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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Book Fourteen

The fourteenth book we have read this year is the 1873 classic, A History of Booksellers, the Old and the New, by Henry Curwen.

Chances are one won't find this book lying around in a dollar bin. We found it at another library, and had our friendly librarian order it for us. We have obtained access by inter-library loan to numerous books otherwise beyond our reach. It is sort of a manual version of using the internet to access information on the other side of the world.

Mr. Curwen was a publisher, translator, author of several novels, short stories, and poems, and a newspaper editor. This book is a wide-ranging multiple biography of the leading figures of bookselling in England during the nineteenth century, when they held a dual role as publisher. The introduction tells us that this book is a valuable follow-up (chronologically) to The Earlier History of English Bookselling, by W. Roberts. Below is the frontispiece.

There is a lot of information about a lot of people that have mostly been forgotten. The writing isn't particularly entertaining, and the reading gets rather trying as the pages add up. Every story sounds the same, with only the particulars changing. Mr. Curwen gives a brief background of each publisher/bookseller and then follows his career until death. The first part of the book focuses on individual men during the formative years of the business; the second part of the book focuses on various families who led the business into the twentieth century. There are a few anecdotes scattered about, but not enough to keep this account interesting. In the preface, Mr. Curwen notes that
No work of the kind has ever previously been attempted, and this fact must be an apology for some, at least, of our shortcomings.
If one is interested in writing a Wikipedia article, this book could probably provide one with a lot of information that is not easily found elsewhere. We were surprised to learn just how popular literary periodicals were in those days. Almost every bookseller/publisher had at least one periodical that they started, and many of them regularly sold well. The quantities of certain books sold was also often impressive. Quite a few pages involve Walter Scott and his rise to become the most popular novelist of his day. Copyrights were also bought and sold regularly, as well as shares in them, much as men might purchase a stake in a new company today. The background and formation of lending libraries is also covered.

Mr. Curwen was at pains to parse and focus his material into a cheap and popular form. While it is not poorly conceived or written, it is dry. For information that has probably been otherwise lost or forgotten, this book is the reference one wants. For entertainment, this book is noteworthy for its monotony.

We give it two (out of five) pipefuls.

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