We at Fine Books were so saddened to learn that Bob Fleck, founder of Oak Knoll Books & Press, passed away last week.
For so many bibliophiles, including myself, Oak Knoll is a point of entry into the world of books about books. I first visited Fleck and his shop back in 2001, when I wrote an article about Oak Knoll for Publishers Weekly. I attended Oak Knoll Fest VIII, took home one of the amazing catalogues for which Oak Knoll is known, and was swept up into a world that I was only beginning to explore, a world that he had, in large part, created. For that, I am so grateful.
It was at that festival fifteen years ago that I first met Nicholas Basbanes--talk about an entrée into bibliophily. Nick has twice presented at Oak Knoll. He described Bob this way: “A truly great bookman, and an outstanding human being. When we talk about ‘books about books,’ we are talking about Oak Knoll Books, its publishing arm, Oak Knoll Press, and the guiding spirit of both, Bob Fleck. I couldn’t begin to count the number of titles Bob sent my way for my own work.”
According to Webb Howell, publisher of Fine Books, Bob Fleck was a long and loyal supporter of the magazine. “Fine Books had worked jointly on several things with Oak Knoll over the years, including a limited edition of Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Bob brought a wonderful sense of business and order to the book community.”
Oak Knoll has announced that this year’s Oak Knoll Fest XIX scheduled for September 30-October 2, will go on, as per Bob’s wishes.
The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers has posted a lovely condolence note here, and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America is collecting memories and memorials to post here. In 2014, Bob sat for this video interview at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair:
We at Fine Books were so saddened to learn that Bob Fleck, founder of Oak Knoll Books & Press, passed away last week.
In 1989, the Souvenir Press published a limited edition of Slightly Foxed--but still desirable: Ronald Searle’s Wicked World of Book Collecting, a volume that continues to delight book collectors. In it, Searle, a British artist and cartoonist, put his pen to work on the lingo of antiquarian booksellers’ catalogues, e.g., “a little thumbed,” “cracked but holding,” and, as seen in the illustration below, “spine defective.” His style was effusive and irreverent.
This original illustration in ink, graphite, and watercolor--one of more than sixty drawn for the initial publication--appeared on page 65 of Slightly Foxed. Searle’s famous satire has since been published in a trade edition and a Folio Society edition.
Now, nestled amongst New Yorker cartoon art and children’s book illustrations, this signed drawing goes to auction at Swann Galleries. The estimate is $2,000-3,000.
Image via Swann Galleries.
“The Joy of Reading” by Will Barnet. Photo: B.B. Richter.
Like many well-intentioned parents, mine bring stuff whenever they come to visit. A recent trip yielded a dozen prints and posters carefully sealed in cardboard tubes. All had probably seen the light of day at least once, but one print in particular probably spent three decades rolled up: an elegant, highly stylized portrait of a young boy sitting on a swing by the sea reading an oversize book to his mother, created by legendary artist and printmaker Will Barnet. (The New York Times ran a fascinating profile on him in 2010, when, at age 99 and unable to use his left hand or stand, Barnet continued to spend up to four hours a day at his easel.) Commemorating sixty years of the Book of the Month Club, my “Joy of Reading” print was issued in 1986, and simple math led to the startling conclusion that this would mark the ninetieth year that the Book of the Month Club has sent select volumes to subscribers across America. (Tempus fugit.) Truthfully, I didn’t know whether the Club still existed, and if so, I wondered how a company wholly dedicated to printed books that relied on the postal service would fare in this new era of print-on-demand and e-books.
The answer is: surprisingly well. Founded by economist-turned-publisher Harry Scherman in New York in 1926, the Club’s founding mission was to introduce readers to new and noteworthy books like Gone with the Wind and Catcher in the Rye. The last fifteen years have been something of a roller-coaster for the Club; it was purchased in 2000 by Bookspan LLC, an online and direct-mail venture created by Time Warner and Bertelsmann, which was itself swallowed up by Bertelsmann in 2008. Bookspan was then quietly sold to private-equity investor Najafi Companies, which in turn unloaded the company onto Pride Tree Holdings, a Delaware-based corporation established in 2012, the year it acquired Bookspan. Now, Book of the Month Club operates as one of over a dozen book-centric subscription entities under Bookspan’s aegis.
After a three-year hiatus, the Club was relaunched in 2015 as an e-commerce site. Here’s how it works: Subscribers create a profile and select a membership plan. A one-month subscription costs $16.99, whereas a 12-month subscription totals $144.88. Subscribers are notified on the first of each month of the Club’s five selections, curated by a panel of judges including book bloggers, journalists, authors, and monthly guest judges like Whoopi Goldberg and David Sedaris. Subscribers then have five days to make their picks, and the selections ship out by the seventh. (Caveat emptor: Other than gift plans, all memberships renew automatically, so read the fine print before diving in.) Bookspan’s Head of Development Jennifer Dwork likened the latest incarnation of the Club to “Birchbox [a makeup subscription service] for books.”
“Our judges receive the books three months in advance,” said Dwork. “The only criteria we provide is that their selections be a shining example of its form.” As in years past, the books are bound and designed to highlight their Club provenance. These days, books boast a stylish circular crest on the front boards. For authors, being selected for Book of the Month can mean the difference between feast or famine, reaching hundreds of thousands of additional readers who many not otherwise think to pick up their title.
“At relaunch, we focused on social media,” continued Dwork. “Our Instagram page is robust [boasting over eighty-six thousand followers], and we encourage community members to share images of their books.” Lucky participants are rewarded with free memberships, tote bags, and monthly book credits.
From a collecting standpoint, few serious book hunters covet book club editions, or BCEs, though some publishers are more desirable than others--read Biblio’s excellent 2010 treatise on how to spot BCEs here.
Though the company won’t release any sales figures, Dwork said that since its relaunch, the Club’s customer base has grown steadily. “We’re excited because we’re reaching a growing demographic: young women between the ages of twenty to thirty-five, and they prefer reading physical books over reading on a tablet,” Dwork explained. The Club may be onto something: a recent Pew study demonstrated that 65 percent Americans get their literary pleasure in print rather than in digital format.
This current iteration of Book of the Month Club is tapping into a growing trend of subscription-based services while reaffirming that people still read and derive joy from physical books in the modern age. “Every book isn’t going to be for everyone, but we offer a great selection of established and emerging authors,” Dwork said. “We’re like your well read friend who recommends books and stands by them.”
Monthly gifts. Image used with permission from Book of the Month Club.
If you are not yet using Instagram, a social media app available on smart phones for sharing photos, you’re missing out on some prime opportunities for oohing and aahing over rare books. The app has been embraced by special collections libraries, and rare book sellers and collectors as a venue to showcase their marvelous holdings. There are hundreds of great rare book Instagram feeds from around the world.
Aimee Peake, proprietor of Bison Books in Winnipeg, a previous entry in our Bright Young Booksellers series, and an avid Instagram user herself (@bisonbooks), suggested we profile some of these rare book Instagram feeds on our blog. I put the call-out for recommendations on Twitter and the following streams bubbled up to the surface. Note that today’s post will focus on institutional accounts. A follow-up post will profile booksellers and collectors.
And so, in no particular order, here we go!
The British Library (@britishlibrary)
Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto (@fisherlibrary)
The American Antiquarian Society (@americanantiquarian)
W. D. Jordan Library, Queen’s University (@jordan_library)
Houghton Library, Harvard (@houghtonlibrary)
University of Miami, Special Collections (@um_spec_coll)
San Francisco Public Library Book Arts (@sfplbookarts)
University of Texas at San Antonio (@utsaspeccoll)
Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (@bplmaps)
University of Nevada at Las Vegas (@unlvspeccoll)
University of Iowa, Special Collections (@uispeccoll)
McGill Library and Archives (@mcgill_rare)
Free Library of Philadelphia (@freelibraryrarebooks)
Muhlenberg College Special Collections (@bergspecialcollections)
Lambeth Palace Library (@lampallib)
Congregrational Library & Archive (@congrelib)
American Bookbinders Museum (@american_bookbinders)
Northwestern University, Transportation Library (@transportationlibrary)
Still hungry for more? Check out a curated Wiki of institutional feeds.
Did we miss your favorite? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nate_pedersen
There is at least one good story coming out of Washington, D.C. this election season, and that is the grand opening on Saturday of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Thirteen years in the making, the museum has collected close to 37,000 artifacts that showcase the contributions of African Americans. It will be at the top of my to-visit list on my next trip to D.C.
Until then, an exploration of the permanent collection through the museum’s savvy web portal, however, provides a fantastic overview of museum’s scope. Of course, these literary highlights elicited my particular interest.
A first edition of Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899). Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
James Baldwin’s glass and brass inkwell is part of a larger collection of photography and memorabilia related to the novelist and poet. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of The Baldwin Family.
The Bible that belonged to slave revolt leader Nat Turner, c. 1830s. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Maurice A. Person and Noah and Brooke Porter.
The personal hymnal of Harriet Tubman, Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876). Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson.
A print depicting Frederick Douglass at his desk from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, c. 1879. Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joele and Fred Michaud.
Agatha Christie collectors will need to make room on Thursday for a delightful set of new stamps issued by the Royal Mail in celebration of the author’s 126th birthday.
Each of the six new stamps commemorate a classic Agatha Christie mystery, including “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” “And Then There Were None,” “A Murder is Announced,” and “The Body in the Library.”
The stamps, designed by Jim Sutherland and Neil Webb, have a great aesthetic to them, with an appealing retro-meets-modern look. But here’s the real kicker: each stamp features clues to help attentive viewers solve the mystery. The stamps include microtext, UV ink, and thermochromic ink, requiring a viewer to utilize a magnifying glass, UV light, and body heat to find the clues.
It’s an ingenious design, sure to delight Christie fans around the world. The stamps, which are incidentally valid within the UK for first class postage, are available for sale in the Royal Mail online shop.
“I am delighted that, 100 years after she wrote her first detective novel, my grandmother’s works are being celebrated in such a unique way by Royal Mail,” said Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard in a statement. “The ingenuity of her mysteries is cleverly represented in these distinctive designs, with the use of cutting edge technology - a welcome alliance of the traditional and the modern - adding to the delight. I am certain that ... mystery lovers will relish the puzzles that each stamp presents.”
When offered Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus, New Directions founder James Laughlin turned it down. The year was 1960, and London publisher William Heinemann was looking for an American publishing partner. They sent a typed proposal letter and a proof of The Colossus to four American publishers, among them New Directions, where editor Bob MacGregor subtly praised the book in a note to his boss, calling it “skillful,” particularly Plath’s poem for Leonard Baskin, “Sculptor.” But Laughlin decided to pass, scribbling on a slip of paper, “Nor for us, I’d say.”
Later this month, this mini archive including three pieces of publishers’ correspondence (one typed letter signed; one half typed, half manuscript note; and one brief manuscript note) accompanied by an uncorrected proof of The Colossus will go to auction at Freeman’s in Philadelphia on September 30. It is conservatively estimated at $1,000-1,500.
In 2011, Peter K. Steinberg, author of Sylvia Plath and founder of Sylvia Plath Info, wrote an article for FB&C about elusive Plath proofs. “[I]t is the two titles published during Plath’s life that are the more desirable for the collector, which is reflected in both their rarity and price.” Those two titles are The Colossus, which had been ultimately picked up by Knopf in the U.S. in 1962, and The Bell Jar, Plath’s pseudonymous novel published by Heinemann in 1963. She committed suicide soon after its publication.
According to Steinberg, Heinemann’s print run for the first edition of The Colossus was quite low--500 copies. As for pre-publication proofs, we might estimate 20-25 were produced, the same number bookseller Ken Lopez suggested in 2011 were made of The Bell Jar (which had a larger print run). Steinberg said the Freeman’s copy is the tenth recorded proof of The Colossus; six are held by institutions, two are privately owned, one is currently for sale for $5,500 from an online bookseller, and the one pictured above that goes to auction next week.
Uncorrected proofs have become a strong area of interest, particularly for collectors of modern first editions. As Ken Lopez explains, collectors are swayed by “the earlier the better” rule, and proofs represent the next best thing to collecting authors’ manuscripts, an unreachable goal for many collectors.
Last year Bonhams sold a previously unrecorded proof of Plath’s The Bell Jar, found by a student, for £5,250.
Image Courtesy of Freeman’s.
The Folio Book of Ghost Stories, reproduced with permission from The Folio Society. David McConochie has a flair for creating otherworldly art and was recently recognized as Illustrator of the Year at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s V&A Illustration Awards for his work on The Folio Book of Ghost Stories, a collection of nineteen haunting, blood-curdling tales of paranormal activity and malevolent beings by storytellers such as A.S. Byatt, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. (Last year’s winner was Virginia-based Sterling Hundley for illustrating the Folio edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) V&A panel judges said that McConochie’s work struck them “by the boldness of the composition and the way in which it set the tone for the unnerving stories within the book.” McConochie, 35, recently shared his thoughts on this momentous win and his approach to illustrating a volume of supernatural stories.
McConochie in his studio. Image used with permission from Folio Society.
McConochie joins a select group of artists with the V&A prize. “I had been aware of the awards going back to my student days, though such accolades back then seemed a remote idea,” he recalled. “As an artist, you’re out on a limb a lot of the time and in bit of a bubble, so it’s great having this sort of recognition.”
The artist’s perfectly creepy illustrations for The Folio Book of Ghost Stories appear pulled from another era, and in fact were inspired by early photography. “I had been looking at daguerreotypes in my research. There was a quality of underlying eeriness in the grainy images that I wanted to incorporate into some of the illustrations,” he explained. “I tend to soak up imagery and information from different sources before I start work and then start to put things together in an intuitive manner.” McConochie said that the artistic process can be quite chaotic, and the final image is often the result of hard work assisted by a dash of serendipity.
In addition to illustrating ghost stories, the artist enjoys reading them as well. “This [Folio Society edition] is a great collection and there are a few favorites, some of which I chose not to illustrate, such as “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens.” Another that came to mind was W.W. Jacobs wish-fulfillment story gone horribly wrong in “The Monkey’s Paw.” McConochie was drawn to the fact that “Jacob’s tale has this growing sense of dread. It creates some very macabre and gruesome imagery in the reader’s mind and yet holds back on revealing much; it’s all suggestion.” McConochie continues his foray into eerie underworlds and parallel universes with a series of paintings for a forthcoming book entitled Child of the Dark, a diary of a woman living in a Sao Paulo favela in the 1950s.
This volume is presented in a slime-green clamshell case, and the frontispiece is a portrait of a faceless apparition from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the Pole-Star.” The Folio Book of Ghost Stories, introduced by Kathryn Hughes and illustrated by David McConochie, is 296 pages with eight color illustrations and retails for $59.95.
Reproduced with permission from The Folio Society.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald family rowhouse, located at 599 Summit Avenue, is up for sale. The three-story, 3,441-sq. foot brownstone was built in 1889 and has four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Even without the enticing bit of literary history connected with the house, its price, $665,000, seems a bargain to this blogger, more familiar with West Coast real estate.
Fitzgerald’s parents moved into the house in 1918, and Fitzgerald joined them after brief stints in the US Army and the New York City advertising world. Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1919 in the house finishing This Side of Paradise in a third-floor room and taking frequent walks down nearby Selby Avenue. The Fitzgerald family, who moved frequently, vacated the house again in 1919, but its place in literary history was assured by F. Scott completing his most successful novel (during his lifetime, anyway) while living there.
You can get a peek behind the scenes of the Fitzgerald house on its Zillow listing.
Perhaps it is too obvious to say, but handwriting tugs at the heartstrings of book collectors. We look for and place value on signatures, inscriptions, and marginalia. So the idea that handwriting might someday be obsolete is unsettling. Put in context, however, bibliophiles will note some fascinating parallels between this divide and the one that Gutenberg faced five hundred years ago. Anne Trubek, editor in chief of Belt magazine, publisher of Belt Publishing, and sometime contributor to Fine Books, deftly provides that background in her new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury, September).
From a visit to the Morgan Library to behold (and hold) cuneiform at the book’s beginning to a visit to the Ransom Center to examine digital handwriting and contemporary authors’ archives near the book’s end, Trubek makes manageable what could be an unwieldy topic. She even explains how a goose quill pen is made! And who knew that Platt Rogers Spencer, developer of Amerca’s ornate 19th-century penmanship, took his inspiration from nature, fashioning his “a’s, b’s and c’s from the shapes for rocks, branches, and lakes that he looked at every day”?
Trubek is well-acquainted with the question that some historians and history-minded enthusiasts ask, “How can you read cursive if you cannot write it?” To which she responds, “The truth is, most of us already cannot read 99 percent of the historical record.” A compelling statement that is supported by her (too brief) interview with Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an expert in indecipherable historic scripts. Her point is that the shift away from handwriting is part of a long-term process, and it dredges up cultural and social anxieties that deserve to be considered in this debate.
That said, those who believe that teaching handwriting--a hot-button issue in American education--remains important will still find the book enjoyable to read because Trubek’s approach is even-handed; she seems less interested in converting readers than in offering up a thoughtful survey of a fraught subject.
Image via Bloomsbury Publishing.