29 March 2012

Misleading book titles

The polished old oak boards in parts of my home had begun to look scruffy, so I decided to do something about them. I popped into my local Waterstones and saw a new book that seemed perfect. It was called The Care of Wooden Floors and being in a hurry I grabbed it without looking too closely at the dust jacket.. When I got home and opened this book I discovered that the author, someone called Will Wiles, had no professional experience as either a DIY expert or antique restorer, and in fact, was a novelist. His book has nothing whatsoever to do with the respective merits of various types of wood polish, stains and sealants, but was a tale of the misfortunes suffered by someone called Oskar when he entrusted his flat to a friend while he went on holiday. Luckily, I had kept the receipt and now plan to return the book and exchange it for something more useful. But the whole disappointing experience reminded me of other books with misleading titles.

Victoria Beckham, Learning to Fly ( 2001 )

Totally useless if you want to practice for your pilot’s licence. Mrs Beckham, best known for her fashion range and membership of all-girl combo The Spice Girls (itself a misleading title),has written an account of her rise to fame from Goffs Oak model to chanteuse without a single mention of her experiences as a trainee pilot. Exasperating.

Gertrude Stein, How to Write ( Paris 1931) £120+

Anyone wanting to learn the secrets of literary success should avoid this book. For someone who professes an expertise in this field Miss Stein seems woefully unqualified to advise hopeful writers. For instance in her chapter on sentences and paragraphs she tells us that:
‘ A part of a sentence may be a sentence without their meaning. Think of however they went away…’
And furthermore:
‘Every sentence which has a beginning makes it be left more to them…’

Jeanette Winterson, Boating for beginners (1985 ). £30.

Amateur boating enthusiasts in search of tips will gain little practical advice from reading this book, which turns out to be a ‘ comic ‘ story about Noah and the Flood and a romantic novelist named Bunny Mix. Apparently ‘ full of silly things and great fun ‘, according to Winterson, who also wrote Lighthousekeeping, in which a lighthouse figures only tangentially, and The Powerbook, which has nothing whatsoever to do with electrical transmission systems.

Marina Lewycka, A History of the Tractor in Ukrainian (2005).

Wrong from the start. This is published in English. However, it contains little to satisfy those wishing to discover more about the technological developments in agricultural machinery in the Ukraine either before or after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is obvious from the first few pages of a novel about family feuds.

Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners, (2003 )

From the title lovers of Japanese cuisine might have expected an introduction to this popular oriental snack. Instead what we get is chick-lit about a London magazine editor called Lisa with a fabulous lifestyle who is assigned to Dublin etc.

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool (1936 ) £200 - £300

Worthless for students of littoral environmentalism. As a professional literary critic Mr Connolly is plainly unqualified to write with any scientific authority on such a subject, and though his insights into modern literature may be entertaining, the book as a whole cannot be recommended as a treatise on the natural history of the UK shoreline.

Seamus Heaney, Electric Light ( 2001 )

Alas, this adds nothing to our knowledge of the development of electric illumination from the early nineteenth century onwards. Nor does it offer practical advice to modern students of electrical engineering at HND or undergraduate level. In fact, it consists of nothing but poems.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1984 ) £200

Mr Eco has apparently no experience either as a taxonomist or a horticulturalist, which may explain why this medieval fantasy is of little help to those wishing to take up rose-growing as a hobby or career. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin, as our German colleagues say 'das ist lustig.' You're not wrong-- it has become so bad that when you see a book like 'A Handbook to the Datsun 240Z' you assume it is an earnest novel or possibly a collection of very difficult poetry. I blame James Joyce. There is nothing about Ulysses's 10 year journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan wars in his novel, the whole thing is set in modern day Dublin with the odd trip to Dun Laoghaire. When in 1935 Matisse illustrated 'Ulysses' for the Limited Editions Club he used scenes from the Greek epic for his illustrations. Joyce was not happy that the artist had obviously not read his book and gave up signing after 250 copies. Matisse signed all 1500. The former are worth £15000 and the ones signed only by Matisse a paltry £2500. Bono is said to possess a Matisse only signed Ulysses (pic below) , the double signature being beyond his pocketbook. But that's another story...

This naming of novels as if they are reference manuals has been going on for a few years and is as old hat as books whose titles or subtitles begin 'A Very British...' Another maddening development is the book that looks like a biography (saleable) but turns out to be a novel (almost all unknown contemporary novels are completely and utterly unsaleable)- such a work is Donald Olson's 1993 novel 'Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley'. It even has illustrations. Value in fine condition £0.1 + £2.80 postage and it's a heavy novel so any dealer speculating in it is going to come way with about 70p for their efforts, presuming they paid no money at all for it.

22 March 2012

Books Bought 1922

Found on the slightly worn spine of a Kelly's Suffolk 1922 a 'books bought' advertisement by one John Jeffery of 35 High Street, Barnes (London). Kelly's was a sort of yellow pages listing trades and residents by streets and some are much prized by local historians and collectors. The ad reads:
BOOKS BOUGHT. Large or small collections also prints, portraits, engravings etc., Libraries Catalogued and Valued. Any Distance. Write To-day. John Jeffery, 35 High Street, Barnes, S.W. 13.
No phone number so first approaches were made by mail in a leisurely way. I had thought John Jeffery was something to do with George Jeffery of the unforgettable book barrows on London's Farringdon Road - the Jeffery's were trading from about 1880 until the late 1990s. However all Jeffery's were called George and the last street trader was George IV and his son a familiar figure at PBFA bookfairs who also trades online is, I guess, George V.

John Jeffery seems to have flourished in the early 1920s and is only to be found once at Google Books in a 1922 Book Auction Records in a list of dealers. He is next to the legendary dealer Christopher Millard of Abercorn Place St John's Wood, the dealer who set AJA Symons on his quest for Baron Corvo and a pal of the young Anthony Powell to whom he wrote: "A sordid business selling books, but very amusing." I like the sound of Jeffery's Catalogue no 324:

MSS., Association Books, Presentation Copies, etc., including the Original
MS. Volumes of Shelley's Poetical Works, with Notes and a Memoir by Rosetti,
3 vols., 1868-9 £200, ;; Museum Hermeticum, Francofurti, 1678, Arthur
Edward Waite's own copy used for his translation, £65 ; Dee — Relation of
what passed between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, folio, 1659, ; etc., etc.

Assuming 15 catalogues a year he must have been trading for at least 20 years. There were rich pickings in country houses after the Great War and I like to think that Jeffery's bold speculation in spine advertising paid off and he hit such a rich hoard of books that he was able to retire in luxury shortly thereafter...

15 March 2012

This is not a library...revisited

This an edited reposting of an earlier piece with an added bit on online selling. The bookshop mentioned has closed (forever.) So many bookshops have closed that the type of seller depicted here is fast becoming an endangered species...

'Bookselling is easy', someone said 'you buy a book for a dollar and sell it for two.' That's pretty much it + a pencil, rubber, laptop, battered Volvo and a supply of books, boxes and tape. In my experience books are very easy to buy but less easy to sell. Money is the scarce and rare item, so it is difficult to understand why some booksellers make it so hard for customers to buy books from them. Money is what we want. Money to buy more books. However when a bookseller is not shooting himself in the foot, he is usually punching himself in the face.

In the comments field several people mentioned the much hated bookshop on Love Street in San Francisco, where customers were routinely demeaned by petulant staff - a typical scene being a young woman who found a dozen books she wanted to buy and as she made her way through the shelves to find a few more, she was informed by an assistant - 'this is not a library'. She put the books down and left the shop forever (after.)

Dylan Moran said of his great curmudgeonly creation, the bookseller of 'Black Books'- "There is a guy in a Dublin bookshop who provided the image of Bernard Black. He looks like he’s swallowed a cup of sour milk and peed himself at the same time. He has this green bilious expression, years of displeasure have shaped his face. In fact he looks like every other second hand bookshop owner I’ve seen. It seems to go with the job - being miserable....He’s still there now seething in his ash-smudged cockpit, daring somebody to buy a book".

Here are some useful guidelines.

1. Price your books so high that they will only sell to the rich or deranged.

2. Make sure your shop looks as if it is closed so that no one comes in. Poor or sparse lighting can help and a stiff unoiled door is a bonus.

3. Post a lot of notices around the shop 'No Mobile Phones' 'Thieves will be prosecuted' 'No returns' 'All sales Final' etc.,

4. Greet the customer with a glower, a scowl or a look of deep mistrust. If you are feeling generous a frosty 'Good Morning! will suffice.

5. Ask them exactly what they want and if you do not have it be sure they leave before they can look round. If you have a specific book that is requested deny its existence but double the price when the customer leaves.*

6. If they don't buy anything follow them with your eyes to the door and plant an imaginary dagger between their shoulder blades and bid them a joyless and sneering goodbye.

7. Refuse all offers on books with a snort of utter contempt and only give a discount (10% absolute maximum) when explicitly requested by long established booksellers who are spending at least £100.

8. Calculate the discount to the nearest penny even if the amount is many hundred of pounds. Thus £112 becomes £100. 80 not £100. In some cases, say in California, sales tax (8.5%) can be added thus reducing the discount to a more acceptable 1.5%.

9. If you must take credit cards charge an extra 5% to cover expenses. Refuse Paypal and wait 2 weeks for checks to clear.

10. Always close exactly on time no matter how many customers are in the shop or how much they are buying. Close on all holidays including President's Day, Michaelmas and Saint Swithin's day.

11. If a customer puts a book aside give them 24 hours to decide but put the book out 24 hours later to the minute (at a greatly increased price.)

12. If another dealer buys an expensive book have a searching enquiry as to what went wrong; if it was priced by a member of staff fire them immediately.

13. If someone dares to phone you offering you a collection of rare books treat them with great suspicion, if any titles are mentioned dismiss them as common and undesirable. If they insist ask them to bring the books to the shop. If they intimate that the books are of very high quality, but they want nothing or very little for them, pick them up in your Volvo when you are in the area.


14. Do not give the condition of any book unless it is fine, in which case call it 'mint.'

15. Demand extra postage on any book that is a gram overweight and charge heavily for materials and packing time.

16. Ignore all requests for pictures of books, these come from time-wasters. If they persist inform them that the camera is broken.

17. Describe all books where there are less than 20 copies available as 'rare' if less than 10 'very rare.' Any book over 20 years old can be described as 'good for its age.'

18. Pack books unwrapped in a (used) jiffy bag, they have sufficient protection in themselves.

19. Fight any attempt to return a book. A statement that all books must be returned within three days of ordering will suffice.

20. Always state if a book is ex-library but don't forget to call it 'fine' ; most are without the stamps, labels and perforations.

***Driffield used to have a good response to the question 'What are you looking for?' His reply was: 'A thousand pound book priced at less than a hundred.'

06 March 2012

Fraudulent memoirs

Anne Hughes, The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife , edited by Suzanne Beedell (1964 ) (£15)

Frequently to be found in the biography/memoirs sections of second hand bookshops and a common item online, this brief ‘ diary’ covers just one year (1796/7) and on the surface does appear to offer valuable insights into the life of a middle-class Georgian farmer’s wife, though she is no Woodforde, Cullwick , or Ann Lister.
But all students of social history should beware. The original diary has never been found and Anne Hughes hasn’t been traced, which raises doubts about the book’s authenticity. The journal was serialised in the Farmer’s Weekly in 1937, with a provenance turning on whether the contributor, one Jeanne Preston, an amateur local historian and playwright, was telling the truth when she maintained that the manuscript was given to her by the family nurse. Twenty seven years later the Journal appeared in book form, edited by one Suzanne Beedell, whose books include such classics as Restoring Junk, Brasses and Brass Rubbing and Menopause: questions and answers.

Most people of sense believe that the lack of both a original source and a traceable author make the book worthless as a historical document. But fans of Mrs Hughes seem unabashed. So devoutly do they believe in the writer and her diary that they have created a website as a tribute, though their plea for further information about author and diary has a slight air of desperation.
So, for the sake of scholarship, can I suggest to National Trust speakers that they bin the testimony of Mrs Hughes and find other recipes for salmagundi, syllabub and frumenty.

James Williams, A Narrative of James Williams (American Anti—Slavery Society 1838) ($947)
When this memoir of a slave’s humbling experiences as a ‘ driver ‘on a cotton plantation in Alabama appeared it was accepted at its face value by most readers. The fact that the respected poet and Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier was involved as a sort of editor/consultant doubtless ensured that its probity would never be questioned. However, within two months of its publication doubts were raised by one newspaper editor as to the factual accuracy of its account of life in Alabama, and these questions never really went away. Today, experts in slave trade history regard Williams’ memoirs as a piece of propaganda and one Shadrach Wilkins has been fingered as the author.

Hesketh Pearson, The Whispering Gallery; being leaves from the diary of an ex-diplomat (1926 ) (£50 +)

After starting off in the literary world at the late age of 34 with Modern Men and Manners (1921), a series of theatrical pen portraits, the ingenious native of Hawford Worcestershire, sometime shipping clerk and actor- manager, published anonymously in 1926 what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a rather outspoken and possibly libellous memoirs of Sir Rendell Robb’s dealings with various high-fliers in politics and public life over a distinguished career. After a review in the Daily Mail strongly challenged the veracity of the account, the publisher John Lane brought legal proceedings against the author on the charge of ‘ obtaining money by false pretences’. In court Pearson admitted that the book was fiction, but denied the charge against him and was acquitted. The publisher nevertheless had already ordered that all copies of the book be withdrawn from sale and pulped, which makes the first edition a rare commodity, though oddly, one dealer on ABE has two nice copies priced at £50 and £100
The text was revised for a second edition, which proved a minor best-seller and is to be found very cheaply. From this unpromising start Pearson was to go on to become one of the most prolific biographers of the twentieth century, easily beating the late Humphrey ‘one book a year‘ Carpenter.

Sister of the Road; an autobiography of ‘ Boxcar ‘ Bertha as told to Dr Ben L Reitman ( 1937 ) ($10)
Actually, totally written by Ben Reitman. ‘ Boxcar’ Bertha Thompson was a fictional creation of this left-wing, sometime hobo, whorehouse physician and champion of birth control, who duped readers into believing that he was the ghost writer to whom Ms Thompson, a lady hobo, had confided her personal experiences. In fact Sisters of the Road was based on the testimonies of many different female hobos interviewed by Reitman over a period of time. The film Boxcar Bertha (1972), the second feature by Martin Scorsese, bears little resemblance to the text of 1937.
[R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Sterling work. Good to see Hesketh Pearson there, I was unaware he had his collar felt. This blog was inspired by the young writer Emma Taylor who sent us her blog from a college website 10 Bestselling Books That Were Later Debunked. Thus encouraged Robin dug out a few earlier examples. Emma's were the modern culprits, the sort of writers who have to make grovelling apologies to Oprah when the truth comes out. We are talking 'A Million Little Pieces' by James Frey, 'Three Cups of Tea' by Greg Mortenson and 'Sarah' by JT LeRoy. We may cover some of these later. Few are so far collectable or of value although the very recent fake book (plagiarism) Quentin Rowan's debut thriller 'Assassin of Secrets' seems to have some value already...