis of the Grolier Club of New York, founded in 1884.  Their club consisted of but three official members: the founder, Valentin[e] Blacque, and two biblio-friends William Loring Andrews and Alphonse Duprat.  Their history is fragmentary and scattered, but not lost.  They left us two imprints and a story. 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Quarto Club: “A Few Harmless Bibliomaniacs”

Certainly, cigars and pipes after.
 But first a meal of better fare, then adjourn to the private library.  Oh yes, and drinks, pick your fashion.  But overwhelmingly books, a few brought for show, but the focus on talk—lively talk – nothing perfunctory or mundane, for these bibliophiles are most comfortable in the details, the aura of the book itself bringing whatever one’s pleasure.  It is New York City, ca. 1926, and outside the world is roaring but within it is timeless, the same for the first bookmen long ago and the same now when I gather with my fellow bibliophiles.   Today we admit all races, genders, and creeds, but the fundamentals unite us.
            This is a gathering of the Quarto Club, established in New York City by a small group of  bibliophiles headed by lawyer Mark G. Holstein (1873-1952) who serves as president.  You may recall meeting him recently in my essay “Three Ardent Bibliophiles and the Greatest Book in the World.”   He owned the copy now in my library of The Greatest Book in the World (1925), inscribed to him by the author A. Edward Newton, with a carbon of his cheeky reply to Newton tipped in (Newton had humorously disparaged lawyers.)
            A biographical note on Holstein in The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly begins, “Mark Holstein is president of the Quarto Club.”  The club’s name is vaguely familiar to me.  I research, and although I discover little secondary information about the club, I find three published volumes of papers (1927-1930) originally read by members at monthly club meetings.  The club’s effort to preserve them in book form saved the Quarto Club from almost certain historical oblivion.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Three Ardent Bibliophiles and The Greatest Book in the World

I am re-reading A. Edward Newton’s The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers (1925) and the ghosts of bookmen past envelop me.  Not only from the text of Newton’s biblio-essays, but also from the copy itself—held gently, read closely, and treasured by three ardent bibliophiles, each with their bookplate on the front free endpaper and their scattered jottings crowding the rear pastedown.  I see in the morning light the mild soiling on the tan boards from their hands and fingers – bookish fingerprints.  The front hinge is cracked but sturdy.  Newton has added a humorous inscription to the first owner.  A carbon letter of the owner’s reply to Newton is attached to the front free endpaper by a dainty paperclip.  Tis’ a well-loved copy – a copy that affected me emotionally when I catalogued it, surprising me in that respect for I have many association copies and this would not rank among the greats in an analytical sense.  But then a yearning to tell the book’s story.  So let us begin.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Love and Pursuit of Books Unites Us


It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it?  That the free-ranging, capitalistic mind, linchpin of our economy, pauses for a moment and rises to a larger cause.  In this case, my book collection.  Booksellers and book collectors share a symbiotic relationship.  We are bound together with ecstatic moments and occasional torment, in the best of cases a fulfilling long-term union develops between us, in rare instances, an acrimonious separation.
            Most professional rare booksellers I’ve met tune in quickly to a serious collector’s interests.  I collect material about rare booksellers themselves, past and present, so this uncommon bypath usually is met with surprise and curiosity by those currently active in the trade.  It is not often a bookseller gets a request for their own material – previous catalogues, perhaps a bibliography written by them, an essay contributed to a journal, and so on.  I love this kind of stuff, and once we get through an awkward courtship period (“You really want my first catalogue, inscribed?”) they often become enthusiastic supporters of my collection.  And this is a good thing, for rare booksellers are always on the hunt.
            I’ve acquired many items through the kindness and thoughtfulness of the rare booksellers.  I don’t see enough of these two traits mentioned in print.  It’s not always a merchant mentality of buy low / sell high.  Placement of an item in the right home is a priority to many booksellers.  Two of my recent acquisitions are good examples.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Trafficking, Fossicking, and Noodling in Old Books: The Partaking of Biblio-Pleasures

Bookseller and writer Anthony Marshall where art thou, kindred spirit?  I recently discovered your two books by chance in an Austin, Texas used bookstore – Trafficking in Old Books (1998) and Fossicking in Old Books (2004), far from their place of publication in Australia.  There may be copies in abundance in Australia, but they are pretty scarce here—my excuse for overlooking them these many years.  And what an oversight!  Your adventures running an antiquarian / used bookstore in Melbourne and ancillary essays are among the damndest, bestest, funniest biblio-writings I’ve encountered.  Your prose enlightens and surprises: creative skills meeting a worthy subject.  I must simply salute you.
            But I’m just late to the party.  Some sleuthing revealed you received accolades upon publication (and just as importantly, brisk sales) primarily in Australia and the UK, but also a foray into the US where you did a few books signings.  Both books sold in the thousands of copies, not an easy achievement.  (You record a sold-out print run of 5,000 copies for the self-published Trafficking in Old Books.)  You even had a fan base and book signings in Tasmania!  Admittedly, that was much closer to your bookshop in Melbourne than it would be to someone in America, but it sure sounds exotic and alluring as recorded in your delightful Fossicking essay, “Et in Tasmania Ego.”

Friday, February 4, 2022

Camaraderie and Competition: The Big Five of Abraham Lincoln Collectors


A recent, unsuccessful bid on a group of Lincoln biblio-books from the collection of Louise Taper leads me here.  That, and a rediscovery last week among a group of books I acquired shortly before moving my library three years ago.  Both instances germinated an idea into an essay – the early collecting of printed material on the Great Emancipator.
            Works by and about Abraham Lincoln, called broadly “Lincolniana,” has been avidly sought by collectors since the Civil War.  Lincoln’s life from homespun roots to statesman to martyr has drawn interest from every conceivable angle.  Publications abound.  As early as 1910 there were already more than 125 separate biographies published.
            Often when I am doing biblio-research, I’m the first to clear a path (or follow one much overgrown).  I soon discovered this was not the case with Lincoln.  The early collecting of Lincoln has been documented directly by collectors such as Daniel Fish (1848-1924) and Joseph Oakleaf (1858-1930), and in secondary essays, most notably J. L. McCorison’s “The Great Lincoln Collectors and What Came of Them” (1947).
            So, a brief overview is at hand without a lot of hacking through the underbrush.  This will be interwoven with my own story of a terrific find.  The early groundbreakers in collecting Lincoln material included Andrew Boyd and Charles Henry Hart.  Boyd and Hart compiled the first major bibliographic work, Memorial Lincoln Bibliography (1870).  These men and others like William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, laid the foundation for subsequent major collectors to follow.  The next group of enthusiasts, labeled the “Big Five” each built fabulous collections during the 1890s-1920s.  Despite the fierce competition among them, they all interacted as friends and colleagues, each to varying degrees willing to help the others and share new discoveries.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Every Book Its Story

KZ's Office / Cataloging Room.  Wife afraid to enter.

I’m cataloging a few of my recent acquisitions.  They usually arrive one at a time and the backlog is manageable, but this last year has been a deluge.  I’m way behind in bringing order to the chaos.   Stacks of book everywhere in my office: desk, chairs, table.  But with the big exception of pamphlets, I can find what I’m looking for as needed.  My in-house catalogue goes light years beyond an orderly list-keeping: most of the items are association copies and each one merits at least a brief explanation that often expands with research into a mini-essay.  But this is part of the fun for me—story upon story to discover, expound, resuscitate.   I find time when I can to catalog, usually in the evenings and sometimes during the day when work is slow.  It also can be an excuse when yardwork is required or a welcome respite when life takes a stressful turn.  The results of this thirty plus year pursuit of biblio-bliss is a current file of 1,112 pages in 10 point type, and 755,027 words. 
            The bookseller Dorothy Sloan, one of my early mentors, encouraged me to catalog my collection in some form.  Thankfully, I listened, which has not always been my strong suit.  Someday I’ll polish this mighty beast of a document up and formally publish it.  But for now, the catalogue remains open on my computer screen 24/7, always beckoning me to add to it – to feed it new and exciting acquisitions.   And believe me, I do, and I also back the file up to the cloud with religious regularity.
              So, what of it the last couple of weeks?  What books and stories have found the top of the stack to input?  They range from blockbuster associations to more minor items in my biblio-opera.   Come along and catalog with me and get your mind off an upcoming meeting, a thankless task, or an irrational person.