THIS is a time for plans and projects, for reappraisals, recastings, and the like. It is a glorious day for people with maggots in their heads. A man need only have a Project —• be it however revolutionary or fantastic — to find himself quite a fellow. In view of all this, I have taken heart and now launch upon the world my project.
For a great many years I have felt that the whole trend and tendency of bibliophily is in a wrong direction. More and more the secondhand booksellers and collectors have come to treat their books as though they were delicate objets d’art, — like Japanese prints or original Whistlers, — which they are not, instead of as the eloquent historical mementos which they are. We all know very well, of course, that a fine Hokusai or Hiroshige is seriously marred, and its value lessened, if there are ink spots spattered on it, or if one corner is missing, or if a wagon wheel has at some time passed over it. This is natural, proper, and understandable, for a Japanese print is a pictorial work of art; its whole value depends upon the freshness of color, the clarity of line, and kindred graphic considerations. Similarly with Whistler etchings, or the old paintings of Tintoretto, or the jade sculptures of China.
But secondhand books, cry I, are something else again, and I have rebelled against what I consider the misplaced emphasis of booksellers and collectors in this matter. ‘This is an absolutely pristine copy, as fresh as when it came from the presses in 1828. The pages are uncut.’ That is the kind of exultant description the booksellers love to use.
I do not think that a man is at his most attractive or his most significant or his most revelatory when he is one month old. I prefer him when he is thirty, or fifty, or ninety — when the whole physical look and psychic personality of him have become tinged and colored by his personal history. Similarly I decline to think that an old book is most cherishable if, through having lived all its life quiescent and unread in a cellar or an attic, it preserves its look of unmarked infantilism. Perpetually cloistered and cosseted books, like persons of the same sort, are a colorless and flavorless lot. The procession of the years has passed them by; they have gained nothing.
My project, then, is for a drastic change in our appraisal of secondhand books. Suppose, for example, that we take some not too uncommon secondhand volume — say Parker’s Exploring Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains. Under the old system, three copies of this might be catalogued thus: —
1. Somewhat scuffed and rubbed. Name of
previous owner on half-title; scribbled marginalia $1.50
2. In good condition, but with small dark spot
(probably blood) on front cover; slight tear in map $2.50
3. Immaculate copy; as issued $4.00
This is the old way. It is all wrong. Under my project, the price scale will be exactly reversed. Herewith are a few hypothetical copies of Parker’s opus: —
1. An immaculate copy. This has evidently been
kept unread in a cellar all these years. Its only attractiveness is the inherent interest of the textual matter, which is pretty dull $1.00
2. An improvement. This copy has five dog-
eared pages, indicating that somebody once read it, and there is a pressed pansy between pages 130 and 131 $2.50
3. A magnificent copy; the finest we have ever seen. Signatures of five previous owners on the flyleaf and half-title. One of these was Ten Broeck Van Rensselaer, of Hudson, New York. It also belonged at one time to an able seaman named Obadiah Sparhawk, and contains nautical calculations, dated ‘ Cape Town, April 8, 1857 ’ on the margin of p. 235. One of the owners (probably the Miss Amelia Cowperthwaite whose elegant Spencerian signature occurs twice on the title-page) has cached between pp, 98 and 99 four oak leaves, a violet, a short length of pink ribbon, and a ticket to Grant’s Inaugural. The book is a virtual museum. Offered for quick sale at $12.50 When my project has been formally adopted, it will mean that thousands of owners of old houses will be able to sell out to the booksellers. Dormant wealth will be released. Money will circulate. Prosperity will be reborn.
And I, who have just been looking over my own library, figure that I ought to be able to dispose of it for about a quarter of a million dollars.