Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: "The Anatomy of a Literary Hoax"

NB: I've labeled this a book review, but since Sid is a professor of mine it's not really appropriate for me to be reviewing his books. So consider this a simple recommendation. Normally I wouldn't even write publicly at all in a situation like this, but the book's just too interesting to pass by without comment.

In The Anatomy of a Literary Hoax, (Oak Knoll Press, 1994) Sid Berger recounts a great prank he and some comrades played on Henry Morris, the legendary private pressman and proprietor of Bird & Bull Press of Newton, PA. Morris started the ball rolling by puckishly inserting a false entry into the bibliography of Tim Barrett's Nagashizuki: The Japanese Craft of Hand Papermaking (1979) - tacked on at the end of Barrett's list of resources was Daniel Wilcox's The Invention of Paper (1971), which happened to be a Sesame Street picture book. Morris says he inserted the entry because "I was genuinely curious to see if those I considered the top paper historians ... would notice or question this strange entry. ... [N]o one did, which confirmed my suspicions: nobody pays much attention to long bibliographical book lists."

Morris' prank did bother Barrett, though, and he and Sid decided to get back at Morris. Sid had a typesetter friend set a fake title page for (the entirely made-up) Daniel Wilcox's The Invention of Paper: A History and Handbook (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1875), and then wrote Morris to let him know that he'd made a typo in Barrett's bibliography (that the date should certainly have been 1875, not 1971). Morris wrote back, astonished, and asked - as Sid knew he would - to see a photocopy of the 1875 title page. Sid was all too happy to oblige; he even "xeroxed the [fake title page] against a real book, so that the edges of the sheets would show. Once again, I mailed it and waited." Henry wrote back admitting his prank and telling Sid that he was now searching widely for a copy of the 1875 title.

Nearly a year later, Barrett and Sid broke the news to Morris: Sid says "I wrote Henry another long letter in which I embedded a paragraph which said something like 'Oh, by the way, I am sure you figured out that the Wilcox book was a hoax.' The rest of the letter was small talk." Morris called as soon as he received Sid's letter to say that he'd sent copies of that title page to dealers all over England and America asking for copies of the book. Sid recounts that several salty phrases were used, but that the call ended in laughter all around.

Henry Morris ended up printing Sid's telling of the story in this book, and in a note at the end writes "I still think Sid's joke was wonderful. I admire the careful planning and attention to detail that made it all so believable. I was entirely taken in and searching all over England for a copy of that 1875 edition. A masterful hoax by an expert. I threatened to get even with Sid, but must wait for the right time and place ... and then, Sid, look out - I'm going to get you, boy."

Anatomy of a Literary Hoax was printed in 300 copies on beautiful Frankfort paper, and includes several photographs, labels and facsimiles pertaining to the hoax. A delightful and amusing tale of a terrific biblio-prank.

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