Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Condition Isn't Everything


A Rough and Ready Copy of Burton's THE BOOK-HUNTER (1863)

 Books are tough.  Raging fire or lengthy submersion in water can do them in, but otherwise they often survive hard use, neglect, inquisitive children, pets, lack of climate control, insects, and with a little luck, many natural disasters.  These rough and ready reading copies are found almost everywhere.  But they are rarely encountered on the shelves of fastidious collectors or in special collections libraries.  Unless you collect association copies, then you must take a book’s condition as it comes.
            This thought struck me as I held a book with a Titanic connection.  The book is Luther Livingston’s First Editions of George Meredith. . . Offered for Sale by Dodd & Livingston, New York [1912].  It is inscribed to English book collector Clement K. Shorter.  Tipped-in is an excellent autograph letter from Livingston to Shorter, discussing, among other things, an upcoming visit by fellow bibliophile Harry Widener to Shorter.  Widener is the famous young American collector who perished on the Titanic along with his father, only a few days after seeing Shorter.  His mother survived and built the Widener Library at Harvard in his honor.  She then placed her twenty-seven-year-old son’s already impressive book collection within.  Bookseller and bibliographer Luther Livingston was close to Harry Widener. He was selected as the first librarian of the Widener Library, but he died tragically of a rare bone disease before he could assume the post.  His ongoing illness is also mentioned in the letter to Shorter.  So, there is a lot to unpack with this association copy and the appeal to me was irresistible, condition be damned. 
            Bookseller Howard Mather of Wykeham Books knows my interests and offered it to me.  His condition description was accurate, but I hoped it might be better than advertised. Nope.  The book literally looks as if it had gone down on the Titanic and later swept ashore.  I passed this feedback onto Mather giving him a good laugh.  Perhaps Shorter was reading it in the bathtub and let it slip.  Maybe it was fire-hosed during the London Blitz of World War II.  Whatever the case, it is thoroughly dried out now, a little wavy, somewhat crinkly, certainly stained, but a survivor.  A relic.
            I frequently indulge my liking for smoked BBQ brisket.  However, I’d prefer to buy unsmoked books.  But when you gather association copies related to the notorious Texas bookseller Johnny Jenkins and his Jenkins Company, smoked items are often on the menu.  For there was a series of fires--not just one--that consumed portions of the stock, with an insurance payout being a motive.  But many of the reference books survived.  They have smoke damage with evidence of such on the top edges, spines, etc.  I have a number of interesting examples from this motley crew.
            Texas bookseller Ollie Crinkelmeyer sold me one of the best, titled The Immense and Distinguished Half-Title Collection formed by John H. Jenkins, III, Esq. of Austin, Texas (New York City: 1980).  It is a most excellent association copy retained by Jenkins with the characteristic smoked patina.  Bookseller William Reese was involved in the publication.  He wrote the following note in another example owned by my fellow collector Douglas Adams, “This book was compiled by the famous collector Michael Zinman and myself as an elaborate practical joke on the bookseller John Jenkins. Many of the books sold by the Jenkins Company were imperfect, and pamphlet material (especially in Michael's area of collecting, early American imprints) often lacked pages and especially the half-title leaves. Johnny, who had a dead-pan sense of humor, claimed this was because he collected half-titles himself, and so had removed them for his collection. Mike decided we should produce a catalogue of that supposed collection.
          “Mike went to a local used bookstore and (with the permission of the owner) removed the half-titles from books in the 10 cent bin. The preface was written by him and the history of half-titles by me. The book was designed and printed by my friend Thomas Whitridge. We xeroxed the half-titles and Mike paid his kids a nickel apiece to paste them in. 25 copied were produced.
           “We presented a copy to Johnny at a bookseller's poker game one evening during the 1980 New York Book Fair. We gave all of the copies away to friends of Johnny, mostly booksellers who knew him well. I don't think we made any list of who got them, and those who I know treasure them as one of the most elaborate book jokes of modern times.”
            Humor is not uncommon among rare book hunters.  Another favorite example of mine fits our rough and ready association theme.  It is a copy of Edmund Pearson’s Books in Black and Red (1923).  This classic books about books was written with the impecunious book collector in mind; the essays focusing on out-of-the-way items and curious characters.  Pearson (1880-1937) was a librarian and bookman, most remembered now as a writer of true crime stories.  My copy has a badly bumped corner and loose hinges.  This must have been the shape it was in when Pearson inscribed it to its original owner, R.W.G. Vail, famed bibliographer (he finished compiling Joseph Sabin’s A Dictionary of Books Relating to America) and Pearson’s co-worker at the New York Public Library. 
            Pearson writes, “This is the worst looking copy of this book I have ever seen, but the author’s annotations ought to make it priceless.  Edmund Lester Pearson, New York, July 9, 1923.”  Pearson has added below, “Sherlock Holmes would look at the broken cover of this book and deduce that somebody threw it across the room in a fit of rage or disgust.”  The book has Vail’s penciled annotations and commentary throughout.  Pearson apparently commandeered the book shortly after Vail’s reading and made his own comments and additions in response to Vail—many in a humorous vein. 
            Collector John G. Heckscher (1835?-1908) was apologetic up front about the condition of a book he gifted a fellow enthusiast.  The work Sporting Anecdotes (London: 1889) is in its original blue cloth, shaken, stirred, bumped, and well-read.  It is inscribed, “E. B. Talcott, with John G. Heckscher’s compliments, Dec. 16, 1898.”  Tipped-in is Heckscher’s calling card with the note, “Very sorry this book is not in better condition, but I fancy the sporting stories will amuse you.”   The recipient, Edward B. Talcott (1858-1941), early owner of the New York Giants baseball team and young Wall Street financing whiz, was a devoted baseball fan and sportsman.
            Donald Dickinson’s entry for Heckscher in Dictionary of American Book Collectors reads, “As a sophisticated turn-of-the-century New York clubman, Heckscher owned racehorses, took an interest in yachting, and formed a large library of sporting books.  He specialized in works on fishing, particularly those with engraved plates and watercolors.  He owned all four early editions of Walton’s Compleat Angler, a nearly complete collection of the sporting classics by English novelists Robert Surtees and Pierce Egan, Audubon’s Birds of America, and a large assortment of dueling literature.  A small portion of his library was dispersed at Merwin’s auction house in 1906, but the major part did not come on the market until after his death.  The sale of the first edition of The Compleat Angler to Daniel B. Fearing brought the estate $3,900, the highest price paid during the season for a single volume.  Although Heckscher’s private life was somewhat chaotic, as reported in the New York Times in October 1905, he was known as a gentleman and a connoisseur.  Heckscher’s sporting library was one of his chief ornaments.”
            This chaotic comment made me curious, and I pulled up the 1905 New York Times article.  Heckscher at age 70 “but very well preserved” had secretly married his third wife the year before, a young widow “who was very handsome and accomplished.”  The article recounts with relish that earlier in his life a rivalry with a best friend over a young lady led to blows and eventually a full-blown duel!  (Note the “large assortment of dueling literature” referred to above.)  Neither man was injured but his friend won the day and marriage.  Later this couple divorced, and Heckscher, ever the patient hunter, eventually married the woman as his second wife.  
            John Hill Burton’s famous The Book-Hunter (Edinburgh: 1862) was republished in many different editions.  Burton (1809-1881), a Scottish advocate, historian, and economist, wrote this lively account on the various aspects of the book hunter, commenting on collectors, dealers, auctions, libraries, and rare book clubs.  The book bridges the span between Thomas F. Dibdin’s writings and the more modern age of book collecting that would develop in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His style is somewhat ponderous at times, reminiscent of Dibdin, but his wit and humor shine through and his intimate knowledge of the ways of book hunters paints an uncomfortably accurate and timeless portrait of those afflicted.
            The work has served as an inspiration and important source of information for many biblio-writers, including Nicholas Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness (1995) and other related books.  I have Basbanes’ “working copy” of The Book-Hunter published in New York in 1863 by Sheldon and Company.  It is bound in brown half morocco and marbled boards.  The appealing swirl of the marbled paper design remains vibrant, but both boards are detached and worn, the spine is almost completely perished, the leather rotted away, the signatures of the book loose, the preliminary leaves gone, the title-page only fragmentary, the end leaves missing, including most of the index, with the last few pages of text appearing to have been attacked by a marauding animal.  To add insult to injury, I notice now with the book gingerly in hand that a previous owner has inadvertently reversed the front and rear boards in a crude repair attempt.  The front board is taped upside down to the back of the book, with the early bookplate of previous owner Thea Wolf ignominiously now flipped and forlorn.
            Before Basbanes sends me an irritated email, I must quickly clarify that he acquired the book in this condition—more or less.  Evidence of his close reading is found throughout by an abundance of page markers and an occasional sticky note.  He has inscribed the book to me, “Read to tatters, but not to death.”  But it is on life support.
            On an exceptional occasion, the entire association copy itself will be missing and only a remnant remains.  This is represented in my collection by Gabriel Wells’ Gentle Reactions (1923), a selection of brief thoughts, reflections, and philosophical musings by this famous antiquarian bookseller, one of A.S.W. Rosenbach’s primary rivals.  The essays focus on Wells’ reactions to the social and political upheaval surrounding World War I. 
            Donald Dickinson writes in Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers that the Hungarian-born Wells (1862-1946) “first came to the United States in 1892, an aspiring scholar with a command of eight European languages but no ability to speak or read English.  He spent three years at Harvard University, became a tutor in German and psychology and a protégé of the distinguished philosopher William James.”  From this intriguing background, Wells got into bookselling, first offering sets by subscription, and eventually realizing his American dream as an elite rare bookman, “his reputation built on his ability to supply wealthy collectors with incunabula, fine bindings, color-plate books and first editions of world literature.  His customers included Henry E. Huntington, Henry C. Folger, Carl H. Pforzheimer, Albert A. Berg, Josiah K. Lilly and Wilmarth Lewis, among others.  The prices he paid for rarities and the prices he charged for books often broke all previous records.”
            Wells distributed presentation copies far and wide of Gentle Reactions to fellow booksellers and book collecting clients.  I have multiples in my collection including those inscribed to Rosenbach (That’s a good one!), Arthur Swann, and Harry Houdini.  But this rough and ready example is represented by the single, stray flyleaf from Gentle Reactions inscribed to collector John Quinn.  I don’t recall now where I got this.  But it sits lonely in a mylar sleeve on the shelf with the other copies, hopeful one day I will find the book itself for a celebratory reunion.
            As I wrote this essay, I contemplated how so many of these association copies could have suffered such a beating over the years.  I admit I felt pretty darn smug because now they were in my appreciative hands and would be protected, respected, and preserved carefully –which they are—and that nothing further would happen to them.  At that instant, distracted by these musings, I fumbled my working copy of dear Don Dickinson’s Dictionary, and watched in distress as it bounced hard off my desk, spread its wings, and kamikazed into a stack of books next to me, cartwheeling to a stop in front of our startled cat Ziggy who had been sleeping at my feet.  Egads, reader!  Humble pie eaten, and not just a slice.


  1. I find it amusing yet true that a tattered book may he some redeeming feature. I have often said if someone offered me a dampstained, worn out copy of Tamerland (first, of course), I would probably not be fair to the seller if I offered 50K.

    We bought a first of Origin of Species from a member of the Wedgewood family, lacking the half-title page but it did not prevent us from cataloging it and selling it to a collector.

    Carl Wheat's Biblio-Lament which I reprinted in 1972 with the help of Roger Levenson, would be most appropriate here. I think I still have my last copy and might be persuaded to send a photographic copy (though the collecting purist might consider maintaining unworthy books pornographic). We also have a half dozen of the latter but since 1965 they have lost their LUSTer.

    Richard, of Alcuin (who sold several nice association items to Kurt about a decade ago)

    1. You crack me up, Richard. Thanks for the comments. I recall one book I got from you was Jake Zeitlin's first book: For Whispers and Chants (1927) inscribed to Lawrence Clark Powell. Tasty, indeed!

  2. I have often found old books in poor condition more interesting than those in pristine condition. Many in great shape probably stayed that way because they were boring.

    1. When a book is considered boring, we have to determine whether the person has a critical sense or no judgment whatsoever. Criticism is not a negative term but rather based on a person's competence to form an evaluation. Moby Dick was viewed as unreadable when it was issued roughly over 175 years ago. Perhaps some readers should simply say that for them some books are difficult to read, but that limitation should not be viewed as an informed criticism.

  3. Kevin Mac DonnellJune 5, 2023 at 3:50 PM

    All true and well-stated. I would only add that tis true that with association copies you must "take a book's condition as it comes" but that's not always a bad thing. The poor condition of a well-read book-- once the property of a great author --is actually a plus. I do sometimes wish Mark Twain had handled the books in his library more carefully, but besides the obvious interest of his annotations, there are often ink blots, marginal smudges, wear patterns that reveal how he held his books, sloppily-opened pages, and even some turned down corners. One well-worn book I have from his library is mentioned by Twain's biographer, A B Paine, as having been passed back and forth between Twain and his brother-in-law as they lay reading in hammocks at Quarry Farm (his brother-in-law's farm where Twain and his family lived during the summer and where he wrote his greatest works). That book (Wm Lecky's European Morals) certainly looks like a book passed back and forth, hammock to hammock, on a lazy summer day on the farm. I have stayed at Quarry Farm as a visiting scholar and spent time reading on the porch on more than one lazy summer day, wondering where the Hell they hung those hammocks.

    1. Hi Kevin, Thanks for the nice addendum recounting the family hammock read-a-thon. Nowadays, I think kids sit on the couch together and text each other.