“I moved to New York for my health. I’m paranoid, and it was the only place my fears were actually justified…”
New York has always been kind to me, especially the Antiquarian Book Fair. It beats me up, certainly, but only for my own good, and it always buys me dinner and drinks afterwards.
It shakes my confidence, fills me with elation, breaks my heart and promises more; all in the course of four days. It stuns me with beauty, smacks me round the face with ugliness and leaves me utterly bewildered, staring open-mouthed at things I can’t even begin to encompass. As a middle-aged man New York always reminds me of falling in love when young; you know it’s going to take off a few layers of skin, and you know you’ll never be the same afterwards for a long time and maybe not ever, but that’s what you came here for, so to hell with it.
I was going to write about why book fairs, and especially this book fair, are important…but Lorne Bair already did that far better than I could ever have done (in fact that may just be THE book trade blog right there…doing away in an instant with a couple of hundred years of needless mystification and misguided egotism). Obviously my frail sense of self worth is crippled by the accuracy and incisive intelligence of that piece, so I may have to give up writing altogether in favour of something I can actually do well…unfortunately nothing springs to mind, so you’re stuck with me.
I considered penning a pithy and witty account of the specific events of this year’s fair; technical issues, funny stories, a little local colour…but then I discovered that Greg Gibson had already done that very well indeed here.
Bearing in mind that my role in the international antiquarian book trade is mostly that of light relief, it would appear that unless there’s an actual hurricane, I’m a bit lost.
I have my problems with the modern book trade, parts of the upper end of it anyway, I think it needs an Occupy movement all it’s own, to be honest. It’s been the playground of the 1% on both sides of the cash register for so long now that I think occasionally it forgets that the next generation of collectors and buyers and archivists and cataloguers and sellers need to come from somewhere, and that if you want your offspring to carry on your legacy after you’re gone…it’s best they don’t despise you.
That’s pretty standard me, what can I say, I have family issues.
So, first off, the books:
All too often at a book fair you’ll see the same books, the same tired themes, another giant shelf of Generic Great Author No-One Reads, another five copies of Ulysses, a variety of exercises in cynicism, fatigue and desperation…it’s an occupational hazard and it’s what differentiates a dreadful book fair from a great one.
This year the thing that struck me was that a great swathe of dealers seemed to have brought books they really liked, things that they had enthusiasm and passion for.
It’s always a great sign for a fair when exhibitors will take the trouble to show you something they know you have no chance of buying simply because they love it…this year that happened to me at least four times. Special thanks in this arena have to go to Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis (who may get this years Exhibitor award for not only showing me an amazing book but then introducing me to the man who created it and then standing there smiling beatifically while the artist in question delivered a fluent lecture on his own work), and also to Kevin Johnson of Royal Books for showing me a Dracula imprint I hadn’t seen in years.
The “You’ve got to see this!” factor is hugely important to me. Part of the problem of fairs is the massive degree of over-saturation. Over 200 dealers in a single fair “day” means essentially a couple of minutes per stand if you don’t stop to breathe, eat, drink or actually buy anything. We often have people coming back every day the fair is open (I’m looking at you Heather Hess) just in order to ensure they aren’t missing anything. Lucy Liu turned up two days running, Yoko Ono was back again this year, Steve Martin and a number of other luminaries. The celebrities are nice to see, they remind us that we’re not quite as obscure and arcane as we think we are, but for me this year far more encouraging was the number of smart, engaged younger people turning up (I know this is a recurring theme, and the US rare book trade has nowhere near as significant problems in this area as we do in the UK…there’s a hugely promising, knowledgeable and impressive contingent of young US dealers and apprentice dealers coming up at the moment that look set to carry the trade on-wards for the next forty years whilst just getting better every year. Go here for a quick rundown: Bright Young Booksellers).
This is not some slightly out of it old person saying “We need to get young people interested in books…” (although, boy do I fit the profile!), they already read more than I do, they consume the arts and sciences like they’re going out of fashion (in which view they may be right).
But…In order for actual physical books to continue to have a widespread cultural significance beyond being merely expensive curiosities, they have to be accessible. Their innate relationship to the human heart must be open to exploration. If you can’t touch something, stroke it and run your fingers over its delicious late sixteenth century oak board and sheepskin binding, toy with its brass clasps and gasp in delight at its lush rubrication; you are never really going to know how much you want it. It’s basically the difference between looking at a photograph of someone incredibly hot compared with actually spending a day in their company. Believe me, there’s a world of difference, I know, I’ve been there. (It has to be said that people have spent days in my company and then happily gone back to the photos…but that’s apropos of nothing).
This then would be my interpretation of why fairs like the NY show are hugely important, they appeal to that quality in people that says “Y’know? I don’t care that this person is supposably way out of my league, I’m going to talk to them anyway, who knows, they might say yes!”
If that sounds like I’m deliberately stretching a fanciful relationship metaphor to make a point, well duh. Treated right your books will outlast you and carry on to the next pair of hands; which is what we all wish for our loved ones. You don’t own books so much as date them for a time, which you will hopefully remember as the best summer of your life.
Also, Zelda Devon came to the fair…and that always makes me happy.