20 December 2013

A Book About Books

Anthony Sillem, The Barrow in Newport Court; A Memoir of the Rare Book Trade (Hastings: The Hungry Hornet Press, 2011), pp. 53-54:
Book-collecting is something that tends to claim its devotees in early middle age, when disposable incomes are starting to reach a reasonable level [....] Why people start collecting books in the first place is, of course, a matter of conjecture, but there can be a kind of logical development to it. Most book buyers never get beyond the stage of reading paperbacks and I would agree that there is something very appetising about a newly purchased Penguin: like a delicious and nourishing slice from a freshly baked loaf. But a slice of bread soon grows stale and a well-read paperback quickly turns into a dreary looking object and then falls to bits. Over the years I have had to replace my Peter Whigham Penguin translation of Catullus and my A. C. Graham translation of 'Poems of the Late T'ang' over and over again. The next stage, then, is to buy the books that one intends to read more than once in hardbound form — not always as easy as it used to be. The old Oxford Standard Authors editions of the English poets, formerly stoutly bound in cloth and intended to last the student for many readings into his old age, are now only available in paperback, intended to last the student merely until he has taken his English degree and returned to his Playstation.

Once the reader has become accustomed to buying hardbacks then a temporal element can come into play. The best edition of his text may have been out of print for some years, even decades. He purchases a copy from his local secondhand bookseller and finds himself the owner of a handsome volume, well printed, strongly and attractively bound in high quality cloth and, if he is lucky, with collotype plates, gilt top and bevelled edges. Whilst hunting the shelves for his prize he picks up a copy of a favourite novel of his youth redolent of its period. It is the beginning of a first edition collection. And so on.
This memoir will appeal to anyone with a fondness for books and booksellers. It was a serendipitous discovery; I found it while browsing through Mr. Sillem's stock on Abebooks. At the end of each chapter he includes a list of books he associates with that period in his life — a nice touch.