A fix of bibliophilia

A fix of bibliophilia

A fix of bibliophilia

If you’re looking for a fix of pure, uncut bibliophilia, you can’t go wrong with these five books on books that have enthralled me this year. The newest, The Best Read Man In France by librarian Peter Briscoe, entertainingly deals with the many changes the book has faced: from the ‘death’ of the printed book to the digital book to how it has affected libraries, collectors and rare book dealers


The oldest books about books here, Proust’s Overcoat, tells the story of a secret bibliophile, a perfume manufacturer who led a double life: a business magnate by day, and a book collector by night (and weekends!).

The Best Read Man In France brings to mind the kind of  bookish games Borges and his fellow Latin American writers are fond of  playing — and Briscoe’s witty, sly tribute here is to Latin American booksellers and bibliographers! The book’s hero, Michael Ashe, is an antiquarian bookseller who refuses to give up when he finds the business of rare books in decline — even libraries seem to be turning to electronic resources. He journeys to more ancient book cultures — Mexico and Paris — to find answers and stumbles on Gabriel Naude, the 17th century Parisian librarian who wrote one of the earliest treatises on library collections and librarianship: Advice on Establishing a Library.  In Naude’s example, Ashe finds inspiration to launch a battle to save the printed book.
My favourite in this list, though, is Dr Rosenbach and Mr Lilly (also by another librarian, Joel Silver) which is a scholarly, yet literary account of one memorable book collector and one unforgettable bookseller that is destined to become a modern classic in the literature of antiquarian book collecting and dealing.

Not since 84, Charing Cross Road has there been such an enjoyable book about a bibliophile and a bookseller. While there’s really no real comparison to Hanff's book, this one will appeal to the literary reader even as it draws in the initiated bibliophile, just in the way Hanff's incandescent account did.

The next title in my list is Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories, printed by The Caxton Club. This handsome, richly illustrated book contains 52 accounts of association copies from curators of libraries, private collectors and book dealers on books that range from astronomy, ornithology, psychology, literature, art, political science and even film.

An ‘association copy’ in bibliospeak is a book signed and inscribed by the author to someone famous or someone significantly associated with the author. An engaging example of such an association copy would be Sir Vidia’s Shadow, signed and inscribed by Paul Theroux to Naipaul! At the heart of what distinguishes such copies from other copies is that it has a personal history. The copy has its own story to tell, very much apart from the story inside it! Book historians point to how every book has a personal history for its reader-owner; in this sense all books carry personal histories like the marginalia you scribble in your book, or our memories of when and where and how we read a book, and a specific copy that has personal meaning for you, and the friends and family you might have shared it with. Featured in this book are numerous marvellous instances of such unique, high-end copies.

Thoreau and Whitman met just once in their lifetime and exchanged copies of their books after inscribing it to each other. “Thoreau carefully pencilled: “H D Thoreau from Walt Whitman on the flyleaf. Whitman scrawled his signature..” Also featured here is a copy of poems gifted by Jane Austen to her favourite niece, Fanny. Cowper, poet and hymnodist, was Austen’s favourite verse maker and, visiting Fanny once, she couldn’t pass up the chance to thrust a copy of these poems on her. The inscription on the verso of the front free endpaper, which you can see a detailed close-up of, reads: ‘Fanny Cath Austen/June 29, 1808/The Gift of her Aunt Jane’. Included also is a T S Eliot-inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald, known for poor spelling, oblivious to the misspelling in the inscription: “For T S Eliot/Greatest of Living Poets/from his entheusiastic worshipper/ F Scott Fitzgerald/Paris/Oct/1925”.

Coming back to the secret bibliophile, Jacques Guerin became obsessed with collecting one thing more than anything else: everything Marcel Proust owned. He began with manuscripts, notebooks, first editions and moved on to furniture from Proust’s house: the bed, the bookshelves, desk and finally the overcoat the writer had “swaddled himself while out on various adventures and escapades, the coat that doubled as a blanket when he wrote in bed at night.”

Guerin would track down anyone connected with Proust, family and friends, attending their funerals to see if he could uncover from their possession more things the writer once owned or had used, and buy them for a handsome price. Why had he, in particular, become so obsessed with collecting Proust? That’s the tale Lorenza Foschini investigates and uncovers for us in Proust’s Overcoat.

Joel Silver’s account of the transactions between a rare book dealer and a rare book collector is an elegant, precise, and carefully detailed tale of antiquarian book collecting, buying and selling. Why is reading Dr Rosenbach and Mr Lilly so much fun for the bibliophile? Why does it excite and thrill so much? I think the enjoyment comes from the minutiae of book transactions that Silver knowledgeably and engagingly describes in stylish prose: first reading about an individual copy in a catalogue or a bookseller’s description, the suspended-waiting while you decide, and then the rush from deciding you definitely want it no matter the cost, making the purchase, and finally getting the book in the mail or having the book dealer hand it to you. The ritual is repeated with each new buy and the bibliographical pleasure derived is not from just the buyer-collector’s emotion but the emotion of the bookseller who acquires the hard-to-acquire copy, describes the book, prices it and then offers it to an individual collector who he knows might want it.

The last title here, which I’ll only mention and not review, is Scenes From a Bookshop: Short Stories by Hugh Gilmore (author also of the bibliomystery, Malcolm’s Wine) set in a secondhand bookshop! Stories about browsers, readers and booksellers. Bibliophilia can’t get any purer or stronger than this, can it?

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