I never cease to be amazed at how different things are these days. I post a catalog on my website, send out a mailchimp e-blast and Wham! Half the items gone in 24 hours. Then nothing except the drudgery of wrapping and shipping the goners.
Usually I stretch this task out over most of a week, but this time I got it all done in a day because I had a collection to buy and I wanted the decks cleared.
Thirty boxes – maybe 150 core books on the subject and another 250 reference books and secondary titles. Down a flight of stairs, out the front door and into the back of my poor RAV4. Halfway through the lady asked me, “What happened to your shirt?” It was drenched in perspiration. Had to be careful not to drip on the books.
Back home, with the stuff on the shelves, I began the work of cataloging.
When I bid on a collection I have a pretty solid idea of what I’m bidding on, but I never really know what I’ve got until I begin the work on an item-by-item level. There are always surprises, good and bad.
I hauled out the pertinent reference books and started in,
and was presently suffused with a strange, comfortable feeling of a sort I had not experienced in quite a while.
I was working with books!
Almost everything I catalog these days, in any kind of serious way, is manuscript material or fugitive, recondite, ephemera. When I catalog stuff like that I’m venturing into the unknown. It’s exciting, but fraught with tension. I must learn to read the writing of the person who composed the manuscript, or grasp the syntax and intent of the graphics on the ephemeral item. I must understand the importance of what he or she was writing about, or what the advertiser was shouting about, and put this in its proper historical context with a comprehensive written description. Then I have to figure out what the thing is worth – a challenging task when each manuscript is unique and there are no sales records of identical (or, in some cases, even similar) ephemeral items.
With books, on the other hand, the process is more direct, more physical. In most cases – especially the foundation literature of any subject area – I know the story behind the book. I did the research and told the story decades ago, and now it resides in my database, ready to spring into action (with appropriate adjustments for subsequent scholarship or academic fads).
Mostly, what’s left for me are the lovely, tactile procedures that I’ve been practicing for forty years. Hefting, peering, weighing, sniffing, measuring. Combing the text, page by page, signature by signature, seeking the minutest variations from the received descriptions, checking the health of the thing, sniffing out traces of damage with all the loving attention of a dog nosing her newborn pup.
Comforting as a warm bath. And I get to use my reference books, my old comrades in the book wars, with whom I’ve been through so many adventures!
Trying to figure out what it is I’m hefting – weird variant? Large paper? Worthless knockoff? My knowledge is as much in my fingers as it is in my brain.
Here’s one I just did:
Scoresby, W. An Account of the Arctic Regions, With a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1820. Two volumes. (4) xx, 551, 82; (2)-viii, 574 (2) pp. followed by b/w plates, maps, many folding. First edition of a major work. “It was at once recognized as the standard work on the subject and may be considered the foundation-stone of arctic science.”—DNB. A second generation whaleman, Scoresby speaks with absolute authority in describing the history and natural history of the whale fishery. The second volume in particular deals with the specifics of whaling. Melville valued him as an informant and quotes him in “Moby Dick.” The books are illustrated by a folding frontispiece in volume I, and twenty-three plates and maps illustrative of Arctic regions, life forms, and whale-catching tools – numbered I-XXII, with an additional plate numbered “XII” – in volume II. See Arctic Bib. 15610. Jenkins p. 144. NMM Catalog Vol. I, 833. Sabin 78167. Hill 1543 (note). Attractively bound in quarter diced calf with raised bands and gold spine lettering over marbled boards. Some foxing to plates and frontispieces, otherwise a clean, complete copy (including half titles) of a scarce book. Housed in a custom slipcase. $2000