Rock Album

As you may already have realised, I like books which have a story to tell.  By this I mean not just the book’s own internal narrative, but a copy of the book with its own individual history.  Not necessarily a fine and obviously important provenance (although that’s always very welcome), but just a tale of its own career in the world.  I’m not deterred by a book with a previous owner’s inscription, far from it – this can lead into that narrative and document some evidence of the book’s initial audience and reception.  Who bought this book when it first came out?  Where did the book fit into that world rather than ours?   

Our HouseSometimes there is evidently a story – but no answer at all.  I was just cataloguing a bound assembly of views of nineteenth-century Torquay, one of those ubiquitous albums produced by Rock & Co. of Walbrook (William Frederick Rock, his brothers Henry and Richard – all Devon men themselves – and their brother-in-law, John Payne).  In this case a collection of fifty small vignette views published by the firm at various dates between 1850 and 1876, bound up as an ad hoc publication presumably aimed at the hordes of summer visitors to that fashionable resort.  Pretty enough.  Interesting enough.  And not far into the book is a view of Belgrave Road, Torquay, on which a childish hand has pencilled “Our House” – a three-storey villa on the eastern side of the road shown on the extreme left of the image and clumsily ticked with the same pencil.

I hurry back to the front of the book (and the back and all points in between) – but no clue at all as to who owned the book, or who lived in this ample house, with its view of the sea to the south.  Could it have been one of the Kirkpatrick girls, daughters of Temple Kirkpatrick, “retired diplomatist”, then living at “Sanremo” on Belgrave Road?  Or one of the Pulford children at “Rosenau”?  Or perhaps a child on holiday just passing through?  Who knows?  I certainly don’t – but I can well imagine the excitement of a child at having his or her house pointed out in a handsome book – the pleasure of the parent in pointing it out.  I weigh up the possibilities of pursuing this further: a weight of work out of all proportion to the value of the book and ultimately probably not possible.  We could almost certainly establish who was living in the house (which I suspect no longer exists) in the 1870s, but the inscription could have been added many years later.  Why didn’t someone write their name in it?

Lost, Stolen or ShreddedA frustrating absence, a story that isn’t, but does it matter?  Something of a theme this week with the publication of Rick Gekoski’s latest book, “Lost, Stolen or Shredded : Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature” (Profile Books).  A tame and modest title, but we have certain expectations of Rick, here (once more) amply fulfilled.  The book simply grabs us by the collar and demands attention.  It opens with, “He collected absences.  For him they were more intense, vibrant and real than they presences they shadowed …” and takes us straight to join Franz Kafka and Max Brod queuing at a crowded Louvre to see, not the Mona Lisa, but the gap on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to be (after it was stolen in 1911).  Rick is always compelling.  He has that extraordinary knack of subsuming real scholarship and genuinely original thinking into essays that read like stories, stories that are as easy as conversation.

Rick Gekoski

Rick Gekoski at the Launch

We all know him as a great talker – the best I know in a book-trade full of good talkers.  It’s always a highlight of the Modern First Editions course at the London Rare Books School to take the students over to see Rick and let them sit at his feet for an hour or two.  A mine of experience and reflection willingly shared.  But what is so skilled about his writing is that it replicates this conversational rhythm and fluidity on the page – and that’s not easy, not easy at all.  Talk is flat without nuance, expression, emphasis and inflection: this has to be engineered back in to make it work in print.     

I’m not going to summarise the rest of the book, because you are all going to go out and buy it and find out for yourselves.  Why read me, when you could read this?  Fifteen stories.  Those of us in the rare book world or in any way concerned with literary history or biography will buy it for “The Archive of the Penetralium of Mystery” alone – “When first encountered, an archive reminds me of a monkfish”.  Why wouldn’t it?

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice introduced in 1997, served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute and at Gresham College. He teaches annually at the London Rare Books School and also organises the monthly Book Collecting Seminars at Senate House, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. A major essay on the same subject also appeared in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011”. More recently, he contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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