Sunday, November 19, 2006

Report from the Boston Book Fair

I spent Friday evening and much of Saturday at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, which was, as anticipated, quite a remarkable show this year. I arrived about an hour before opening on Friday night so I'd have a chance to wander around a bit before the thronging hordes (the early birds of whom were already queued up outside). After checking out the Commonwealth booth I did a quick once-over of the aisles and looked in at just a few of the booths that I thought might hold a bargain or two. If those deals had existed, however, they'd been snatched up already by the other dealers, who had apparently exhibited moments of piranha-like frenzy a little earlier in the day when some of their colleagues unpacked their stock.

When the show opened there was a good crush of people through the doors and so for the next few hours I was tethered pretty tightly to the booth providing assistance with our larger items and retrieving things from the glass cases. There was much interest in our copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (which once belonged to the great historian Lytton Strachey), as well as our gigantic copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses (the 1717 Dryden translation extra-illustrated with the plates from a 1732 Picart). I almost brained somebody with that as I went to return it to the shelf at one point (hardly a good idea). One of my favorite little items had come up from our Florida shop for the show (a collection of punny and salacious essays from the 1730s known as Merryland), so I got to show that off to a few folks as well.

By around 7:30 things had thinned out enough that I could walk around a bit more, so I took another spin around and visited with some of the dealers I know: Willis Monie from Cooperstown, the DeMarco's from Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga (near where I went to college), First Folio from Tennessee where I picked up my find at last year's fair, and then of course the Boston shops (Brattle, Boston Book Company). Then I gave a quick glance at some of the "high-end" booths: Heritage, Bromer, Bauman, Rulon-Miller and their ilk - they all had beautiful things, which were of course well beyond my purchasing power but are always fun to see. Early copies of Johnson's Dictionary, Isaac Newton's texts, beautiful little vellum creatures - you name it, it was there. There were also much more modern things, which I didn't pay much attention to except to see some of the astronomical prices things are commanding these days.

It's interesting to see the different booth-styles at fairs like this: the locals and nearby dealers with their cases full of many things, including some old beat-up leather bindings that somebody "just might want", the British dealers with their flashy dust-wrappers or purely perfect leather, the Dutch and Germans with row upon row of white vellum, or huge, lovely atlases and maps.

Friday night was the best of the fair for people-watching: I saw and chatted with Lew Jaffe, who manages the great blog Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie. Nick Basbanes was wandering around for much of the evening, and I even saw one of my undergraduate professors who'd come in from Schenectady for the fair (we also ran into each other last year at the same place). Publisher and collector David Godine was about, as well as many of the famous dealers whose names get bandied about in the book world constantly.

On Saturday I returned at noon with a few friends to show them around; I found myself looking differently at things when I was discovering items to point out to them than when I was just zipping through for myself. Among the things we examined were a visa application for Che Guevara (something about a trip to Columbia), some lovely old maps of Boston, and a whole wall of early dust jackets that really were quite astounding (and which I wouldn't have given a second look to normally).

At 4 I went and heard a talk on "The Future of Books" with Sid Berger (a professor of mine at Simmons and a great bookman; Russell Powell, who publishes New England Watershed magazine; and Tina Lang Stewart, a communications specialist). After some preliminary disagreement, I think a consensus was reached that the book is not, in fact, dead, but that it and the Internet must and will reach some kind of complementary equilibrium at some point in the future (with some things - like reference tools - moving into the online realm and other things - like novels, most monographs, &c. - staying in print). It was a lively discussion and brought out some great questions from the audience as well.

I thought I was going to make it through the entire Fair without a purchase; I considered a three-volume set of TF Dibdin's Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in France and Germany (1829) but decided on much reflection that the cloth rebindings weren't very lovely and the text block had a bit too much damp-staining for my taste. I had resigned myself to nothing (since the only copy of Telemachus I found was ugly), and then suddenly there it was. I was standing with my friends in Ken Karmiole's booth when I saw the spine: "Memoirs of Psalmanazar." As soon as I read it I let out an "uh-oh", and once I'd held it in my hands I knew it was all over. A near-perfect copy of the 1765 London second edition, neatly rebacked with the original spine, yellow page edges, and nary a spot of foxing anywhere. The frontispiece was present and clean, and aside from a previous owner's signature on the front endpaper, there was also an old bookseller's label at the rear (with a $15 price tag that I found particularly amusing).

Ken saw me looking at it and said he thought I should have it; I told him I agreed but that I'd be back after a bit. I already knew then that I'd take it, but I just had to be sure. I went and found Sid and took him back to the booth to look at it with me - it didn't take him long to agree that it was the find of the fair. So I did the deed, and am awfully glad I did. When I got home I checked the other online listings - mine was by far the least expensive, and also by far in the best condition. So, a good find. George Psalmanazar is one of those curious figures in English literary history that you come across now and then: a peasant from the Continent (probably), he made his way to England and passed himself off for years as a native of Formosa (Taiwan), making up languages, writing histories of his 'homeland' and generally being a total fraud. Eventually of course the gig was up and he spent the remainder of his life a writer-for-hire, making friends with Samuel Johnson and other great literati of the day along the way. He rates a chapter in Paul Collins' excellent book Banvard's Folly, which is where I first read extensively of him. A true "character," and a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

So the Fair this year has been a wonderful - if slightly overwhelming - experience. It's so nice to see a crowd of true book-lovers engaged in their passion and doing what they love best. If you would know the future of the book, I say, walk into the middle of the Hynes and look around you. It is there.

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