19 June 2011

Book descriptions -- the bland, the bad and the ugly

Checking prices on the net I often see strange and misleading book descriptions. I was alerted by Angus, a Bookride follower, to this fine example. It is one of those catchall descriptions that the cataloguer brings up with a programme like Typeit4me or cuts and pastes from a palette of such phrases. In this example the seller uses the exact phrase for over 12000 book descriptions - "Remains particularly and surprisingly well-preserved; tight, bright, clean and strong". It is not a bad phrase as they go, although 'remains' is an offputting word as it suggests the book is not in the best shape. This is slightly re-inforced by the word 'surprisingly' as if the cataloguer himself is surprised the book has survived at all. The whole thing has that upbeat, genteel, wheedling tone that is prevalent online. Sometimes this leads on to entreaties such as this:
" Excellent reading on the subject. A good book to enjoy and keep on hand for yourself, or would make a GREAT GIFT for the fan / reader in your life. Reading is one of the great pleasures in life."
One guy has "Seems like an interesting title!" in all his descriptions, however dull the book.

Sometimes such entreaties are aligned with somewhat lousy descriptions:
"Hard Cover. No Covers. Absorbent Brown Spine With Two Light Brown Ovals With Title Inside Of Them In Light And Dark Brown Letters, Dust Jacket: Very Good, Shelf, Edge And Corner Ware, Some Edge Tearing And Chipping. Hard Cover Cover BooK: Fine, 338 Numbered Pages, That Were Lightly Read, And Are Clean And Tight To The Spine, Slight Shelf, Corner And Edge Ware. This Expensive BooK, Is Hard To Find, Will Make An Excellent Addition To Your Own Personal Library Collection, Or As A Gift. "
I realise 'fine' can encompass very slight handling wear and is surpassed by 'like new' and even the slightly dubious 'mint' but it cannot be associated with tears and chips! Also what in hell is an 'absorbent spine!'

Capitalised descriptions (shouting) are often a sign of a less than experienced bookseller ('UNREAD AND AS NEW BOOK WITH MISSING TITLE PAGE - COVER WITH LIGHT DAMAGE - COMPLETELY UNREAD - EXCELLENT CONDITION - READ ONCE CAREFULLY.') A missing title page, often mentioned as if it is nothing, is to my mind an almost fatal flaw...also while we are on the subject an ex library book can never be fine.

The subject is endless and there is an excellent 5000+ thread at the ABE forum collecting and discussing naff descriptions, it is called 'Disgusting - Must we have this?' Internecine warfare sometimes breaks out when a seller spots his description and resolutely defends it, but it has some real gems. Likewise John Baxter collected some truly awful Ebay descriptions at the back of his Pound of Paper. My favourite are descriptions in what I call the Alain Robbe Grillet style. The great nouveau roman writer can spend 2 pages describing a man's face in such relentless detail that at the end of it you have no idea what the chap actually looks like.

You have web descriptions where every line begins "this book..." often rhapsodising about the sharpness of the corners and others where the greatness of the condition is emphasised by negation (' no fraying, no tears, no marks or soiling, no chips, no pieces missing, no wrinkles or creases...) but the real Robbe- Grillet person gets into serious details and minutiae. On a $100 Franklin Mint bound in their trademark spam leather a seller notes -'gilt edges which when held to harsh light at an oblique angle there might be seen a few tiny lines or striations, perhaps not visible in ordinary light, and deemed very minor...' Pyjama Bob at Chapel Books just down the road in Suffolk is a master of the ultra precise description, here is a fairly restrained description of a £60 Penguin.
"Slight browning to pages, contents otherwise clean and unmarked. A little faint foxing or soiling to covers and spine rather browned. Joints show a little rubbing and small (5mm) split to base of upper joint, but covers are firm. Faint creasing to corners and a few light indentations show up when they catch the light..."
I am reminded of the late and much missed Peter Joliffe -- he used to say he would never describe a book as fine, there was always some imperfection to note, however slight... [To be continued]


Shelley said...

That looks like a Hetzel Verne on the table. Nice piece, nice kind of irrelevant fascinating pic. Thanks anyway. Shelley

Anonymous said...

As an on-line seller this struck more than a chord -- practically a symphony. The CAPITALISED DESCRIPTIONS, wheedling tone, Robbe-Grillet are all 100 per cent on the money.
More please … x

Anonymous said...

A couple of my Swedish colleagues persistently use the word "insignificant" in their book descriptions, as in "insignificant use" or "insignificant wear". LOL; if insignificant - why bother to mention it?

Anonymous said...

More please - I laughed out loud at the over-description examples.

Anonymous said...

one apparently pathological seller insists on adding to their normal over-statements (e.g., "One of the finest living writers) demonstrably false claims about their offerings being "the only such...editions available online." When I see this charlatan's listings among hundreds of ABE listings of rather common books, this always gives a chuckle. If they lie so boldly about this, who would trust them for a second?