By Anke Timmermann, Type & Forme

A bookshop in Germany, copyright Anke Timmermann
‘This is wonderful! I usually cannot talk to anyone about this! Can I show you one more?’ There is a point in almost every book collecting prize interview when this happens. What starts as a student’s presentation followed by questions across a table – candidate on one side, judges on the other – soon becomes a round-table conversation about books. Invariably, the judges learn as much from the candidates as they, a panel of experienced librarians, academics, and booksellers, bring to the discussion. 
 
In fact, it is far from unusual in the rare book world that knowledge is shared freely and enthusiastically between bibliophiles of all backgrounds and ages. Book knowledge truly democratises the field; actual insight is valued; and many years after entering the book trade I am still cheered by the fact that I joined one of the rare professions in which experience, and therefore age, is a positive thing!
 
Prompted by these thoughts, this blog post focuses on learning from one’s bibliophile elders – but perhaps not exactly as one might expect...
 
Charles Cox’s Tale
 
Years ago, at the York Antiquarian Book Seminar (YABS), I heard the late Charles Cox tell an anecdote from his own career as a rare bookseller to a nascent generation of booksellers. The story went thus:
 
In the relatively early days of eBay, Charles – who had embraced this brave new world with both arms – spotted a listing for a historic letter: a message from a Ms Stephen writing to a publisher to introduce her niece, whose work she thought was very promising indeed. Charles was intrigued. Could it be...? Yes, unbeknownst to the seller, this was a letter introducing none other than the young Virginia Woolf to the publishing world! What a find!
 
Charles Cox in 2017. Photo by Sheila Fairon, reproduced with kind permission.jpg 472.07 KB


For his spellbound audience (and that is what we were) Charles then recalled what happened next in vivid detail: how he rubbed his hands with glee when no one else bid for the item. How he gloated when the letter arrived and he could confirm that it was, indeed, genuine, and not a fake. And how his heart sank when he turned over the leaf and found - - - - his own inventory number written in pencil, in his very own hand. How could this be?
 
Charles could not quite remember when or where he had handled this letter before. He had, he thought, probably received it together with other materials, dismissed it as not terribly interesting, and passed it on to someone else, who then passed it on to someone else, and so on, until it appeared on eBay – only to be rescued from obscurity by the same man who had sent it on its journey down the bibliophile food chain in the first place.
 
And the moral of the story? Anyone less wise than Charles would have ended the anecdote on a self-deprecating note, but he simply acknowledged that it had taken some time for him to have the ‘eye’ and the knowledge to see the letter for what it was. In the end, he put this down as a learning experience.
 
Learning From Young Collectors
 
Returning to the topic of learning from younger book enthusiasts, one interview from last year’s Rose Book Collecting Prize interviews particularly stands out in my memory: I really did not know much about Japanese illustrated books before hearing Joseph Bills talk about his adventures in Tokyo’s book basements. Now I know much more about early modern Japanese books and the book trade, but also how it is possible to start a remarkable collection during just one short year abroad, even with a modest budget, and without compromising the integrity of the collection.

Ryukatei Tanekazu and Utagawa Kunisada (illustrator), Shuranui monogatari, 1856. Reproduced by kind permission of Joseph Bills..jpeg 272.87 KB
  
Joseph’s collection is one of books used by their owners. In a blog post written for Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections he explains that he wants to ‘show the vibrancy and diversity of the book culture of early modern Japan’, showcasing books as ‘living objects, parts of people’s lives’ by putting together a collection of ‘the marked, the incomplete and the common’, in which ‘every book is one-of-a-kind’.*
 
Incidentally, Joseph’s collection not only won him the Rose Book Collecting Prize at Cambridge University Library in 2022, but also the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association’s National Book Collecting Prize. Was I surprised? Not at all. 
 
Book Collectors: A Species Of Their Own?
 
This prompts the question: what characterises a ‘good’ book collector? In a roundabout way here, too, Charles Cox has a perfect answer, so I would like to borrow a lovely passage from his interview with Sheila Markham which is technically about booksellers, but equally applies to book collectors:
 
‘It’s not just a question of being good at bookselling; it has to be good for you, providing a living and a consuming interest, which gets you up in the morning and probably keeps you up late at night. ... I can think of more sensible occupations but I can’t think of any more pleasurable’.**
 
To be honest, neither can I. 
 
                                                                                                 ~~~~~
 
* Joseph Bills, ‘The Rose Book Collecting prize 2022: Illustrated books from early-modern Japan’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog, 13 October 2022: https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=23398 (accessed 10 March 2023).
 
** The full interview was first published in The Book Collector in 2012 and is available here: ‘Charles Cox’, Sheila Markham in Conversation, http://www.sheila-markham.com/interviews/charles-cox.html (accessed 10 March 2023).

Top image:
Photo of a bookshop in Germany. Copyright Anke Timmermann.

Central image:
Charles Cox at the 2017 York Antiquarian Book Seminar. Photograph by Sheila Fairon, reproduced by kind permission of Anthony Smithson.
 
Bottom image:
Illustration from Ryūkatei Tanekazu and Utagawa Kunisada (illustrator). Shuranui monogatari. Tokyo: Maruya Kobayashi Tetsujirō, Ansei 3 [1856], vol. 21-22. Reproduced by kind permission of Joseph Bills.
 
Date Published 3rd April 2023
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