25 August 2011

Collectable annotated books

We’re talking here about the more distinctive outraged responses by anonymous writers or minor authors (identified elsewhere in the book) to an opinion or a fact. Or perhaps passages of creative writing on blank pages. Or drawings. Or anything else, apart obviously from phone numbers, addresses (although these can be intriguing), calculations, train and bus times, shopping lists, book titles and recipes for soups.

Such books might make a good collection and I suspect that book dealers who discover such annotations in their books secrete them away for future research. Or if they don’t they should do.

Perhaps we could start with creative writing. In pencil on the back endpaper of my first edition of Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art (1934) I found this intriguing snatch of fiction, perhaps the beginning of a projected short story, and probably written in the pub alluded to:
‘ A woman with short fair hair cut in a fringe straight across her forehead and round dark blue sleepy eyes. Forty, fortyish face and ugly pointed turned up nose and a smile sometimes sheepish & sly & sometimes giggly & childish. She has a small face of a girl in a close fitting hat and a light blue coat. She & her young man were lunching in a pub, obliged to sit at a table, when a tall man sat back staring at the ceiling & blowing smoke between a hole in his front teeth, eyes half closed, all ears open to anything they might say, eyes half closed.
She did not notice this or mind, but he hated it. He was part silenced. He ordered a drink for her—whisky & ginger ale. “ What I had last night “ ---this is an expedition in sin---giggled after she had drunk a bit & kept glancing at him . She is awed at the pub. He is jaded, bored by it. She looks disinterestedly at him… ‘

Will I ever discover who wrote this? Perhaps someone out there recognises the style…

Writing in books polarises opinion, but Heather Jackson, the academic who wrote the excellent Marginalia is not alone in feeling that writing in books which is witty and/or adds to the debate deserves to be preserved. If we should rightly condemn the early twentieth century librarian who dutifully rubbed out George Eliot’s many comments in pencil in her books, why should we reject the equally perceptive remarks that ‘disfigure‘ a book just because they are anonymous ? As for doctored library books, it is more than probable that the puritans of Islington Library who publically tut-tutted over Halliwell and Orton, had a private chuckle over the humour displayed by the ‘vandals’, and at a time when the Pop Art of Peter Blake et al was being appreciated, may even have admired their creativity.

Indeed, on the issue of Halliwell’s book vandalism, a few years ago I reported in Rare Book Review on the collage offered for sale at an auction in Cambridge in October 2005. The artwork, signed and dated 1966, and measuring 50.5 x 40.5 cm, comprised fragments of book and magazine illustrations that suggested a large demonic face. Doubtless psychoanalysts would have something to say about the future murderer’s state of mind at the time he made it. Surprisingly, bidders weren’t sufficiently impressed and the work remained unsold at £1,600 (est. £2,500 - £3,000).

As for scribbles, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks--- good when the book is identifiably Iris Murdoch’s copy of Sartre or Blake’s copy of Reynolds’s Discourses on Art, or John Betjeman’s own Bartholomew maps that he used as Editor of the Shell Guides, which I viewed at auction, but tragically did not bid for; not so enviable when the question marks etc., in a battered paperback copy of Yeats’ Selected Poems were put there by some student wannabe novelist who ended up as a regional sales manager for Argos. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Above is David Foster Wallace's copy of Cormac McCarthy's 'Suttree' held at the Harry Ransom Library-- for which much thanks. Below is a book annotated by Charles Darwin.

Years back at an auction in the West Country I bought (with the legendary Roger Elliott) a big lot of books, some of which had come from Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy. In there were some early psychology text books annotated by Hardy. Roger sold them for us on the strength that Hardy's notes were all about the mental state of his first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford. I also had Graham Greene's copy of 'Children of the Sun' - a book about the Brideshead generation with many notes by GG. Seem to recall getting more that £500 over 20 years ago. Less dear was Handasyde Buchanan's copy of Sykes book on Evelyn Waugh with Handy's sloshed notes about Sykes in the margin, things like 'snivelling little shit' etc., For $30 in Santa Cruz I bought a book about Robert Heinlein by H.Bruce Franklin --Heinlein had annotated the book extensively with pencilled marginal linings, underlinings, questions and exclamation marks and a few notes. The clue was that the book was presented to him by Franklin 'with deep respect and admiration... and a few disagreements.' Sold a few weeks later after some research for $500...I could go on bragging, this a fascinating and profitable area of collecting.

17 August 2011

Lousy condition / Cold climate

I have been trying to build a set of books by Nancy Mitford for a customer who wants to have them bound in leather. In these cases you require no jackets, the covers can be worn but the text must be clean. I have dismissed all the nice copies at silly prices and all the lousy copies at whatever price, although as usual some of these were pricier than the ones in exemplary condition. Some were so bad they reminded me of the Dada knife (lacks handle and blade). They lacked pages, spines, boards, some even had missing title pages - mentioned as an afterthought as if it was no big deal.

Inspired, motivated, energised and exasperated I started on a search for the worst condition book on the entire web. In 2007 there had been a legendary Webster's dictionary on Ebay that was basicaly a pile of ruined, frayed and crumbling paper -- it looked like, as Jimmy Webb would say -'Someone left a cake out in the rain...' It attracted no bids but was a fun item for a while. That was a yardstick. There are not that many truly appalling books on the web as they take a long time to describe and you cannot charge much for them. There are some eighteenth century and earlier books in laughably bad state often with huge loss and every indignity a book can suffer, presumably catalogued because of their antiquity. There is a type of customer who thinks old books should be a bit worn and distressed, even a few dealers. The above image is from a site where the customer bought the books to use for collage work and old and ruined books can have their uses as door stops or draught excluders etc.,

In my quest I did not have to go much further than the divine Nancy's Love in a Cold Climate (a book worth nearly a grand fine in fine jacket). A German dealer had a reasonably priced hardback first and I took his description through a translation machine (Babylon) only to find it was a staggeringly poor copy:
"... worn, dirty, stained, tanned, rubbed on the book spine, mint gold florins, edges and corners, provides a home for some very schiefgelesen, body is dirty, pages with a tan, slightly wavy, stained, notes on passports front, very relaxed in bond, body disintegrates, medium to rather bad condition..." ['Ganzleinen, abgegriffen, verschmutzt, fleckig, gebräunt, abgerieben, am Buchrücken Goldprägung, Kanten und Ecken bestossen, sehr schiefgelesen, Textkörper verschmutzt, Seiten gebräunt, leicht wellig, fleckig, Notizen auf Einbandinnenseite vorne, sehr locker in Bindung, Textkörper zerfällt, mittlerer bis eher schlechter Zustand, in Englisch".']
'Schief gelesen' actually means 'cocked' or 'askew' but at first I had thought the book was a home for some sort of Berlin based insect and that it might be hands down the worst condition book on the net! The Google translation isn't much happier:
"...worn, dirty, stained, browned, rubbed, the spine gilt tooling, edges and corners slightly worn, very wrong read the body of polluted, pages browned, slightly wavy, mottled, notes on inside cover page front, very loosein binding, the body decays, moderate to rather poor condition, in English..."

Keyword searches at online malls using words such as 'poor condition', 'missing',' worn', 'torn' reveal some seriously ravaged old books. I was rather taken with a very honest description of a dust jacket on a decent condition 1940s film annual at $20. The dealer prefaced his description thus- 'Words almost fail me on just how bad this dustwapper truly is...' but he goes on at length to describe its many faults ('very heavily rubbed, faded and marked...major tears and pieces missing...rubbing and chipping, with loss to all corners. The top of the spine is missing and chipping to the lower spine edge. The front top panel has a piece missing measuring 4.25 " X 1.25 ". The front fore edge has also a piece missing 3 " from the bottom edge. There is a 1 " torn piece to the spine area 3.5 " from the bottom edge. The back panel has 2 tears measuring 1.75 ", with associated creasing and there is a piece missing measuring 1.25 " X 0.75 ", Heavy rubbing along the rear fold over crease. Verso of the dustwrapper is stained, brown and quite marked. Remains of tape can be seen on both the top and bottom...)

My advice would be to chuck the jacket away; you could probably get $25 if you did not have it. Due to a sort of 'halo effect' its awfulness reduces the price to less than a copy that has no jacket and 20 minutes does not have to be wasted describing its many problems.

08 August 2011

Some of the world’s best ( and most expensive ) printing errors


‘ Sir Robert Peel and a party of fiends were engaged in shooting peasants at Drayton manor ‘. This shurely can’t be a genuine newspaper report.

Bray Colliery Disaster
‘The remains of the late John Payne, collier, were interred yesterday afternoon in the Bray Churchyard, in the presence of a large number of friends and spectators’.

Hmmm. Must remember to visit this colliery near Maidenhead. The provincial reporter, who had taken this report from a national newspaper, had evidently never heard of Mr Collier, the notorious Shakespeare forger.

In Charlotte Yonge’s Dynevor Terrace (1857 ) a lady is described as being ‘ without stretched arms ‘.

On page 389 of the Index to Edmund Blunden’s, Leigh Hunt (1930 ) Thornton Hunt becomes Thornton Heath. Perhaps the indexer lived in south London.

In the error- strewn Early Victorian Illustrated Books (2005) by John Buchanan-Brown, Puss in Boots, becomes Puss in Books, which could be a good name for a bookshop. Incidentally, this book was published by the British Library !


In William Derham’s, Life of Ray ( 1760 ) a list of books read by the botanist in 1667 is printed from a letter to a certain Dr Lister. One of the books was about ‘great Rakes ‘ which was interpreted by Derham’s editor, George Scott, as having something to do with agricultural implements. Scott then extrapolated that these were ‘ now come into general use among farmers and are called drag rakes ‘. In reality the work referred to by Ray was concerned with the exploits of Mr Valentine Greatrakes, the infamous quack doctor.
Astonishingly, this blunder remained uncorrected in Lankester’s Memorials of John Ray (1846) and was only noticed by Rev Rich Hooper in N & Q seventh ser. iv 225.

I’d like to do a whole blog on literary show-offs (often third-rate academics) who GET IT ALL WRONG. But on second thoughts, it would take a whole book…

Illogical book titles

Old Lights for New Chancels ( from ‘ By the same author ‘ note in 2nd edition of Betjeman’s New Bats in Old Belfries (1945 ). It was the other way around, of course. The error was corrected later.

Dangerous and expensive

The French lawyer and brilliant amateur mathematician Franciscus Vieta was wealthy enough to finance the publication of his own pioneering treatises, but so meticulous was he that, being discontented with the misprints that had escaped his notice in his Canon Mathematicus (1579) he purchased all the copies he could meet with. Today, the book, like all his other works, has become extremely rare and sought after by modern mathematicians.

‘Pope Sixtus the Fifth’s Vulgate Bible of 1590 so swarmed with errors that paper had to be pasted over some of the erroneous passages, and no-one took seriously the bull prefixed to the first volume which excommunicated any printer who altered the text. A few months later, the Pope died and the College of Cardinals stopped any further sales, and also bought and destroyed as many copies as possible. Back in the mid nineteenth century a copy was sold in France for 1210 Francs. God knows how much one would fetch today.

In the ‘Wicked’ Bible of 1631 Thou shalt not commit adultery is rendered as Thou shall commit adultery. This was thought to be unique, but at least six, and possibly a few more, copies are now thought to have survived. One was bought for £25 in 1855, an imperfect copy was sold to the BM not long afterwards, a third was sold to the Bodleian by a Dr Badinel, a fourth is in the Euing Library, Glasgow, a fifth was discovered by Henry J Atkinson of Gunnersbury in 1883 and a sixth was snaffled up in Ireland in 1884. The Great (Bible) Site boasts of having the only copy for sale in the world at a wicked $89,500.

In a Bible of 1634 the first verse of Psalm 14 appears as ‘The fool hath said in his heart there is God ‘.
The authorities perhaps did not view this error as particularly dangerous, for there is no evidence that the printer was ever prosecuted. Copies still go for £1,000 or more, however.

You would think that the lessons regarding dangerous misprints would have been learnt by 1716, but no. In this year James Blow of Belfast published the first edition of the Bible to appear in Ireland . Unfortunately, in Isaiah ‘Sin no more’ appeared as ‘Sin on more’. No error was discovered until a number of copies had been issued and bound. The 8,000 or so sheets containing the mistake had to be cancelled and new ones printed. Few copies could have escaped capture, because I can’t find a single one for sale online. Perhaps Dr Ian Paisley has a copy.

Intentional errors

John Field, the famous Puritan printer, is said to have received £1500 from the Independents as a bribe to corrupt a text which might sanction their practise of lay ordination. Thus in Acts vi 3 ‘ye’ is changed to ‘we’ in several editions of his Bible.
The verse reads: ‘Wherefore, brethren, look ye among the ye seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom ye may appoint over this business’.

It is likely, however, that the great French satirist Rabelais intentionally swapped ame (soul) for asne ( the archaic spelling of donkey). For this he was investigated by the papal police for heresy, and only narrowly escaped conviction and death. He pleaded a printing error and got off. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. I've been careful to eradicate printer's mishtakes! ((Except 'shurely' and 'mishtake' --witticisms courtesy of Hislop etc.,) Possibly not carefully enough for the Trussophiles who patrol the net looking for missing Oxford commas and split infinitives. We may well have failed and will fail better next time...

That misprinted Rabelais sounds like the kind of book that Boris Balkan would have commissioned Dean Corso to hunt down in Pérez-Reverte's 'The Club Dumas' (1993) memorably filmed by Polanski as 'The Ninth Gate' with J. Depp. Book scouts don't come any better looking than that...

02 August 2011

Collecting technological predictions in literature 2

E-books were described by Jules Verne in Paris in the Twentieth Century, which he completed in 1864. Unfortunately, an editor rejected it as ‘ too fantastical ‘ and Verne locked it away in a drawer. In 1994 it was rediscovered in a safe by a descendant, who decided to publish it. The English translation appeared in 1996. In the same novel Verne predicted petrol-powered vehicles, pocket calculators and a ‘ worldwide telegraphic communications’ network. The subway system he described was hardly a prediction---London already had the world’s first in 1864.
“ Michel search for literature, but nothing but technology was available in bookstores “
Copies of the paperback are common enough at around $15.

Legendary science writer Dr Isaac Asimov described an e book in an article ‘The Fun we had’, which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in February 1954.

“’Gee, said Tommy. ‘What a waste. When you’re through with the book you just throw it away…our television screen must have had a million books on it and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away. ‘“

Copies of the magazine are probably quite common. You can pay a mere $7 for one on ABE, though one chancer demands $99 for his copy.

Ten years later SF writer Stanilaw Lem wrote about e-books in Return from the Stars (1961)

“ I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been published for nearly half a century…The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory…all my purchase fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. “

Copies of the first English translation with jacket are surprisingly cheap at around $16. One copy is priced at a measly $5 on ABE.
[R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. The Verne predictions are almost freakish in their number and accuracy and Lem's bookshop prediction is slightly chilling to one who owns a bookstore. Thanks again Sophie at Money.co.uk and those who have emailed with suggestions.