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The rarest of them all

By February 7, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu-LITERARY REVIEW   –   Pradeep Sebastian



Listing 2018’s best books on books


Catalogues are the windows to the soul of rare books.” Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of bookseller catalogues in this way before? The line is from John R. Payne’s Great Catalogues by Master Booksellers, which has been described as “a meta catalogue of catalogues”, and brings together 140 bookseller catalogues. There is no trade edition of Great Catalogues as yet, only a finely produced limited edition. Payne has thoughtfully included introductory essays and prefaces, making this a useful tool for collectors and dealers. It is astonishing that a book on catalogues had never been attempted before.

Four masterpieces

Great Catalogues is one among four splendid scholarly books on the rare book world in my list of the best books on books in 2018. A great loss for the antiquarian trade, especially in the collecting field of “Americana”, was the recent death of renowned scholar-bookdealer William Reese.

A collection of his essays and talks titled Collectors, Booksellers, and Libraries: Essays on Americanists and the Rare Book Market is just out. I have personally enjoyed buying books and ephemera from his bookshop, William Reese Company, and it’s a pleasure to deal with the friendly and knowledgeable staff at Reese.

The next book in my entry may seem rather dry and remote to some bibliophiles, but not to collectors of fine press books. The Green Family of Papermakers and Hayle Mill is the history of one of the finest English handmade papers ever made: Barcham Green paper. Each time I find a fine press book that is printed on BG paper, I rejoice.

BG handmade paper has been the paper of choice for private printers for more than a century. It’s the loveliest of handmade papers. Maureen Green’s book looks at the passion and struggles of six generations of the Green family to keep the art of making paper by hand alive when other handmade paper mills had all shut down.

In the provocatively titled The Invention of Rare Books, distinguished book historian David McKitterick investigates something I didn’t think could be investigated: the notion of how rarity in books was invented. It poses the question: “When does a book that is merely old become a rarity and an object of desire?” McKitterick traces the idea of rare books, starting with the 16th century in Europe, to show how libraries, the book trade, and collectors began canonising a few select books as important, valuable and scarce.

Tracing Gutenberg

The finest entry in this roundup, Editio Princeps: A History of the Gutenberg Bible, has just won the 2018 DeLong Book History


Prize. Eric Marshall White’s book is a tour de force of “archival sleuthing”: it traces the provenance (that is, the ownership) of every surviving Gutenberg copy in the world, even the scattered fragments.

You have to try and imagine this: being able to tell the story of what happened to each of the 49 or so copies of the 180 printed in the 15th century in Mainz that exist today in the hands of private collectors and rare book institutions.

It means tracing every single ownership from then to now for 40-plus copies over five centuries — who owned it, who sold it, to whom and where, who stole it, the years they disappeared from view and then resurfaced at auctions, the prices paid for each, the collectors and dealers and crooks who handled them — it makes for riveting reading.

White, the curator of rare books at Princeton University, worked on the book for 20 years, chasing down each copy and fragment, combining the highest scholarship with bibliographical detective work.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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