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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Book Five

The Book-Hunter, by John Hill Burton

This book was long on our list of desirables. Though it is fairly easily found, it usually comes with a price more than we were willing to pay. We used the "Wants" feature at American Book Exchange, and waited. Eventually one came on offer for a price we could live with, and we purchased it.

When the book arrived we discovered that it was not the book we wanted. It had been improperly identified. The book's title page had been removed, and an advertisement for The Book-Hunter had been tipped in. What was inside, though, was The Queer, the Quaint, the Quizzical, by Frank Stauffer. We kept the book, as it appeared interesting, and read it. Our search for the Burton, though, was not satisfied.

Finally another copy within our grasp became available, and we ordered it. It was not perfect, with the backstrip detached from the rest of the binding, as noted, but we wanted to read the book, and if we so desired at a later date the book could always be repair or rebound. So it arrived and has found its place as our fifth book this year.

Our copy is a second edition from 1863. The edges are deckled and the margins are wide. The text is the expected discussion of books and anecdotes from the biblioworld, ranging wide as these books about books usually do. More than its content, though, this book has a good feeling about it, the small size that fits appropriately in one's hand, just as it is meant to be--it feels right simply to hold and carry it, as if it is a sacred volume. Which in some ways it is.

One subject Mr. Burton covers is the resilience of books against censorship, and more specifically their resistance to flame. He makes a truthful and troubling observation:
In the days when heretical books were burned, it was necessary to place them on large wooden stages, and after all the pains taken to demolish them, considerable masses were sometimes found in the embers; whence it was supposed that the devil, conversant in fire and its effects, gave them his special protection. In the end it was found easier and cheaper to burn the heretics themselves than their books.
Lovers of books and freedom do well to remember that it is not so long ago when the United States government was still labeling books as obscene and forbidding their importation. And the practise continues today in other countries. Just visit the USPS website and check out the list of restrictions on international mail.

Another interesting fact Mr. Burton reveals concerns the thorn, or theta. He exposes the common delusion that our English ancestors not only wrote, but pronounced the definite article "the" as "ye." Its use is what he calls the trick of "every blunderer ambitious of success in fabricating old writings...." He explains that the Gothic alphabet had a theta for expressing in one letter our present t and h conjoined. When it was abandoned, some printers substituted for it the letter y, as most nearly resembling it in shape. Hence our "ye" which is sometimes found in old books, but much more frequently in modern imitations of them. The following images, from The Smoot Family Association, illustrate the error. The only time "ye" is not "the" is when it is "you." Who knew?

The surprise of this book came last night, after we had finished reading. Having previously only glanced at the bookplate on the front endpaper, we now examined it closely. The former owner of this book was one Thomas Hovey Gage, Jr., who also inscribed his name and date, in that typically exquisite lettering of bygone days (due, we suspect, to the slower and more deliberate process of writing with a quill or fountain pen), on the half-title. Mr. Gage was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote a couple books about the town and its inhabitants, as well as produced extensive work on the genealogy of the prominent Gage family. He also wrote and edited works on American engraving. He was a lawyer, served as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and Worcester Art Museum, and served in President Hoover's administration. The American Antiquarian Society has a huge collection of Gage correspondence. And we have a Gage association copy of The Book-Hunter.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

1 comment:

  1. You might also enjoy the bookplate blog.


    Lewis Jaffe Philadelphia, Pa.