Lacking a Plate – A Good Thing?

43385I suspect that most booksellers (whether they are willing to admit it or not) have half a shelf or so (rather more in my case) of books that became in some way problematic in the course of cataloguing.  Books which were then put aside to be dealt with on another and perhaps more auspicious occasion.  An occasion which in most instances never quite seems to arrive, but full of New Year resolve and resolution I thought I might rescue one or two of these lost souls from their period in limbo.

Immediately I ground to a halt again.  What am I to make of this?  A 1926 privately printed book of memorial tributes to that great librarian Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (1856-1925) – “The Incomparable Mac” – Librarian and Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, founder and editor of “The Library”, Hon. Sec. of the Library Association, etc. – you can look him up in ODNB or on Wikipedia, if you feel so inclined, and there is a 1983 Library Association biography by Shane Godbolt and W. A. Munford.  It’s a book I acquired years ago from the late Barry Bloomfield, himself a librarian of great note, also known as the bibliographer of Auden and Larkin, a much-missed friend who at one time was Director of Collection Development at the British Library.

Sir John Young Walker MacAlister

Sir John Young Walker MacAlister

It is a copy that has evidently been specially bound, although whether it is one of the twelve special copies bound by Cedric Chivers (as apparently are copies in the British Library and National Library of Scotland) is not made clear.  It probably is (needs checking), because as internal inscriptions make plain, this copy once belonged to MacAlister’s widow, Elizabeth MacAlister (1854?-1939).  The inscriptions, in the hand of the MacAlisters’ eldest son, Donald Alexander MacAlister (1875-1968), also make it clear that he was the editor of this graceful little volume, which is something I don’t think we knew before.  In addition, there are pencilled notes identifying the anonymous authors of several of the tributes.

So far, so good.  Nice little book, not exactly rare, but at least uncommon, and with a very attractive provenance.  But then on checking it – there should be five photogravure plates (all portrait photographs of MacAlister taken by his son) – and this copy only has four.  One has pretty obviously been forcibly removed.  The book is defective, which would normally be the end of the matter – not worth cataloguing.  But then again, we all like a book with a narrative to go with it – a book with its own personal story to tell – and this one does.  An inscription by the editor spells out exactly what happened: “My mother hated the full face photo which I had had placed here & cut it out.  I can quite sympathise with her action for Sir John was ill & I ought not to have printed a photo which so obviously showed it. D. M.”

inscriptionI note in passing that one of the British Library copies is also catalogued as having just four plates – has this been similarly doctored?  We have the evidence that the editor regretted including the photograph – perhaps it was removed from copies not distributed immediately.  But the problem remains that however interesting my copy might be, who is going pay good money (or any money at all) for a defective book?  It runs counter to everything we understand and have been taught about book-collecting.

But then again, unless you simply wanted a soulless text to work from, would you not rather have this copy with its close family connections, its back-story and its special binding than a run-of-the-mill copy?  And if that is the case, should I be pricing it at more than a complete copy?  Surely not – but why not?  While I ponder these questions, I think you may find that the book has once again quietly made its way back to its place on the limbo shelf.

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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 first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), 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, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. He teaches annually at the London Rare Book School, 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”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing 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. He also 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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5 Responses to Lacking a Plate – A Good Thing?

  1. Oh how I identified with this and Happy New Year.

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  2. Michael House. says:

    Association copies are always more interesting and, I would have thought, worth more, even if defective.

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  3. Well – yes, in theory – but I’ve always found it damned hard to sell tatty or defective books, however good the association. The A. L. Rowse book on my latest catalogue – inscribed to fellow historian Arthur Bryant, read to pieces and heavily annotated by Bryant – is a case in point. It’s been in stock for years and years – and it’s not exactly expensive.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael House. says:

    Rowse was considered something of a joke when I was an undergraduate.

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  5. Well – he had his Dark Lady moments, of course, but for all his failings, a proper, proper, historian.

    Liked by 1 person

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