June 2014 Archives

JamesI_057085 small.jpgLast summer I took a class at Rare Book School (RBS) titled Provenance: Tracing Owners & Collections. We looked at ownership inscriptions, stamps, bindings, and bookplates, and we dipped into paleography and heraldry.  Deciphering coats of arms was utterly new to me, and I found its application for book collectors fascinating. So when I read, a few months later, that the Folger Shakespeare Library was planning an upcoming exhibit titled Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare’s England, I knew it was something we should cover in our summer issue. We were very lucky that Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library and co-curator of this exhibit with Nigel Ramsay, agreed to write a behind-the-scenes account of the mounting of such an exhibit. Her essay, “Impaled and Quartered” is available in our summer quarterly, out this week.

Symbols of Honor, which opens tomorrow, looks at the craze for coats of arms and introduces us to the cantankerous yet talented heralds who debated who was worthy of such an honor--one feud involved Shakespeare’s father, granted arms in 1596--and drew beautiful, unique designs for each family.

One of my favorite items from the exhibit is this James I binding (above). The royal arms encircled with the Garter appeared everywhere, including on bindings. King James I of England must have commissioned the binding of this copy of his Meditatio in orationem Dominicam (1619), since his own arms (as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland) are surmounted by a crown and inlaid in gilt on crimson velvet.

For those of you visiting Washington, D.C. this summer, the exhibit runs through October 26. There is also a case-by-case online version of the exhibit, which will be an excellent resource when RBS holds the Provenance course again in the summer of 2015.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 9.44.16 AM.pngIt is the year of Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet is enjoying a revival in his centenary year (he was born on Oct. 27, 1914) with the Dylan Thomas 100 Festival, a National Theatre of Wales theatrical adaptation of “Under Milk Wood,” and a selection of unseen material at auction last week, where this autograph manuscript (seen at left) of his “Prologue to an Adventure,” c.1935, made $19,154.

Now, the Guardian reports, a piece of his unpublished verse will come to light in a new book. The pub ode, scribbled in pencil in 1951, was discovered by Fred Jarvis among the papers of his late wife, Anne, whose parents knew Thomas. “Written in Henneky’s Long Bar - now the Cittie of Yorke - in High Holborn, London, it was described by one Thomas expert, Professor John Goodby of Swansea University, as ‘no masterpiece’ but a very rare, exciting and ‘pretty valuable’ find.”

Image via Bonhams.
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On Tuesday, the working draft of Bob Dylan’s iconic song “Like a Rolling Stone” pulled in over $2 million at Sotheby’s. At the drop of the hammer, a new world record was set for a popular music manuscript. The final price of $2.045 million was inclusive of a buyer’s premium. 

The buyer was not identified, except to say that he is a private collector. Neither was the seller named, excepting a hint from Sotheby’s that the seller was a longtime fan from California “who met his hero in a non-rock context and bought directly from Dylan.”

Dylan wrote the song in 1965 in pencil on four sheets of Roger Smith Hotel letterhead stationery. The manuscript includes revisions, additions, marginalia, and even little doodles of a hat, a bird, and an animal with antlers.

The manuscript is “the only known surviving draft of the final lyrics for this transformative rock anthem” about a debutante cast out from upper class social circles.

The previous world record for a popular music manuscript was set in 2010, when John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for “A Day in the Life” sold for $1.2 million, also at Sotheby’s.

[Image from Sotheby’s]
9780300204070.jpgFor many (myself included), Winston Churchill is primarily known as a politician. Jonathan Rose’s* new book, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press, $35), seeks to disabuse us of that shallow description and introduce us to the Churchill we don’t know. Detailing his relationships with publishers, editors, and agents, as well as the authors who shaped his writing, Rose shows the larger canvas of Churchill’s literary work and traces the influence of his personal reading on his public life.

To those readers surprised by the fact that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, take a look at this full bibliography of his 43 book-length works (in 72 volumes), starting with 1898’s The Story of the Malakand Field Force and ending with the posthumous limited edition publication of The Dream in 1987. Collectors might also be interested in a Churchill specialty bookshop called Chartwell Booksellers in New York City, where you can browse and buy Churchill’s works and download chapters from Richard M. Langworth’s book, A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill.

*Who, in full disclosure, was my MA thesis adviser at Drew University, where he is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History. He was also the founding president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) and is co-editor of the journal Book History

Image via Yale University Press.

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Australian-British novelist P. L. Travers wrote about her great-aunt Ellie who inspired the beloved children’s character Mary Poppins in an unpublished story in 1941. Travers printed her story, entitled “Aunt Sass,” in a run of 500 copies for distribution amongst family and friends as a Christmas gift. The publisher Virago will resurrect the story and publish it for the first time for a wider audience this Christmas as part of its Modern Classics imprint.

“Aunt Sass,” known to Travers as “Ellie” and to the rest of the world as Helen Morehead Christina Saraset (“Sass for short”) was Travers’ great-aunt and unconscious inspiration for Mary Poppins. (Travers published the first Mary Poppins story in 1934). It wasn’t until later in her life that Travers realized she had mined aspects of Aunt Sass for her famous creation.

“I thought to myself, ‘Some day, in spite of her, I shall commit the disrespectful vulgarity of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’ And then it occurred to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet,” wrote Travers. “You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins.”

The Modern Classics edition out this Christmas will include two other stories that Travers privately printed in runs of 500 copies for Christmas gifts for family and friends: “Ah Wong,” from 1943 and “Johnny Delaney” in 1944.

[Image of P. L. Travers from Wikipedia]
Institutional collections of rare hip hop material -- check. Archives full of punk zines -- check. But can we say the same for heavy metal demo tapes, fanzines, and related ephemera? Not just yet, but The Book Shop in Covina, California, aims to change that with an assemblage of books, zines, photographs, flyers, posters, vinyl records, and more that documents the ear-splitting musical genre. In a catalogue that the ABAA bookseller will debut this week at the Rare Books & Manuscripts Society (RBMS) Preconference in Las Vegas, co-owner Brad Johnson writes by way explanation: “Metal, however, hasn’t received its due. That this important segment of our culture has been neglected is inexplicable, especially at a time when so much in the way of source material, the building blocks of original research, is on the verge of being lost.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 10.40.59 PM.pngMetal: The First Heavy Metal Catalogue is super fun to peruse -- check out the complete 132-card set of KISS bubble gum cards from 1978 (gum included), a later issue of the original demo tape for Metallica’s “No Life ‘Til Leather,” and an Alice Cooper-signed and dated concert t-shirt. A collection of 70 backstage passes for metal and hard rock concerts between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, most printed on satin and showing original tour art from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and Motley Crue, is an incredible find. And sending this writer right down Memory Lane: the 1986 vinyl record of Poison’s “Look What The Cat Dragged In!”

Between the musicians’ memoirs, the fanzine collections, and items like the May 11, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone that contained the first documented use of the phrase “heavy metal,” this catalogue makes a convincing argument as to the material’s scholarly appeal. Books like Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota (2001), of which there is a signed first edition here, and a 2011 scholarly article, “Collecting Heavy Metal Music” by Karson Jones of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, certainly help to bolster that position as well. As Jones writes, “The fact is that, regardless of how one feels about the music and culture of heavy metal, an increasing amount of social scientific and musicological research is being done on the subject. ... Research collections and archives are needed to support this study and teaching. These collections need to contain not only the academic literature and the seminal sound recordings, but also the visual art, fashion, and other ephemera that are inseparable from the metal experience.”

In the catalogue’s introduction, Johnson explains that the archives and artifacts listed in the catalogue would function as a foundation for a comprehensive collection devoted to the art and culture of heavy metal. The Book Shop is offering this collection en bloc for $40,000. 
Yesterday at Christie’s NY, a first edition, first issue of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman sold for a world-record price of $305,000 (including premium) to a US dealer. Was it the five scarce broadside advertisements tipped to the front endpapers that tipped the scale?

The auction of “Clark Family Treasures” was intense--lasting nearly 8 hours and covering rare books, art, furniture, silver, and musical instruments--and very fun to watch, with 96% of lots selling, very often over estimate. The beautiful Baudelaire I posted about earlier this week sold to a European dealer for $293,000, double its high estimate.

Another record-breaker from the sale: Lionel Walden’s oil on canvas, Hawaiian Coast, sold to a private collector for $106,250, a world record for the artist.

Overall, the sale realized $8.5 million.
Our Bright Young Things series continues today with Kaitlin Manning of B & L Rootenberg in Sherman Oaks, California.

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How did you get started in rare books?

My journey into the trade was anything but straightforward. My first love was Shakespeare, and after college I pursued classical acting (inevitably picking up some bartending skills along the way). I started feeling pretty dissatisfied with that lifestyle, so I decided to transition into the visual arts.  Though my undergraduate major was in Art History, I knew I wanted more training and expertise in a specific field. I was lucky enough to secure a spot at the Courtauld Institute where I completed a Master’s degree in Medieval Art, with a special emphasis on illuminated manuscripts. While writing my dissertation, I went to the London book fair for a little inspiration and, frankly, to get out of the library for a few hours. It was there that I met Howard Rootenberg, who got me thinking about turning my academic interests into a career in rare books. Five months later I was working for him!

What is your role at B & L Rootenberg Rare Books & Manuscripts?

I was interested in working with the Rootenbergs because I wanted to learn the business from top to bottom. I do everything from packing and shipping to cataloguing and attending book fairs throughout the year. Now that I understand the business and the culture a bit more thoroughly, I am also starting to develop a social media program to engage with the broader community. As images are becoming more and more important to what we do, a big part of my job has been learning to photograph our inventory and think about ways to promote it. At our last few book fairs we featured illustrated, digital versions of our catalogues, and I think we will continue to do so in the future.

What do you love about the book trade?

I get to learn something new every single day. The first book I catalogued here was a British treatise on kidney stones, and I just finished researching a rare seventeenth century book on heavenly phenomena. I never know where my day will take me. There is so much to learn, so many rabbit holes to fall into, that there will never be a point when you can “know it all.” That, to me, is a pretty exciting line of work.

Favorite rare book or ephemera that you’ve handled?

Handling first editions of the major scientific breakthroughs - Newton’s Principia, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, and Darwin’s Origins, to name a few - have certainly been awe inspiring moments; but the art historian in me is always drawn (pun totally intended) to exquisite images. One of the first rare books I handled in grad school was a copiously illustrated Apocalypse at the Wellcome Collection in London. I think that was the one that hooked me. 

What do you personally collect?

Nothing at the moment, though I would love to start. At each book fair I will have my heart set on some Japanese prints, only to be lured by the pull of some bizarre ethnographic study, which then gets me thinking about travel and voyages. In short, I’m still looking for that “gateway” book. 

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

Now that it’s looking like this whole internet thing isn’t just a fad, and with technology continually replacing itself like some asexual swamp frog, the times are, clearly, a changin’. I think it’s easy to project fears and anxieties about the future of the trade onto young people (particularly those who grew up with the new technology) by arguing that they just aren’t interested in what we do. Frankly, I think that’s unfair. The challenges of bookselling and reaching new customers may be different than they were fifty years ago, but the tools at our disposal are also more powerful. Unfortunately, the multitude of digital platforms out there can seem overwhelming, and I think it prevents a lot of booksellers from really investigating the potential power of social media, particularly in terms of expanding the community and sharing expertise. But although maintaining an online presence is becoming more and more important to what we do - and indeed, to EVERY business and institution out there - I think it’s equally important not to swing too far in the other direction; I am still of the opinion that personal contact will always carry the day. In a way, this is a great metaphor for the rare book trade itself. The era of the “e-book” might be here to stay, but words on a screen will never replicate the experience of interacting with the real deal.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

We have been talking about putting together a catalogue of books related to chemistry (with images, of course!) in the coming months. We will be attending RBMS in Las Vegas at the end of June, and then hopefully a relatively quiet but productive summer before gearing up for Boston in the autumn.

the_paper_snake_cover-0.jpgLA’s Siglio Press releases this month a reprint of Ray Johnson’s long out-of-print The Paper Snake (1965), a book the publisher describes as “a vertiginous, mind-binding artist’s book...far ahead of its time in its subversive and exuberant confluence of art and life.” Johnson, whose circle included Andy Warhol, Christo, and John Cage, is considered a pioneer of “correspondence art” (or “mail art”), and much of his art is revealed in his collage-style letters. Siglio’s 48-page jacketed hardcover is printed in an edition of 1,840 copies (the same as the original run) and includes an introductory essay by Frances F. L. Beatty, director of the Ray Johnson estate, as a separate insert.

Complementary to that, Siglio will also release Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson, 1954-1994, edited by Elizabeth Zuba with an essay by Kevin Killian, in July.

Image: From The Paper Snake by Ray Johnson. Copyright the Estate of Ray Johnson, courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.
moby dick first.jpgSwann Galleries will hold a diverse auction of 19th and 20th century literature on Thursday, June 19th. The top lot of the sale is a first American edition (1851) of Moby Dick in a first state binding, with an estimate at $18,000 - $25,000. The first American edition followed the first British edition by one month, containing 35 passages emitted from the British edition as well as an epilogue. This copy also has the extremely rare white endpapers, which are present on only a handful of known copies. 

In 1851, Moby Dick was a near total failure, poorly received by critics and the general public, and launching a slow decline of Melville’s previously promising literary career. It wasn’t until the 1920s, some 30 years after Melville’s death, that the book’s modern reputation as an American classic began to assert itself.

Melville’s American publisher, Harpers’, suffered a fire in 1853 that destroyed the plates for Moby Dick as well as most of its backstock.  The rarity of the first American edition was increased as a result.

Other highlights of Swann’s auction include:


The auction will take place on Thursday, June 19th at 1:30 P.M. (EST).

[Image courtesy of Swann Galleries]

Among the “Clark Family Treasures” on sale at Christie’s New York on Wednesday, this extra-illustrated copy of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, in a stunning mosaic binding by Charles Meunier, is on offer alongside one of the rarest violins in the world, a John Singer Sargent painting, and a Louis XV mantel clock. The auction house believes the book will realize at least $80,000.

Baudelaire_Les fleurs du mal copy.jpgPublished in Paris in 1857, this first edition is extra-illustrated with two autograph letters by Baudelaire, one by French painter Felix Bracquemond and two by writer Champfleury, two portraits of the author, original drawings and proof etchings, and 33 ornamental head-and-tail pieces by Bracquemond for an illustrated edition of the book. The volume was last on the market in 1919, when Anderson Galleries sold the estate of Samuel Putnam Avery. It was Avery who commissioned the morocco binding, tooled in gold and silver, with colored inlays of flowers and snakes, demons, and skulls. According to the catalogue notes, even the two pierced metal clasps and catches have skull designs.

Why has this macabre beauty remained unseen for nearly 100 years? It’s merely one of many intrigues of the Clark Family. Most modern readers were introduced to Huguette Clark in 2010 when an investigative reporter found her still alive--and living for the past two decades in a secluded hospital room, despite her enormous wealth. The heiress died in 2011, at the age of 104. The astounding fact of the matter is that her father, the so-called “copper king” and U.S. Senator William Andrews Clark, was born in 1839. (Huguette was the second child from his second marriage to a much younger woman.) In his lifetime, he amassed an incredible amount of money, some of which he spent on fine art and collectibles until his death in 1925. Huguette and her mother continued that spree into the 1960s. In addition to exceptional collections of art, the Clark family acquired fine furniture, tapestries, dolls, and rare books. After both of her parents died, Huguette held on to the collections now being dispersed. At this week’s sale, other high points in rare books include a first edition, English issue, first issue binding of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (estimated at $100,000-150,000) and an extensive, annotated notebook of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry and prose (estimated at $80,000-120,000).

Image Credit: CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014
On Tuesday June 10th, representatives from the Folio Society marked the company’s entrée into select New York City bookstores with champagne toasts and hands-on time with some of the publishing house’s finest wares. Chartwell Booksellers hosted the event. The celebration marks the first time in Folio Society’s sixty-seven year history that its titles are available in U.S. bookstores.

The fine books publisher began developing a partnership with retailers in 2001, when the company extended its catalog to London-based Harrods, Waterstones, the British Library, and the British Museum. Tuesday’s affair recognized the Folio Society’s state-side launch.

The Folio Society’s move into bookstores means customers do not have to become Society members in order to purchase books, and they will be able to physically handle the books, two salient points the company considered before pursuing its push into retail outlets. “The best way to appreciate our craftsmanship and the quality of our editions is to experience them first hand,” says the Folio Society’s managing director Toby Hartwell.

In addition to Chartwell Booksellers, New Yorkers can find various Folio Society editions at the Frick Collection, Books of Wonder, and the Readers & Writers Shop at the NYPL in Manhattan, and the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn.

The Folio Society plans to expand its retail presence into Boston later in 2014.

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with John Vincler, Head of Reader Services at the Morgan Library & Museum.

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[photo cation: © The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photography by Graham  S. Haber 2014.]

How did you get started in rare books?

I owe my career to the Newberry Library in Chicago and in particular to mentor librarians and curators there, especially Paul Gehl, Mary Wyly (long-retired and probably completely unaware of her influence), and Jo Ellen McKillop Dickie. I wandered into the profession from a rather counter-intuitive route. After receiving an undergraduate degree in English literature with a minor in philosophy, I found myself in Chicago working on a long-running independent literary magazine and working at what was then a start-up non-profit called the Electronic Literature Organization, which sought--in the heady days of the dot-com boom before the inevitable bust--to chart and promote how literature was migrating into new media with special attention to emerging forms like hypertext fiction and kinetic poetry. We had funding from dot-com CEOs and a literary board with literary heavyweights like Barney Rosset, George Plimpton, and Robert Coover. When the bubble burst, I was out of a job (the organization was taken in by UCLA) and I found my way into a fundraising job at the Newberry. My experience working at the ELO sparked an interest in the role of form, materiality, and technology in literature.  I became interested in the experiments of the OULIPO in France (the acronym in English translates roughly to “the workshop of potential literature”) and then began a gradual slide into history culminating in an ongoing interest in the incunable period. I ended up working at the Newberry Library for about five years on and off, eventually working in a paraprofessional position in Special Collections. During this time I earned two master’s degrees one in the History of the Book through the University of London and a library degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I don’t know if there is a better place to begin a career than at the Newberry Library, a fantastic collection, overseen by knowledgeable, lovely, and generous people, and in a livable yet cosmopolitan city where you can financially survive as a culture-worker in training.  

Could you say a bit more about where you earned your MLS degree?

While I officially graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the “where” is a bit more complicated.  My work at the Newberry was more important to my training than anything I did in the classroom at UIUC, but I really do think that the University of Illinois is regularly ranked as the best library program for a reason. It’s rigorous, practical, research-focused, and innovative. Thanks to a visionary professor, Dr. Ann Bishop, who was then at Illinois, I did the most significant work of my library degree at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. In library school, my focus was on rare books and special collections librarianship and also “community informatics,” which is essentially how information can be used to create knowledge and to empower communities to action.  The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) was an intensely intellectual place at the center of a very well organized and activist community. The PRCC has its own library (with some interesting rare books and maps), publishes its own newspaper, and has a youth-operated internet radio station and theater space. It also organizes public health efforts ranging from an HIV AIDS center to a farmers’ market. I took classes online, intensive summer classes at Urbana-Champaign, and then also with Dr. Bishop in a classroom at the PRCC. 

As part of a yearlong collaboration with Saúl Meléndez, a teacher in the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, we organized the first-ever exhibition on Puerto Rican history at the Newberry Library. We proposed the exhibit and the Newberry was enthusiastic about it. The students in Saúl’s class served as curators of the exhibition and throughout their semester they prepared the exhibition with occasional visits to the Newberry to review and select collection material and then to organize it into thematic cases and to write and translate the object descriptions. The exhibit was called “500 Years of Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.” The students quickly realized the that nearly everything about Puerto Rico held by the library was in fact created by individuals who were not from Puerto Rico. The exhibition became a means to both learn about Puerto Rican history through primary sources, while also asking questions about how knowledge is created and by whom. In this way the students reframed the Newberry’s holdings in a very powerful way. It took a tremendous amount of faith on behalf of both the PRCC and the Newberry to think that a library student, a high school teacher, and a group of high school students could pull it off. And we did. The exhibit had the largest audience for an opening in this ongoing series showcasing rotating highlights from the collections.

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Head of Reader Services at the Morgan Library & Museum. In this role, I am charged primarily with managing the reading room and assisting readers both in the room and remotely through references queries that sometimes lead to a visit on-site, but other times do not. It is an interesting place to be as I deal with materials across all curatorial departments which range from ancient seals to contemporary drawings and prints. On a given day I may be assisting with the handling of a 15th century English cookery scroll, while helping someone else researching the provenance and exhibit history of Henri Matisse’s cut-out works, and dealing with Thoreau’s oversized sheets of nature notes and charts. My training is deepest in early printed books, so I am always happy when we can help a reader solve a bibliographical puzzle, whether by simply identifying a watermark or collating a book to better understand some aspect of its history and production. Academics probably make up the largest portion of our readership, but we regularly have artists, novelists, scientists, musicians, journalists, librarians, and collectors in the room, and it is a pleasure to see the genesis of so many creative and intellectual endeavors.

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

I just wrote a brief exhibition description for a book that I’ve become very interested in the last two years, a work of philosophy by Charles de Bovelles published by Henri Estienne in 1510.  Seen from the past Bovelles is part of a mystic-philosopher strain that includes Ramon Llull and Nicolas of Cusa or seen from the present he’s doing proto-phenomenology and media theory. I’m particularly interested in the way Bovelles represents his ideas not only in writing but through the combination of text and image, especially his highly conceptual emblematic woodcuts and the many diagrams contained throughout. Before coming to the Morgan Library, I was Rare Book Research Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which holds a fantastic collection of books from the great French scholar-printer family, the Estiennes. The 1510 Bovelles text was one UNC did not have, but my colleague Claudia Funke noted a repurposed woodblock in a UNC Estienne book that first appeared in the 1510 Bovelles. I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar that brought me to the Bodleian and the British Library and everywhere I went that had a copy I spent some time studying it and was hooked. When I arrived at the Morgan, I noted that we also had a copy with marginalia and some interesting canceled pages. I haven’t had time to make sense of the variants I’ve noticed across copies, but I do hope to write on some aspect of the book in the next year or so. A digitized microfilm of a copy can be viewed freely online through the BNF’s Gallica portal.

What do you personally collect?

My partner is a novelist and together we have a book problem.  After moving to New York, to Brooklyn, over a year ago we went a little out of control. The bookstores here remain very good and there are many of them (my favorites are Unnamable Books in Brooklyn for its philosophy and poetry sections, new and used, and McNally Jackson in Manhattan for being the type of shop that one always wanted the major chains to be with a wide selection of new things but solid holdings of literature while making space for interesting things in the margins). But this is mostly buying--perhaps hoarding--books for a working library. Lately, I have been buying screen-printed posters from Ron Liberti, a silk-screen virtuoso living near Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He’s been a professional jobbing printer specializing in music gig posters for decades. I’m not interested in the music posters, but I love the posters he’s made by collaging elements from various screens he’s had in his studio for years. These works distill the best aspects of his design sensibility. In this work he’s not doing a job for a client, he’s directed purely by his visual sensibility, his experience with the medium, and his deep catalog of imagery. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s the rare thing I don’t tire of looking at, and it can be acquired on a librarian’s budget. I also collect modernist literary magazines (my favorite: a near perfect copy of Transition with a cover by Matisse, a poem by Picasso, and an art review by Beckett) and out of print poetry books and experimental novels--all acquired on the cheap, usually under $20.  

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

The books and the people. I recently went on vacation and I realized I was missing the William Blake material I had been working with the two weeks prior. I should have just been enjoying my vacation. The aesthetic pull of books has dictated much of my life. I’ve followed after it, making many sacrifices along the way, while trying continually to learn and to be better at what I do. You always need to know more than you do in this field. It’s humbling because you are constantly faced with gaps in your knowledge whether arcane aspects of physical bibliography (understanding how books are put together) or the constant struggle to acquire languages. But it’s never boring. I am also proud to work among this motley guild of information workers called librarians. I don’t know of a profession filled with better people, certainly not one where the collective energy of the profession is spent ensuring that information is made as free and open as possible, that it will remain accessible for generations, and where collaboration across institutions is encouraged, even fundamental, to the profession. If only there was more support for libraries and more recognition for the work libraries do within the culture from public libraries as de facto job centers and research libraries as do-it-yourself universities without the debt burden. 

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

I hope that an integral aspect of the future of the field is deeper reflection on our past. Libraries have historically been places where disparate even conflicting ideas reside one next to another. This is certainly true, but libraries like all spaces have also been shaped by power of various sorts. It takes power to bring great collections together economic, intellectual, even the power of mere obsession. I am reading an advanced copy of Susan Howe’s forthcoming New Directions book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. Reflecting on the structure and space of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Howe, our great living poet/critic/philosopher, writes, “The structure contains acquisitive violence, the rapacious ‘fetching’ involved in collecting, and, on the other hand, it radiates a sense of peace.” I think Howe is getting at a dichotomy that is inherent in most of our great libraries. (This in a book inspired by the great libraries, which she largely treats with great reverence, sings their status as spaces of “thrilling possibilities,” and acknowledges her personal debt to libraries for feeding her own critical and creative work.) How can we better consider the historical freight of our collections? What (or who) has been left out? What biases (perhaps racist, sexist, homophobic) shaped past collecting and how can that be remedied or addressed? What interventions can we take to fill in gaps or to offer public critique or reflection? There is much talk about the lack of diversity in the field as a problem that needs to be remedied. I think this conversation rarely goes far enough, and I think one way to address this is to more openly and more critically engage in conversations about the gaps, erasures, and historical biases our collections carry forward. 

The easy answer here is that we will digitize many things on our way into that future, opening up our collections to new means of study beyond the bounds of our physical walls, but we must also not forget the importance of the tangible, the material. At the center of what we do and what we will continue to do is the almost transcendent human act of confronting an object made or used by another human being across vast distances of time and space. It’s a profound experience that we as rare book librarians get to oversee and make possible everyday. 

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?

My training is largely in early printed books, but I’ve loved working with our exceptional collections of medieval and renaissance manuscripts from Ethiopian prayer scrolls to French books of hours, and jeweled treasure bindings to Armenian bindings with votive offerings affixed to the covers over generations. We have over thirteen hundred manuscripts, which is a lot for an institution in the United States. I’m continually surprised by the range and quality of what is housed in our collection.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

I think our exhibits program is really unparalleled. “Gatsby to Garp: Modern Masterpieces from the Carter Burden Collection” organized by my colleague Carolyn Vega is a thrilling romp through literary modernism from dust jacket design to the drama that surrounds a book’s becoming and release into the world. I look forward to having a bit of Oxford visiting New York when “Marks of Genius: Treasures from the Bodleian Library” opens soon. I’m also very excited about a Cy Twombly show planned for later in the year. It’s the kind of thing that would have me planning a trip to the MOMA, but instead it’s happening right here at the Morgan.

Image-1-Kat.-17.jpgWe’ve all seen the designer dresses and skirts with a ‘library shelf’ theme, but this is the real thing: a medieval dress lined with fragments of parchment manuscripts. During a talk last week in London, Dr. Henrike Lähnemann discussed her research on the topic, which began in 2011 when textile conservators found recycled manuscript scraps sewn into the hems of patchwork dresses at the Cistercian convent of Wienhausen in Northern Germany. (Read more about it on the Bodleian blog.) If only the nuns who made them had Etsy!  

Image from: Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf, Heilige Röcke. Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen, Regensburg 2013.
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The manuscript of Murphy - the first novel published by Samuel Beckett in 1938 - will be on display for one day - and one day only - at the University of Reading. If you are near Reading this Wednesday, June 11th, stop by the Museum of English Rural Life between 12:30 and 7:00 p.m. to see the manuscript.  

The six dark blue ledgers that comprise the Murphy manuscript attracted a lot of attention last year when they sold for £962,500 at Sotheby’s to the University of Reading. After lingering in private hands for the last 50 years, the Murphy manuscript was viewed by collectors and scholars as one of the last great 20th-century literary manuscripts not yet owned by an institution. When the manuscript came up for auction last year, a fierce bidding war ensued, with the University eventually winning over an anonymous phone bidder for £962,500. With that winning bid, the University of Reading brought home a crowning piece for its first-class Beckett collection, the best in the world.

The Murphy manuscript is on display for one day only because it’s in the middle of being carefully transcribed by a Beckett scholar. Starting in October the manuscript will be available to scholars and students for further study. The university also plans to digitize the manuscript and make a facsimile available for sale.

Image via Wikipedia.
sohelpmegod.jpgA new book, ...So Help Me God, relays the history of those printed objects that our elected officials swear oaths upon--an interesting topic, well researched and complemented by choice images. Whether Supreme Court-supplied or a family heirloom, inaugural bibles have been around since George Washington, and author Michael B. Costanzo runs the gamut chronologically, plus an extra section on other notable, non-presidential inaugurals. (On a related note, last week a U.S. ambassador was sworn in on a Kindle.) A book collector as well, Costanzo graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his book.  

Fine Books: How did you get interested in this topic? And how long did it take to research and write?

MC: My interest in the subject was a marriage of books and history. I had always been interested in all things presidential, and out of curiosity had started searching for any information about the Bibles used in inaugurations. Aside from an obscure 1969 exhibition catalog, nothing else was out there. Over the course of four or five years, I had gathered enough information which eventually became my manuscript. Author David McCullough once said that if you can’t find the book you want to read, you’ll just have to write it yourself, and that’s what happened with me. My manuscript was repeatedly rejected until President Obama used Lincoln’s 1860 Bible in his 2009 inauguration. After that, I quickly found an interested publisher, so maybe I owe a copy to President Obama.

Fine Books: Did you travel to see some of these inaugural Bibles during your research?

MC: I did not travel to see any of the Bibles mentioned, except the James Polk Bible, which happens to be in Columbia, Tennessee, where I live. I was fortunate to utilize the vast network of presidential libraries as well as state and local historical sites, where most of the Bibles can be found.

Fine Books: Do you have a favorite inaugural Bible (or swearing-in story)?

michael_costanzo.jpgMC: My favorite inaugural Bible is the 1865 Lincoln Bible, which is missing. What possibly happened to it is fascinating, as it could have been either stolen or sold. The complex relationship between Mary Lincoln and son Robert comes into play, as well as Mary’s mental state after the assassination. The possibility that it could still be sitting undiscovered in an attic or bank vault is intriguing.

My favorite swearing-in story involves Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One. Since its 1965 publication, William Manchester’s book, Death of A President, has been controversial, and through the use of photographs obtained from the LBJ Library, I was able to contradict issues concerning Johnson’s oath-taking.

Fine Books: Are you a book collector, and, if so, tell me about your collection.

MC: I am a bibliophile, and the cornerstone of my collection has always been “books about books.” These are sometimes hard to find, but always worth the search. I particularly enjoy anything written from Nicholas Basbanes, and was privileged to get a few pointers from him in the course of writing this book. I also enjoy American history, as well as numismatics (coin collecting). It should interest book collectors that there is an old adage in coin collecting: “Buy the book before you buy the coin.” I’ve always found this to be true.

Images: Courtesy of History Publishing Co.
46572962.jpgHarvard’s Houghton Library announced this week that one of its books, Des destinées de l’ame, is bound in human skin. Stories of books bound this way--a.k.a. anthropodermic bibliopegy--are not terribly uncommon. When I visited the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University a dozen years ago, I recall being told that the copy of Dale Carnegie’s Lincoln biography in my hands was bound in the skin of an African-American man. Often these stories are just that--in fact, two other bindings at Houghton recently tested turned out to be sheepskin. Daniel K. Smith chronicles some of these stories in a chapter in the new Morbid Anatomy Anthology. But in this case, scientific tests provided proof “without a doubt” that the book is the real thing. According to Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, “The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human.” In a gruesome side-note, the Harvard catalogue record reports that the book was bound in the skin “of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.”

Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University. FC8.H8177.879dc.
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Francis Bacon’s portrait of Lucian Freud, once owned by Roald Dahl, is heading to auction at Christie’s in London next month, where it is expected to fetch upwards of £12m (roughly $20m). Dahl, a friend and admirer of Bacon, purchased the portrait for £2,280 in 1967 with the royalties he had earned from the success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl once owned five paintings by Bacon, however four were sold during Dahl’s lifetime. Dahl left the Freud portrait to his family who are now selling the painting to further fund philanthropic work begun by Dahl.

Francis Outred of Christie’s said of Bacon and Dahl, “Even though these two creative geniuses worked in different fields, they shared a keen sense of the macabre, which can be seen in both of their work: where Bacon used his rapid, impulsive brush marks to create an intimate and startlingly animated portrait, Dahl used his pen to create unforgettable stories that sear the imagination with provocative and affecting images.”

Bacon painted the portrait of Freud in 1967 when Freud was in his mid-40s. Freud and Bacon were friends in their younger years before eventually falling out. Bacon painted one other portrait of Freud, a miniature, 16 years earlier in 1951, however that painting disappeared from Berlin in 1988 and has yet to re-surface.

[Image of Roald Dahl from Wikipedia]
mcsweeneys_large.jpgThe Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced earlier this week that the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company, founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, is now fully cataloged and open for research. The Ransom Center acquired the archive--containing books, correspondence with notable writers, mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs--in July of last year. This week, archivist Amy Armstrong has been highlighting pieces of the collection on the Ransom Center’s blog.

Back in 2011, when we profiled Eggers, he said, “Our longevity is pretty startling to me. When we started, I thought we’d put out eight issues of the quarterly and that would be that. I never thought twelve years later we’d still be around and have a real staff, a real office, an actual database, and distributors and all this official stuff. It’s pretty hard to believe.”

Longevity, fame, and canonization too.

Image: Cover dummy of McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue 38. Courtesy of the Ransom Center.
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One hundred years ago this month A. C. McClurg and Co published the first book edition of “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan first appeared in the pulp magazines two years previously, but the book edition became an enormous success, launching Burroughs’ career into the mainstream and spawning twenty-four sequels. 

For Burroughs collectors today, tracking down a first edition of “Tarzan of the Apes” - with the original dust jacket - is no easy feat.  Indeed, it is an accomplishment that becomes a centerpiece of a Burroughs collection, ranking just a bit below the virtually impossible to find original dust jacket for “The Return of Tarzan.”

As a result of the scarcity of original dust jackets - particularly those in good condition - some collectors have turned to facsimile reproductions to round out their collections. That’s where Phil Normand of Recoverings.com steps in. Since 1999, Normand has been making high-quality facsimile copies of the Burroughs dust jackets.

Ten years ago Normand took on the special challenge of re-creating the dust jacket for “Tarzan of the Apes.” He writes, “I created a replica dust jacket for that sought-after edition, accurately tracing every shape of the three-color art and contracting with The Pressworks here in Denver to have it produced on a V50 Miehle Verticle rotary cylinder press using magnesium, wood-mounted plates. The run was printed on 80# Rolland Motif Warm Green which matches the weight and color of the original stock.”

Normand’s edition of the facsimile dust jacket was issued in three variations: a regular edition of 300, a special “Signature Edition” stamped on the front flap with ERB’s personal signature stamp at the offices of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. in Tarzana, California; and an untrimmed fine art print.  

For the month of June, in celebration of the book’s centenary, Normand is offering the regular edition of the “Tarzan of the Apes” dust jacket for its original pre-publication price of $50.00. Interested readers can find out more here.


image.jpgWho knew Dr. Seuss was a sculptor--or a taxidermist? The beloved children’s author/illustrator had a sense of whimsy second to none, and that is reflected in a series of mounted animal sculptures he made in 1931. He called it the “Seuss System of Unorthodox Taxidermy.” The painted clay sculpture seen here, “Mulberry Street Unicorn,” will be sold at Bonhams New York on Wednesday. The estimate is a whopping $60,000-90,000.

In 1937, an exhibition of Seuss sculptures was held in New York while he promoted his book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The following year, a magazine advertisement announced, “Dr. Seuss Returns From the Bobo Isles ... with Rare and Amazing Trophies for the Walls of your Game-Room, Nursery or Bar!” The Mulberry Street Unicorn was one of “trophies” of his safari. A little chipped and cracked, this one was given to his friend, fellow artist and Disney animator Phil Dike. It has remained in the family until now.  
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