As you probably know, working in the rare book trade often involves accidentally being one of those people. You know them:
The ones who use big words because they think it’s really clever, deliberately set out to be as obscure and confusing and opaque as possible and who basically act like scriptwriters for J.J. Abrams (“Thrill at how much smarter than you we are! Fall whimpering at the feet of our infuriating smarmy cleverness! No really, season 2 of LOST was very, very smart!”).
We don’t deliberately set out to be like that (well, most of us don’t), but we do end up in a position where people give up and wander off because they get the impression you need to have been to the right school to collect rare books. Trade secret: most of us didn’t go to school, and if we did, we were the ones smoking behind the gym, bribing people to show us theirs and lamentably fixated on the idea that being good at D&D would get you girls/boys or both.
The reason is of course that books are complicated, their production methods are diverse and weird, the materials basically haven’t changed for a millenia (paper/parchment, wood, cloth, ink, paint, suffering), every successive artisan, guild, school, designer and even author has sought to make their stamp on the bibliosphere not merely through the numinous content of their creation but also through its appearance, size, longevity and of course, beauty. See below for some beauty:
The more you invest in something, the more you tinker, adjust, renovate and improve something generally the more complicated it becomes. As an object lesson in this process, try using the London Underground.
On a daily basis when buying, cataloguing, describing, pricing and (hopefully) selling a book we deal with 20 differing types of paper, 30 different types of binding, leather, condition assessments running the gamut from “Excreted by Trolls” all the way to “Wrapped carefully in mermaid’s shawls before being gently placed in a velvet-lined lead casket by a unicorn and then safely tucked away under Jesus’s bed for three hundred years until we discovered it and burst into spontaneous tears at its perfection”, various nuances of authorial/publishing/printing style, issue points (more on those later), inscriptions, provenance and usually lastly how much it might be worth (which is occasionally less than we paid for it, but hey, it’s pretty!).
As a result of these vagaries and peculiarities (see what I did there instead of using the word “stuff”?) we have evolved and developed a trade language which can on occasion make eighteenth century thieves’ cant sound like wartime Pathe newsreels in comparison.
In an effort to address this, and also because I frequently don’t understand what we’re on about and could use the practise, we’re going to do a series of explanatory mini articles on book bindings, sizes, paper types (we’ll keep that one short, promise) and the ins and outs of book description. This serves a number of purposes, one of which is quite definitely to make sure that I never again receive an email saying: “WTH does ‘8vo in eighths’ mean?”
We begin tomorrow with book sizes and a bunch of bindings. Unless you have any other questions, in which case do tell.