28 June 2011

The Joy of Dullness 1

Of late I have been assembling a collection of dull, curious or odd book covers. I wasn't really getting anywhere until I hit the collection of fellow Anglian dealer Robin Summers , a man with a whim of iron and one of the major contributor's to Brian Lake's magisterial Bizarre Books. So here they are, the scholarly ones are actually of some value and one even sold while I was putting this together, so does not appear -- a book on the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure entitled Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory. With the paperback selling at £50 the joke became too costly to hold on to. The collection is devoted to dullness mixed with the curious and the odd which includes the oddly dull and the curiously odd. Here goes:

A bundle of laughs. The puff reads ' By contrasting Pound's political values with those of Stein and Zukofsky, this study argues that these three different writers share a complex set of attitudes that are grounded in a collective social fantasy corresponding to the rise of mass consumption and the emergence of corporate social forms.' Some jokers want £100 for this although the committed shopper can find it for £10.

A little light reading.

Part of a small but select number of works on the brassiere. Not dull, but curious (in the old biblio sense.)
Good Housekeeping's family doctor has the answers.

Yes but do you have anything on extinct horse furniture in the Brussels area?

Useful book. Useful name.

Anything on consonants in the late Neo-Babylonian era?

I need this one badly. Actually an online search revels no copies - so £899?

One man's quest.

Someone had to write it.

Slow down and learn the language.

[More to come!]

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]

15 June 2011

Musings on the market for autographed letters...

Apparently autograph collecting as a hobby goes back as far as the 1780s, and the sheer number of letters that have survived from this date and slightly earlier—compared with the small number dating up to this period would suggest as much.
However, most letters in the catalogues of modern manuscript dealers seem to date from around 1840 onwards —which suggests that the hobby must have begun to really take off soon after this date. It is surely silly to argue that MPs, public officials, men of letters, churchmen, scientists, artists etc wrote fewer letters from, say, the mid 17th century to the mid eighteenth century and many more from the accession of Queen Victoria. People have always had to keep in touch. In fact, it could be argued that letter writers should have been more prolific in earlier times for the simple fact that before the age of the telegraph, the telephone, the train and the fast coach, there were no alternatives to the letter.

Of course, the arrival of the Penny Post in 1840 did make the sending of letters cheaper and more convenient—but this doesn’t really explain why so many letters have survived from this date. After all, with more letters around there were more to throw away. The only explanation as I see it is that after a certain date more people began to keep letters---perhaps due to the cult of the celebrity, which began to flourish following the accession of the young and glamorous Queen Victoria, and grew stronger as the century wore on , thus strengthening the market for letters. I have seen a number of albums of letters and cut-out signatures (sometimes assembled with a collection of crests) which appear to date from the mid nineteenth century.

Certainly there were autograph dealers in the mid Victorian period (I have an envelope bearing the name and address of one of them) and there are letters replying to requests from autograph hunters from Victorian celebs (who were often soldiers, politicians and other public figures). Occasionally, a celeb might donate a letter or an autograph received from a more famous celeb (I have a letter indicating that the signature of Tolstoy, which the sender had asked for, had been enclosed), which for some reason the donor no longer wished to keep. There are perhaps grounds for supposing that , say , someone like a cabinet minister or a general might see such autograph hunting by the hoi polloi as a bit infra dig , but worth encouraging for its positive public relations value. A more recent example for me was a letter from Hugh Gaitskell to my uncle, Denis Healey, willingly given to me by Denis when I was aged 11, which was claimed back almost immediately after Gaitskell suddenly died. It would be nice to know if something similar occurred in the Victorian or Edwardian period.

Perhaps many of the letters that come onto the market today are letters from others to the celeb that have been donated by celebs to collectors. Otherwise, unless there were many dealers in autographs and sales of autographs, how did these letters, many of which bear on matters often weightier than a request by a collector for a signature, come onto the market? Or it is equally possible that the ‘I can’t come to tea ‘letters (as I call them) were kept by admirers who knew the celeb professionally or personally, but at a low level. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that important letters would have been surrendered to a collector by the celeb recipient. It is more likely that such letters would have been kept by the recipient and to have remained alongside other important papers at his or her death-- to be sold off to book and autograph dealers, or sent to auction.
[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin
I once had a 'clipped' signature of John Keats in an old album -it read something like 'yours faithfully John Keats' and I wondered about the letter that it had been clipped from-- was it to Mary Shelley suggesting a fantastical character or to Byron swapping anecdotes of conquests? Or merely another 'can't come to tea' note...? Certainly it was a bloody sight more valuable than the clipping. Damn these early autograph hounds...

By the way the letter above is a Keats forgery by Major George de Luna Byron (ca. 1810-1882). He claimed to be the natural son of the Lord George Gordon Byron by a Spanish countess and was quite successful at penning and selling off fake letters of Byron, Shelley and Keats in the mid-nineteenth century. His forgeries are collected but they are worth a fraction of the real thing and cause much disappointment when unmasked. Below is a genuine Bruce Lee letter offering good advice to a young girl fan.

04 June 2011

Early Books on Television: 1926 – 1939

British techies will boast that the origins of television can be traced to a room above a shop in Hastings ( blue plaque ) where John Logie Baird constructed the first TV receiver—generating moving images on a mechanical principle. Americans, however, will argue that their man, a certain C. Francis Jenkins, who was also involved in cinema technology , was doing almost the same thing six months earlier in1923. Unfortunately, neither of these pioneers can be said to have invented the television that we tune into today. Most of the credit for that probably belongs to Philo Farnsworth, the farmer’s son from Utah who in 1927, aged 21, produced the first electronic image. So, whatever way you look at it, the Americans invented television, just as they invented rock music.

Most of the collected works on early TV appeared before 1930. The first book on TV alone was Alfred Dinsdale’s well-known Television, or seeing by wireless (1926). For such a seemingly rare book (‘a rather rare book’, according to one dealer, who wants a toppish £2,490 for his copy) there are quite a few on ABE, ranging in price from a reasonable £350. Personally, I don’t see much point in paying an extra £2,000 or so for an especially good copy of what is essentially a superannuated pamphlet.

The second significant work, which appeared a year later is Television for the Home by Ronald Tiltman, whose frontispiece show the author being televised by John Logie Baird himself. Recently , there was a very nice jacketed copy of this on ABE for a sensible price. For its technical content alone, this seems a rather better investment than Dinsdale. However, if you hanker for a Dinsdale and can’t afford his Seeing by Wireless you could target a copy or a run ( if you can find one ) of his genuinely rare Television Journal (6d a month), whose July 1929 cover rather hopefully looks ahead to a time when the family might gather around the box of light on a winter evening--an extraordinary image for 1929, when radio was still in its infancy and TV broadcasting was several years away.

The more common Book of Practical Television (1935) by G. V. Dowding, an electrical engineer, is a pretty comprehensive technical exposition of 320 pages and many fascinating illustrations, which compares the mechanical and electronic versions of television and places them in a historical context. It even suggests how an enthusiast might build his own receiver. I paid a mere £1.50 for my copy a few years ago, but you’d be lucky to secure one for under £30 now. For historians of TV, issues of the Radio Times from c 1934 are valuable sources of information and can still be had for a few pounds. Copies of The Listener from 1936 to 1939 are equally useful and much cheaper still. Of the latter, look for transcripts of the live discussions by such pre-war TV pioneers as John Piper and Geoffrey Grigson--- and search out the wonderful set-to in 1939 between Grigson and Wyndham Lewis speaking on the side of modern art and the anti-modern defenders of the establishment. Pre-1939 copies of the BBC Yearbook, are also worth seeking out for about £10 each, though I’ve can’t recall ever finding a copy.
Incidentally, in 1936 appeared one of the earliest mentions of television in a literary work. In ‘ And if this mountain cease' from Poems (1936) by the poet and critic Michael Roberts we find:

‘ And if this mountain cease
If the rock-crystal breaks, and darkness comes
if the mind’s television ceases
if no one answers…. ‘

Still earlier mentions of television in literature are welcome via the comment box.
[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Early mentions of TV? A bit late but quite valuable is the literary magazine edited by Lawrence Durrell 'International Post' (1939) -- it had a TV critic and was full of promise but went to just one highly elusive issue. Value? Many hundreds of pounds, even though Durrell has become a little slow...

The Dinsdale, as you say, is not especially scarce. The problem with the book is it has several high auction records, in 1996 a jacketed but worn copy made $4800 and in 2008 the 'Richard Green copy' in rubbed d/j with tape repair on back panel made $16250. So some hapless collector had to pay nearly £10000 to carry the little book out of Christies New York. Sadly Richard Green was not the TV Robin Hood but an important collector of science books. It falls into the category of a book that is hard to buy (due to high levels of expectation) and hard to sell (because it is quite common.) In this same category are early BBC yearbooks which people want a lot for but are hard to sell for much over £20, even those with decoish covers. Last word on the unelusive Dinsdale. John Logie Baird's copy turned up last year. It made £1200 at Bonhams (1 plate shaved, some gatherings loose.) This may be a book that is not firmly in the ascendant, although a fine copy in jacket is offered at $9500 at History of Science.com citing the Green copy. Condition, as so often, trumps association...