The Ecphorizer

The Book Collector's Fact Book
John Cumming

Issue #40 (December 1984)

A serious work for the bibliophile

Over the past three years a lot of books have been reviewed in the pages of The Ecphorizer. Almost without exception, those books have been out-of-print works, the happy findings of a casual browser of second-hand book stores. If one is to exploit

There's nothing like curling up with a nice, big dictionary on a cold, stormy night.

the world of second-hand book dealing with more deliberation than is intended by casual browsing, however, some sort of lexicon [quoteright]is useful to explain the meanings of the specialized terms used by book dealers and collectors. To this need The Book Collector's Fact Book has been written by Margaret Hailer.

The very first entry is "AB," or Bookman's Weekly. This is the title of the principal publication in the "old-book" field. It is through the pages of AB that book dealers network to match up book and buyer. Book dealers' catalogues, such as AB, contain a great deal of very abbreviated information on the books offered, often without explanation. More than seven pages of definitions are offered in Fact Book under "Abbreviations" to help the old-book buyer make sense out of these book dealers' arcana.

Here is a sample of the kind of abbreviations one might meet in a book dealer's catalogue: CW-Civil War; Evans--American Bibliography; F--folio sized; mco-morocco; swd--sewed; Xr--no returns permitted; M 8vo--Medium octavio.

There is a lot more than just obscure abbreviations to book collecting, of course. There is the satisfaction of looking down one's nose at "biblia-a-biblia," or the "non-book." These are both perjorative terms for books with no substance, however beautifully presented. Modern book publishing thrives on this kind of book.

A "mutton-thumper" is a clumsy book-binder. "Ohne Remissionsrecht" is from German, and means "with all faults," or sold as-is, and not subject to return. On the other hand, there is the "Tamerlane," a reference to Poe's Tamerlane and Other Poems published in 1827. A copy of this edition, in new condition, sold for $123,000 at Park-Bernet in 1974. Any very rare, sought-after book might be called a "Tamerlane."

Speaking of rarities, the Gallery of Ghosts is the title of a publication put out by the Modern Language Association of America in 1967. The "Gallery" contains the titles of about five thousand books published between 1641 and 1700 that are known to exist but have not yet been found in any of two hundred libraries researched for the Short Term Catalogue by Donald Wing. Heaven knows how many were just put back on the wrong shelves.

As we all know, the first book was published in 1501. This is because works published before 1501 are called "incunabula." The term means "swaddling clothes." The singular form of this singular expression is "incunable."

The first incunable to have been printed on a press is said to be the Gutenberg Bible. However, some scholars feel that it is predated by the Mainz Psalter, also printed by Gutenberg. So says Fact Book.

If a book is described as "nibbled," the culprits were usually mice. Bookworms are the larvae of a variety of different beetles, and wormholes are often cited as proof of a book's age, as modern methods of manufacture and storage have done away with this form of book lover. Incidentally, the entry under "wormholes" begins with the curious locution, "It would probably be quite possible to spend a lifetime collecting modern first editions and never see a wormhole." Now the only bookworm we have to fear is the one who causes "dog-eared" pages. "Dogeared" isn't used nowadays; rather, the dealers say "bumped" or "frayed at the corners," or "worn at the tips."

In the entry titled "Comics," we discover that many antiquarian book dealers hate to handle comic books, but that they comprise a new and lively source of income. AB now carries listings from several dealers in old comics. Fact Book relates that a first number of Superman has sold for as high as $1800, even though it was listed in the Comic Book Price Guide for a mere $325. Most issues still sold for around $.25 when Fact Book was published in 1976.

The entry titled "Condition/rarity" illustrates the relationship between the value of a book and the three great variables affecting it: condition, demand, and rarity. As an illustration, a first edition (signed by the author) of James Joyce's Ulysses may be worth over $2000, "even though repairs have been made on the [sacred!] title page, even though the covers are badly spotted." Despite a condition rated as "barely good," this work is so desired that it may be priced as high as any of the other signed editions. Thus does rarity plus demand overcome condition as a pricing factor.

Most old Bibles, on the other hand, have little value, for not only are they very common, even if editions from the sixteenth century, but there is little demand for them anyway. Exceptions are the unusual editions, such as the first Bible to be translated into an American Indian dialect, or the oddities bearing typographical mistakes, such as the 1568 edition that substituted "treacle" for "balm in Gilead."

Fact Book takes care to define "Biblio-" as a prefix of or pertaining to books. The examples given are "bibliokleptomaniac" (a book thief) and "bibliolatry" (excessive admiration of books). It is hard to imagine an excessive admiration for books. Comic books, however, are a different matter.

Book theft is discussed under its own entry. Dealers, it seems, are so concerned about theft of valuable books that they rarely keep the interesting items on their shelves, but show them only on request. Having been impressed by the reputation of Holmes Books of San Francisco, I once paid a casual visit to the store. I was disappointed by the unremarkable selection on its shelves. Now I know why. The problem for the browser is that it is difficult to frame a request when one simply wants to see everything.

"Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful of all," quoth Samuel Johnson, who had a lot to say about books. Nevertheless, his most memorable work, the Dictionary of the English Language, was originally published in folio size. It is not quite clear what size is implied by the term "folio," but it would be suited only to a giant with very large hands. Fact Book has a lot to say about size categories, both American and British. The British folio size comes in four subsizes: Foolscap (13-1/2" x 10"), Crown (15" x 10"), Royal (20" x 12-1/2") and Imperial (22" x 15-1/2"). The American folios are Folio (13 inches or larger), Elephant Folio (23 inches or larger), Atlas Folio (25 inches), and Double Elephant Folio (larger than 25 inches). Fact Book is about 8 inches high, which makes it octavio (American) or perhaps octavio large crown (British). Octavio is a fairly handy size and probably what you would "hold readily in your hand." Still, there's nothing like curling up with a nice, big dictionary on a cold, stormy night. If nothing else, you can crawl underneath it to keep warm.

If someone offers you a Horn book, don't expect pornography, as we would have during my youth. The term is used in the trade to refer to a number of books about children's books put out by the Horn Book, Inc. Horn book also refers to a type of lesson book for children in which the paper was protected by a thin sheet of horn. Erotica has its own entry in Fact Book, where the term is equated with such other names as curiosa, exotica, and facetiae. The entry concludes somewhat sternly that "Pornographica, however, is of doubtful legality." Better stick to children's books.

Colophon is a mark of identification found in a book. Fact Book says that the most famous colophon was designed for a tombstone, not a book. The author may be stretching her definition a bit to find an excuse to print the famous epitaph (that was never used) written by one of America's great printers, Ben Franklin:

The body of B. Franklin,
like the Cover of an Old Book,
Its contents Torn Out
Stript of Its Lettering & Guilding
Lies Here
Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost;
for it will, as he bellev'd
Appear once more
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and corrected
By the Author.

Old books, like some old people, become spotted with age. The discoloration, light brown spots on the paper in a book, is called "foxing." Foxing does not necessarily diminish the value of a book. Under "De-foxing" a chemical process is described that is used to de-fox black and white plates, for these can be seriously marred by spotting.

There are all sorts of books on the market today that call themselves "dictionaries." Some that I have seen don't even offer any definitions at all (the modern lexicons consider any alphabetical list of information to be a dictionary). Curiously, The Book Collector's Fact Book is never internally described as a dictionary, though it qualifies as one by even the more conservative definitions. The author uses the term "glossary" once in her introduction. There isn't even an entry for "dictionary" in this work. As a collector of dictionaries, I find this omission odd.

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