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Putting Your Friends on the Shelf

 

One of my favorite characters in American history is Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. His forthright integrity is captured in one of his journal entries: “Mrs. Mease told me when dying that among other sins she had to repent of, one was too much confidence in my remedies.” Rush was a bit long in the tooth when Thomas Jefferson offered him an appointment as official physician of the Lewis and Clark expedition; he declined. In 1830 some of his writings were gathered into a book called Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind. On page 35 he comments that people who deal with books may be more susceptible to insanity than others because they shift their thoughts so often and quickly from one subject to another. I wonder what Jefferson would have thought of this notion.

I also wonder what Dr. Rush himself would have thought of the Reverend Leonard C. Hodge, a sixty-six-year-old parish priest in the English village of Stickney. I can’t find Stickney on any map or in any reference book, so I’m suspicious, but the Houston Chronicle reported on December 16, 1975, that the vicar had been exposed for his novel way of discarding worn out testaments, prayer books, and hymnals accumulated during his twenty-six-year tenure. Unable to confront a garbage can, he would bide his time until a parishioner was to be buried. “I arranged with the gravedigger to wait until all the mourners had gone,” he said, “and then we lowered a few of my unwanted books. I could imagine no one objecting to being buried with the scriptures around them.” That’s bibliomania for you!

Now, to digress for a brief moment. Posh Oltorf is—or was—the closest thing that Marlin, Texas, has to a boulevardier. In a delightful memoir called The Marlin Compound (Austin, 1968), he recited how his uncle Tom Bartlett would take his sons and nephews on Sunday-afternoon strolls through the old Calvary Cemetery, telling stories about those buried under the tombstones. Came the day that one of the boys expressed curiosity about a grave marker in the shape of an electric utility
pole. It was explained that it signified both the occupation as well as the cause of death of the grave’s occupant. He had been electrocuted while working as a lineman for the power company. And now I quote: “ . . . Uncle Tom said this was a dangerous precedent, lest there follow a steady erection of granite in the shape of phallic symbols and whiskey bottles.”

Seventy years later I wander among the shelves of my library and see books that stimulate my memory as gravestones stimulated that of Tom Bartlett. In my case, they are memories of book people—authors, illustrators, designers, publishers, sellers, and fellow collectors, many of them onetime members of this organization. Here is the palpable record of a lifetime’s accumulation of friendships, one of collecting’s preeminent pleasures.

In the June 20, 2000, issue of the New York Times, John Updike wrote eloquently of the ways in which his entire life story unfolds in the books that he has acquired along the way, each book bringing to life cherished memories. His point is that the presence of the physical book could never be filled with a computer screen. The late Everette DeGolyer Jr., himself the son of a once-familiar figure at these meetings, would have likened such a substitution to a swain giving his inamorata a good-night kiss through a latched screen door.

Petrarch, the great apostle of the Renaissance and the first modern man, who gave his books and manuscripts to found the library at Venice, once said: “There is within me an unquenchable desire which I have never been able to suppress, nor have I desired to suppress it, for I flatter myself that the desire for worthy things can never be unworthy. Would you know my complaint? I cannot satisfy my hunger for books, even when I have already more perhaps than are needful to me. But the search is like others; success only sharpens the edge of desire.”

Tell that to Mrs. Gereth, the protagonist of Henry James’s novella The Spoils of Poynton. A woman of impeccable taste, Mrs. Gereth had filled her exquisite old home not with books but with fine furniture and objets d’art. She had relied on “her personal gift, the genius, the passion, the patience of the collector—a patience, an almost infernal cunning, that had enabled her to do it all with a limited command of money.” Elsewhere James has Mrs. Gereth talking about things that she and her late husband had “worked for and waited for and suffered for. Yes, there are things in the house that we almost starved for! They were our religion, they were our life, they were us! There isn’t one of them I don’t know and love—yes, as one remembers and cherishes the happiest moments of one’s life. Blindfolded, in the dark, with the brush of a finger, I could tell one from another. They’re living things to me; they know me, they return the touch of my hand.” Mrs. Gereth could not bear to think of her treasures being abused, ignored, unappreciated. “There’s a care they want; there’s a sympathy that draws out their beauty,” she vowed. The booklovers I know are in tune with that mindset.

In my own case I always thought my collecting habits were dictated by an innate curiosity, a lifelong love of learning, an appreciation of printing and bookmaking as a performing art; and, above all, I thought of them as a vehicle for bringing together a wide-ranging circle of friends connected in some way with the book world, the place where I have always found
the most fascinating people. When author, editor, and bookman Clifton Fadiman died a few years ago at the age of ninety-five, he was remembered as having once said, “I haven’t had an interesting life; I’ve just known a lot of interesting people.” I understand what he meant. Time prevents me from telling you stories about book people I have known over the decades, ranging from Ed Clark to Price Daniel Sr. to Joe B. Frantz to Llerena Friend to Jo Stewart Randel to Ralph Yarborough and countless others in between. Booklovers each and every one, as well as Philosophical Society members.

Let me go on to explain that the two biggest events in my early life were the arrival of electricity to our rural Nueces County home two weeks before Christmas in 1938 and the appearance of the bookmobile the following summer. After that, life was never the same. Looming almost as large, however, was a book given me at Christmas in 1942 by a schoolteacher aunt of mine, whose gift became the most cherished companion of my childhood: A Picture Almanac for Boys and Girls by Samuel Nisenson and Grace L. Kohl. Each day of the year was represented page by page with succinct paragraphs describing historic persons, places, and events associated with that particular day. It was a gold mine of miscellaneous information that I carry in my head to this moment. Although I am from a staunchly religious family, I might be hard put to declare whether this book or the Bible had a greater influence on me. I had literally read the book to pieces by about 1947.

But this story has a happy ending, thanks to the search capabilities of the Internet. I was able to track down a replacement copy of A Picture Almanac for Boys and Girls from a dealer in upstate New York who demanded the sum total of thirteen dollars, plus three dollars for postage. That was probably one of the happiest days in my five decades as a bibliophile. My reason for repeating this story is that I believe the book stimulated a thirst for generalized knowledge that persists in my psyche to this day. It also accounts for the diffuse character of my book-collecting habits.

In the moments remaining let me share with you a few things I’ve learned about book collecting—rules, if you wish.

Rule 1. Define your paramount interest and stick to it. Become authoritative in your chosen field. Know more about it than any dealer, who must, by the very nature of his trade, be a generalist. Be careful about letting yourself get distracted. And remember, bibliographies are your best friends.

Rule 2. Always get the best edition of any book you choose to acquire, then make sure it’s a first printing of that edition. Because a second printing of a book, regardless of edition, will seldom be worth more than you paid for it and invariably less. Modern Book Collecting by Robert A. Wilson is a good guide to the identification of first editions, although other, newer guides are available.

Rule 3. Never discard a dust jacket or clip the price off the inside front flap.

Rule 4. Your personalized bookplate adds nothing to a book’s value unless you are a living legend. And God forbid that you should use one of those damnable embossing devices, which even notarys public have foresworn. If you must, make do with a tiny nameplate affixed at the bottom of the inside back cover, adjacent to the hinge.

Rule 5. This one may surprise you. Always buy the most expensive books you can afford. Books that have advanced significantly in price since publication stand a good chance of continuing to escalate in value.

Rule 6. To inscribe or not to inscribe? Some collectors hold that a book that is merely signed by the author, but not inscribed, retains better resale value. Personally, I prefer inscriptions, especially if I have paid a large sum of money for the book. But if you want your book inscribed, be sure to have the author insert the place and date of the inscription. Later in life your memory may need jogging. Anywhere except the title page is an appropriate place for an author to sign—designers put a bastard title page ahead of the title page for that purpose. Never with a felt-tipped pen, however.

Rule 7. Never forget your debt to those who helped you along the way. Two examples come to mind in my case: Charles Butt, who, at Dan Kilgore’s instigation in 1976, sent me a book that he had commissioned on the history of the Port Aransas lighthouse and, that same year, Ruth Kempner, who, at John Hyatt’s instigation, provided me a copy of Letters from Sandy, a privately printed memorial to her son who was killed in Vietnam. Just as it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, it’s never too late to say thank you again. 

I leave you with this admonition: Extremism in the quest for books is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of a bargain is no virtue.