Category Archives: Book Trivia

Fang it.

Kim Schwenk of Lux Mentis throws her hat into the ring regarding the New York fairs and bookselling in general:



“No, we’re good. We fang it!”

I’m in an Empire State of Mind

Survival and Spectacle: Highlights from The new York Antiquarian Book Fair 2016

Book of The Month: “And The Heretics All To Destroy!”

So my dearly beloved; life itself may be filled with pain, and all men flawed and ill made, and happiness an impossibility borne upon the wings of a fever dream; and hearts, promises and pie crusts all things that were made to be broken, but books, books are eternal.

I recently decided (translation: I turned up at a party and no-one wanted to admit they’d invited me, which means I no longer have anyone to borrow money off) that it’s about time I got back into using the internet for its primary purpose; as a pathetic apparatus for staving off loneliness and isolation as a means of sharing my love of what I do for (what I shall now rather laughably refer to as…) a living.

This is a wonderful, interesting thing:

Cecil, William.

Certaine Advertisements out of Ireland, concerning the losses and distresses happened to the Spanish Navie, upon the West coasts of Ireland in their voyage intended from the Northern Isles beyond Scotland , towards Spaine. 

London: I. Vautrollier for Richard Field, 1588.

First Edition. Small Quarto. 18cm x 13cm. 19pp. First edition (in setting that collates A-B). Beautifully bound in quarter pigskin over marbled boards to style, pink leather title label. new endpapers. Internally clean and bright. Woodcut printer’s device to title page. Blind stamp of North Library to title page; from the Tony Sweeney collection. Woodcut headpiece to Aii.

A scarce contemporary account issued anonymously by the Royal Treasurer (or Spymaster if we’re being blunt) of Elizabeth I, regarding the destruction of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent annihilation of many of its survivors who were despatched on the beaches of Galway by the local populace. The final two leaves detail the ships lost and their crews in 1588 with an additional list of men and ships lost in the two months preceding. Apart from the fascinating period detail and providing an understanding of the professional and detailed nature of the Elizabethan propaganda machine under Cecil, this ephemeral pamphlet rarely seen at all (only a handful of copies in auction since 1961), sometimes seen bound with “A Copie of A Letter Sent Out of England…”, although possessed of its own separate imprint and title page; provides a harrowing account of what the enemies of the crown could expect when washing up on the shores of the scepter’d isle:
“He inviteth also that there was at the same time another great ship cast away in Tereawley…and all the residue of that ship are slain and drowned…Meleghlen Mac Cab, A Galloglasse, killed 80 of them with his Galloglasse axe…”
When it comes to the defending the shores of Britain from invaders, apparently there is no such thing as bad publicity. A scarce and fascinating survival.





Such paper! Much Booke!

Such paper! Much Book!

So, this basically dates from the birth of the dirty, gritty and searingly unpleasant modern world. The birth of Intelligence services and the myriad tiny, grubby wars they fight, the birth of terrorist training camps, double and triple agents, suicidal religious zealots, torture, rendition, cryptography and the gentleman spy.

It’s 1588, for those of you that have never been in a Tardis before. Most of the world is Catholic, gleefully, enthusiastically, pointy-hattedly, Inquisitively, Catholic. Pretty much half the planet was Papally divided between Spain and Portugal, Britain and William of Orange’s Holland were small, irritating Protestant strongholds and just last year Elizabeth I of England (body of a weak and feeble woman, brain of a steel trap,  capacity for fear and weakness of a Megalodon shark) executed the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, thus putting paid to any plan to get a Catholic on the throne of England without invading. For the previous decade or more England has been a hotbed of plot after plot after plot seeking the removal or assassination  of Elizabeth. The Ridolfi Plot in 1571 was a straight up armed invasion, the Throckmorton Plot in ’83 intended to put Mary on the throne and the Babington Plot of ’86 was aimed at killing Elizabeth and then putting Mary on the throne. There were three assassination plots in 1586 alone, they were presumably put down so swiftly and brutally they didn’t have time to catch any names.

"Babs, are you sure we want to do this? Those people in the background appear to be being symbolically about a strongly worded letter? A leaflet campaign?"

“Babs, are you sure we want to do this? Those people in the background appear to be being symbolically dismembered…how about a strongly worded letter? A leaflet campaign?”

The happy go lucky swashbuckling, thigh slapping chaps of the informal British Navy; Drake, Raleigh et al. are generally harassing the living daylights out of Spanish shipping both in Europe and the New World. Philip placed an embargo on all English goods in 1585 and Francis “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” Drake took Galicia for ten days in the teeth of the Spanish, went on to sack ports in the Canaries and the Caribbean and then eventually raided Cadiz; which went down like a Bathory concert in the Vatican.

William Allen, formerly of St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford and the kind of Catholic who made Torquemada feel like he wasn’t trying hard enough, has started seminaries in Douai and Rome recruiting young, zealous and disenfranchised English Catholics dedicated to returning England to the true faith. Allen was a true believer; the Papacy held the ultimate power, he was committed to nothing short of a military invasion of England and, as one of his adherents said to Philip “if the entire destruction of England was for the greater good of God” then he would be happy to see it done. All of his young men knew that if caught on English soil preaching Catholicism they would be guilty of treason, the punishment for which was being half hanged, taken down, castrated, disembowelled and then dismembered. In reality, under Francis Walsingham’s sanction and William Cecil’s direction they were often captured, tortured, drained of all useful information and then turned in double agents, sent back to the Catholic mainland to spy on, subvert and report on the anti-Protestant plotting. Cecil’s espionage tactics, and the ruthlessness with which they were carried out, actually succeeded in foiling a number of Catholic plots.

Elizabeth and her advisers were obviously aware of Philip’s plans for invasion. The building and deployment of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns isn’t the kind of thing that someone of Cecil’s acumen and networking skills would have missed.

In the event despite the small yet dedicated and tactically agile English navy, with Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins and the other sea cowboys of the Elizabethan age doing their best to destroy it in Calais harbour with the famous fire ships, it was in fact dreadful weather that swept the colossal Spanish Armada north and into the circumstances that Cecil’s propaganda pamphlet speaks of.

The towering Spanish ships were blown far off course and up onto the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Cecil’s pamphlet charts the losses in a pair of tables in the rear:

And that is just September

And that is just September


The Tireawley entry is the one mentioned above in the catalogue description, where a single Gallowglass killed 80 washed up Spaniards on his own, by strolling along the beach and hacking them up with his axe.

And this is a Gallowglass Axe, clearly it was not a good time to be a Spaniard.

And this is a Gallowglass Axe, clearly it was not a good time to be a Spaniard.

There would have undoubtedly been a wealth of celebration if the navy alone had carried the day, despite the relative impossibility of this in the face of an armada that enormous; the fact that nature itself conspired against the Spaniards, and thus God (the Protestant one, naturally), and that so many of the people responsible for straight up murdering, holding and ransoming the surviving Spanish were not your standard beef eating, bowls playing Englishmen made it, in the eyes of England’s burgeoning intelligence and propaganda community, especially worthy of effort.

Cecil was never a man to miss the chance at some attribution of divine intervention, and a brief look at the title page shows that it features Psalm 118: “This was The Lord’s Doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes…” which, by a stunning coincidence is what Elizabeth herself said to Cecil, seated beneath a tree at Hatfield, when he informed her of the death of Mary I and Elizabeth’s subsequent elevation to Queen. Anyone who thinks of the concept of spin as a modern invention, clearly needs to read more about the Elizabethan period.

As a bibliophilic sidenote, Cecil is the man who gave his name to Cecil Court in London’s West End, famous for having more rare bookshops that any other part of London.


Get Thee To A Nunnery…

So, I’m back in my basement after being rudely dragged out into the pale Northern sunlight to fight off Mance Rayder’s Army of Wildlings,  attend both the inaugural York Antiquarian Book Seminar and the amazing York Book Fair.

The first of those has been a labour of love; a two year labour of love in the case of Anthony Smithson of Keel Row Bookshop, and just over a year in my own case; since he invited me to join him at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (aka: the best week of book related awesomeness I’ve experienced since I became a professional dealer).

Organising such an event, firstly, is an achievement of epic proportions; herding cats has nothing on herding book dealers. It’s not considered a good idea unless 20 people have told you it’ll never work, ten people have told you you’re not qualified and 4 people have actively tried to mess  it up (that’s actually the wikipedia definition of a book trade good idea).

“I’ve got a good idea!” Said Anthony. “Let’s teach people how to be rare booksellers! It worked in Colorado.”

“You shall have my axe!” Said Gimli.

“And my bow!” Said Legolas.

“Uh, yeah, ok, sounds cool.” Said Jonathan.

“Smithson! Smithson! We hates it forever!” Said that guy with the grey complexion and the webbed feet who turns up at book fairs. Never mind him though, he doesn’t even get a look in.

"Nobody wants to learn about books from don't have any friends..."

“Nobody wants to learn about books from you…you don’t have any friends…”

So, the first step is apparently getting together some of the brightest, most accomplished and highly respected people in the book trade and making them your Fellowship faculty and have them gather at The Bar Convent, York:

Ed Maggs, Simon Beattie, Sophie Schneideman, Justin Croft…basically all these people. They all said yes. They all turned up and they all gave informed, intelligent, insightful and often downright hilarious lectures and presentations on all of the most arcane elements of what, to a neophyte, can be a deeply arcane trade. Ed Maggs on Archives was worth the admission cost alone, Sophie Schneideman on the Art of The Book, Adam Douglas on Fakes and Forgeries…and possibly the most in depth and enthusiastically presented and participated series of lectures on formal and accurate cataloguing from Messrs. Croft and Beattie. Anthony on running an open shop, and the Mighty Nigel Burwood on buying books, and the esoteric routes by which they may be priced and sold. We also had Tim Pye from the British Library (yes, they come out in daylight, occasionally) informing us what librarians look for in a bookseller…which leads me to believe there should be an app for that…some kind of BiblioTinder where “Archivist Seeking 17th Century Broadsheets” can finally be united with “PamphleteerUnbound775” and they can happily make shelf-marks together.

I pretty much sat through every presentation making notes of some sort or another. It was either “Now that I did not know!” or “This man/woman is way too funny and interesting, he/she needs to stop because I’m up next.”

Purely in the interests of giving Anthony a minor cardiac event I ended up rewriting almost my whole final presentation an hour beforehand as I realised with a sense of sick, Lovecraftian horror that Lorne Bair and Carl Williams were actually saying everything I was about to.

Yes, absolutely like that, only with more books...

Yes, absolutely like that, only with more books…


For a moment I hovered on the brink of blinking out of existence in some sort of quantum event as I was rendered utterly superfluous and redundant (that’s a theme of this year, did I mention that? Private joke, you’d only get it if you were at YABS, just saying…) and then I reflected on the fact that after those two had finished speaking no-one was going to be listening anyway, and I could have basically recited a list of baking ingredients…so all was well…except for Anthony’s bulging eyes as potential last minute disaster reared its ginger, bespectacled head.

So the faculty pretty much had it all sewn up. The quality of information and its presentation was amongst the highest I have encountered in over four decades of sitting in rooms with distressingly smart people. Rob Rulon-Miller and Lorne Bair (basically the book-dealers other book-dealers dream about being and then wake up disappointed) made the massive commitment of travelling all the way from the US.

Mr. Rulon-Miller gave the keynote address; a no punches pulled overview of the rare book world, its highs and its lows, and an admonition to all present that if you think you can have one without the other, you’re in the wrong business. He also spoke about tape, packing tape, apparently he has strong opinions about tape. Who knew?


Lorne Bair, apart from being present for the whole seminar, sitting either with the faculty or at the back of the room, is a leading light (along with Rob) of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, our alma mater…and is also one of the world’s leading dealers in counter culture material.

Having Mr. Bair in the room when you are embarking on something like YABS (essentially a parachute-free leap of faith kind of gig) is akin to having Stephen Hawking back your primary school papier-mache model of the solar system. It makes the whole thing way easier.

But…anybody could have hazarded a guess that a faculty like that, which reads like a bibliophile’s fantasy football lineup, are going to deliver some outstanding material.

But the students!

"Why yes! Of course I'll tell you more about WordPress and Search Engine Optimisation..."

“Why yes! Of course I’ll tell you more about WordPress and Search Engine Optimisation…”

I don’t think any of us could have guessed that the inaugural year of YABS was going to get such an impressive group of students. We didn’t really know what we’d get, but I personally was blown away by the enthusiasm, attentiveness and intelligence present in that room. Apart from the proviso that there are no stupid questions, you don’t actually expect all of them to be good questions! Whilst I would normally feel a little less than comfortable about being faced with a query so searching that I had to make a whimpering noise and ask for help, on every occasion it happened at YABS I just felt kind of proud. In an echo of CABS last year, a good number of the students were already deeply embedded in the trade, either as employees of the great and known, like Fuschia Voremberg of Maggs Brothers, or Joanna Skeels of Quaritch, or Ed Nassau-Lake of Jarndyce; or they were somehow achieving amazing degrees of commitment, like Natalie-Kay Thatcher (recipient of this year’s Jonathan Kearns/BTC Scholarship, oh yes) who has somehow managed to start out working for two (count ’em) highly respected ABA dealers AND run her own book related business.

That’s right up there in the Shannon Hartlep, L.N. Golay, Heather O’Donnell leagues that is. That’s “You should be standing here talking to these people instead of me” territory. If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought it was a conspiracy…like those parties I used to get invited to by girls that were always mysteriously just over when I got there, or happening on an oil rig. I should have looked about me and thought “Wait a minute…these people are smart…too smart!”

Hi! Anyone around? I brought Lambrusco...hello? Am I early?

Hi! Anyone around? I brought Lambrusco…hello? Am I early?

But apparently that’s what you get when Anthony Smithson convinces you to gather people together to teach them about rare books.

It was exhausting, and delirious, and inspiring and terrifying and thoroughly enjoyable. These are not words normally applied to anything taking place in the conference room of a convent (except that one time where they double-booked BurlesqueCon and my Gentlemen Prefer Tweed Annual Gathering…totes cray cray that was…), but on this occasion they are accurate.

I would do it again tomorrow. This time I wouldn’t let Lorne Bair and Carl Williams go on first…










“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”

So, last night a thing happened to me. I went to a party. I don’t get invited to parties much as a rule, I always end up pulling someone’s hair or sticking my fingers in the cake, and none of the other kids like books as presents. This, however, was a rare book trade party, and they always have to make up the numbers somehow.

The shindig, or indeed hootenanny, in question was the opening of this:

A bookshop, not messing about, yesterday.

A bookshop, not messing about, yesterday.

This is Peter Harrington Rare Books new Dover Street branch in the posh bit of Mayfair. In case you were wondering, no, there’s no bit of Mayfair that isn’t posh. If there were an un-posh bit, this shop wouldn’t be in it, I needed an escort of smartly dressed adults to get within ten feet of the door unchallenged.

As you can see, it’s very pretty, very green and exuding an air of calm elegance. My familiarity with calm elegance is right up there with my familiarity of say, early cuneiform, or the inner workings of the Antikythera Mechanism, but I have it on good authority from people who know calm elegance when they see it that, yup, this place is dripping with it.

Justin Croft was there, what more do you need to know? He’s like a calm elegance early warning system. He also doesn’t age, but that’s a story for another day, one when we have garlic and mistletoe and the backing of a reasonably sized religion.

"No, I am in fact 175 years old...hmm? Oh, virgin's blood mainly, and special soil..."

“No, I am in fact 175 years old…hmm? Oh, virgin’s blood mainly, and special soil…”

In case you were wondering whether I’m just plugging their shop because I work for one of their relatives, no, that wasn’t my intention, have you met me? I’m plugging their shop because it’s awesome. Not because it’s big, and clean and spacious, not because it has concealed lighting and air conditioning and a cool staircase and not because they were giving away free champagne and the bubbles went up my nose.

I mean, all those things are true, but they aren’t really things I give much of a toss about (except the free champagne), in fact they are usually reasons for me not to particularly like a place, being kind of grubby and low rent myself. There are other reasons:

Firstly, it’s a massive vote of confidence in the rare book trade, its future, and its customers. At a time when (once again) the majority of booksellers are predicting a rain of frogs and the imminent arrival of the Whore of Babylon (whom I believe collects Cosway bindings and Jardine’s New Naturalist), often whilst people who want to buy books off them are standing there looking all forlorn and forgotten, this is a successful, internationally lauded firm making the statement that no, they aren’t having any of that, they are going to sell amazing books to anyone who wants them and they’re going to do it with a degree of style. So there’s that. We like that.

Secondly, the staff. Normally I hate bookshop staff. I am bookshop staff, and I’m grotesque, so I naturally suspect the same of anyone in the same profession.

Me, only better groomed.

Me, only better groomed.

Dover Street is being managed by Ben Houston. He is not horrid. He’s annoyingly intelligent, reprehensibly helpful and informed and quite disgustingly friendly and efficient. He fills me with insecurity and self loathing. He gave myself and one of my colleagues a guided tour and he actually managed to make us feel as if we were perhaps his first or most definitely, favourite guided tour of the day. He’d probably done 50, and detested most of the last 20. I have a keen eye for vile and deceitful behaviour in others (I’m competitive that way) and could detect none. He gave us drinks and showed us wonderful books. He smelled nice, sort of sandalwoody with a hint of citrus, rather like one might expect the 1930’s to smell, only with less national socialism.

All that aside, he knows what he’s talking about, and he knows what he’s doing…personally not things I look for in a bookshop manager, but people who want to buy inscribed F. Scott Fitzgerald, sets of Cook’s Voyages in contemporary bindings and the world’s most beautiful first edition of The Hobbit probably feel differently. They probably think he’s peachy.

I was also introduced to Gracie Pocock, who initially had the bad judgement to attempt to make me believe she was actually looking forward to meeting me. Once we’d got that tissue of patent untruths out of the way I discovered that she is working in PR and marketing for the rare book trade. The party was her doing. It appeared most successful.

Yes. I know.

Public Relations in the  British rare book trade used to consist of wearing a shirt with not too much egg down it. Marketing involved a sign on the front of your shop and a postcard in the local newsagent’s window. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. It is still very much possible to attend a bookfair by accident, simply because you didn’t know it was happening and took a wrong turn into a church hall. This is a trade where a lot of dealers still get grumpy when you buy a book off them and ask for a receipt. Miss Pocock might have to get an assistant.

The main reason why you should drop everything and go to the Dover Street shop is pretty obvious. The books; the books are absolutely incredible.

There’s this:


This copy has no way been there and back again...

This copy has no way been there and back again…

and somewhere there’s this:

McKenney & Hall, the original line up before the arrival of John Oates.

McKenney & Hall, the original line up before the arrival of John Oates.

and this:

It was the best of books, it was the...well pretty much the best of books actually.

It was the best of books, it was the…well pretty much the best of books actually.

All those images are the property of Peter Harrington Rare Books, just click on the pictures to see the descriptions. It’s well worth it.

So go. Go and browse. It’s beautiful. I haven’t been this impressed by anything in a long while. Usually my life is a storm of NSFW book lust on the one hand and the crippling disappointment of reality on the other. Occasionally there’s a brief moment of joy caused by finding a half eaten, forgotten pasty in my coat pocket, or when Adrian forgets to mark the level on the shop whisky bottle…but last night’s visit to Dover Street was a very grown up, considered, intelligent and important event. The appearance of a shop like that, whoever owns it, wherever it is, is a significant moment for the international rare book trade. Much as I love the teetering piles of old leather and the creaky cabinets of cloth bound oddities, and I do love them, fervently and indecently; they are where I grew up, and where many important things happened to me…but often the books deserve better.

That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day; are the books being given their due importance, their proper significance? Aside from the fact that we’re all trying to make money out of them, aside from the fact that there’s no such thing as free champagne, aside from the fact that we’re all fashionably cynical and that we have collectively more behavioral disorders than an off Broadway production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest…that perfect copy of The Hobbit, or the corrected Joyce typescript, or a first issue Origin of Species or a 16th century navigational manuscript don’t actually give a damn how much money we put on them, nor do they care which of us get to put them in a catalogue or exhibit them at Olympia…the only thing that matters is that they are put in the best possible place in the world to be seen, and to do their job, and feed our sense of wonder.

Last night I drank free champagne in one of those possible places.




I left my heart in Colorado Springs…and my luggage in Denver.

Criminal as it may seem, I have been back a couple of weeks now and I still haven’t shared the tale of my adventures at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. A fortnight standing in as a coconut shy for the more Luddite of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association will do that.

“But tell us your adventures!” I hear you clamouring, “Were there beautiful women, and strange narcotics, were there acts of great derring-do and sundry torrid and passionate encounters neath the sparkling dome of the big, big Colorado sky?”

Why yes, dearly beloved, yes there were…all these things and more.

So, background…every year in August the best, the brightest the fastest and the wisest in the rare book trade act as faculty for those lucky enough to be admitted to what is effectively “Bookselling School” at Colorado College, Colorado Springs.

Go here to find out more: Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar. No, really, it’s awesome.

First off, Colorado Springs look like this:

All week I kept looking upwards and going "Gah!"

All week I kept looking upwards and going “Gah!”

It’s gorgeous.

Secondly; the faculty consists of people like Lorne Bair, Rob Rulon Miller, Kevin Johnson, and Terry “The Dryer” Belanger…and others, Nina Musinsky, Dan DeSimone…and there’s more! There’s also Dan Gregory (a man who has done more for the modernisation of the rare book trade than just about anyone else). And others!

So there’s that.

Anyway…3 flights, every one of them delayed, a giant terrifying (yet awe-inspiring) cliff of lightning-spewing cloud, clear air turbulence and nobody understanding a word I was saying until I said with a slight American accent, sharing the last stormy part of the journey in a very small plane with a very serene sniper who actually slept through the worst bits.

I arrive at Colorado Springs at about half eleven at night, my luggage lost in the unholy demonic puzzle box that is Denver International Airport, with half an hour to get to a place I don’t know, to speak to a person I’ve never met, about a key I really hope is waiting so that I don’t have to start my visit by being locked up for vagrancy. 

By midnight I have my key, I have the run of an empty motel (weirdly not as exciting as you might think), I have beer and a microwave burrito and the guy with the ponytail in the 7-11 just spent ten minutes trying to get me to say things in an English accent because I “should totally be like, a bad guy on a TV show, man.”

I neither look nor sound anything like this man...but he cropped up frequently on 7-11 visits and elsewhere. (this image is for Marguerite)

I neither look nor sound anything like this man…but he cropped up frequently on 7-11 visits and elsewhere. (this image is specially for Marguerite)

I sat outside in the car park, alone at 2 in the morning drinking beer. It was a warm night, and I was struck forcibly by the understanding that having flown across the planet to be instructed on the subtleties, vagaries, tips and techniques of my chosen trade, I was suddenly, quietly, yet quite conspicuously…happy.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is presumably what they were talking about when they said “Try and do a job you enjoy.”

Anyway, long story short: A hell of a lot happened. 

Day one: myself and Anthony Smithson (of Keel Row Books and the Eminence Grise of The York Antiquarian Book Seminar, the reason I ended up in Colorado in the first place) are lounging about in the awkward, pallid fashion of British men abroad in warm climates.

We are chatting to a bookseller from Seattle called Mark who bears a ridiculous (and quite annoying) resemblance to Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch.

A tall young woman of piercing eye, no-nonsense demeanour and awesome tattoo-age glides up, and announces she’s taking us to a pub. Obviously we allowed this to happen, because that’s what gentlemen do.

We discussed, over beer and various arcane US snacks, Mark’s business in Seattle, my own (well, Adrian’s) in London, Anthony’s flourishing Empire in The North, and then asked the young lady (whose name is Shannon) what place she had in the bookseller’s pantheon.

Half an hour later we were sitting there; goggle eyed and slack jawed as she laid down a tale of such blinding business acumen, hard work and devotion to her objective of opening and running a cool little bookshop somewhere nice ™, that we damn near just gave up on the spot and proclaimed her the winner of all Book-shoppery.

Seriously, she took a rundown, exhausted, ninety percent trashed bookshop in Guernville, California and turned it into a thriving, happy and profitable community bookshop with a strong local following and a very strong future. The bar-staff had to come ask me why I was clapping. It was absolutely the most downright encouraging story I’d heard in years, because this business can be a pig to get into and an even bigger pig to progress in.

So there was that. It wasn’t the first time that happened either, there were a number of people attending the seminar, ostensibly to learn, who were already making their way with admirable skill and dedication. It was a very inspiring crowd, and one that I was very happy to be a part of…

PART 2 to follow.


Book Sizes Redux, Redux.

Every now and then it is forcibly brought home to me that people actually read this blog…and I’m not just doing the amateur journalistic equivalent of singing in the shower. On that note, and in order to avoid any loss of sanity in my audience…I blog fully clothed…mostly.

So I got a message from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (via the awesome Patti Weintraub…awesome I tell you!) regarding this:


and this:

They were shocked, appalled and disappointed (which initially meant I thought they were all people I had dated at some point…but no) at the shameful and unforgivable omission of that Death Star of book dimensions: The Double Elephant Folio!

Well, you don’t see many of those…I thought.

Then they mentioned the word Audubon.

I made one of those inadvisable noises that always seem to creep up on you when you’re talking to someone you secretly find really attractive, and you forget how any of the safety valves anywhere on your body work. Or that might just be me.

Then they sent me this, as if their claim of my negligence needed any further back up:

Only in the miniscule tunnels beneath the CMNH can you find women so tiny!

Only in the miniscule tunnels beneath the CMNH can you find women so tiny!

So there you go: Audubon: 1  Bibliodeviant: Nil


Also edited to correct my idiotic spelling of Audubon! Thanks to Simon Beattie for that catch.

Define “Minority Interest.”

There would be a couple of ways to do this. The first definition would be “Pictures of Bibliodeviant without suitable clothing.” (it has to be pointed out that most people’s idea of suitable clothing for me is a hardy hazmat coverall in a neutral colour, and the kind of diving suit that is only ever accompanied by a giant octopus and very dramatic music). An alternative definition would be an explanation of  “The London Editions of John William Polidori’s; “The Vampyre.”

Seeing as there actually are numerous international guidelines and safety measures that forbid images of me, we’re going to go with the second definition…because someone asked, and I have a huge, ungainly man crush on Poildori.

The Vampyre Notes:
Although it seems as though “The Vampyre” has a complicated publishing history it’s actually fairly straight-forward, just a bit mad:


Henry Colburn publishes the first book issue with his name as publisher and Byron’s name as author (there are no known copies of this), Colburn then publishes his second issue with his name as publisher and “A Tale related by Lord Byron to Dr. Polidori” on the title page (all he did was cut off the old title page and glue the new ones onto the stub)…there are 4 or 5 copies of this imprint knocking about with two of them being a variant with the extract set in 23 lines instead of 24, suggesting there was another Colburn issue that Dr. Viets (the only other bibliographical reference available) couldn’t lay hands on.

He doesn't look anything like Timothy Spall

All of the attitude, none of the skillz

Colburn virtually simultaneously handed distribution and agency (NOT printing or production) over to Sherwood, Neely and Jones and they start adding their imprint title pages. Sherwood Neely first issue with Byron as author (no copies extant), the Second issue with nobody as author (this issue, which is the earliest generally available to actual humans) and the third issue with the “Extract from a Letter” introduction reset to remove libellous suggestions regarding “certain ladies”, the certain ladies being Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, who according to the first form of the introduction, had rocked up without pants ready to play naked twister and do jello shots. Clearly none of the people believing this had met Mary Shelley.

The text block of the novel remains the same throughout ALL issues regardless of imprint, only the Extract of a Letter changes and the nature of the title page glued to a stub.
The missing “a” from “almost” isn’t an indicator of issue because all the sheets were the same and it wasn’t corrected until another enterprising publisher pirated the work a couple of months later (rather nicely actually).

This might sound a bit arcane until it becomes clear that this took place in a frenzy of activity over two weeks or so in March/April 1819.
The sheets were all ready and printed until Colburn ordered his printer (Gillet of Fleet Street) to reset the Extract which he did in house and on the spot.

Henry Colburn's office during May 1819...or the headquarters of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association most days of the week.

Henry Colburn’s office during May 1819…or the headquarters of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association most days of the week.

Basically the whole process was, in all likelihood, an up all night extravaganza of one publisher and his agents trying to make as much cash as possible in the shortest space of time without being sued, paying Polidori anything or running the risk of Byron threatening to shoot them.

The title was a big hit and it’s doubtful that very many copies with Colburn’s imprint ever made it out of the printer’s yard and into a bookshop. Colburn’s editor, Alaric Watts, resigned in disgust at his boss’s conduct and in all likelihood Colburn (being Colburn, who by rights should have had a skull and crossbones flag attached to his hat, and an eyepatch) probably decided to cut his losses and distance himself by being able to point at Sherwood Neely and Jones and say “Talk to them!”

"Copyright's more guidelines, than actual rules..."

“Copyright’s more guidelines, than actual rules…”

Polidori, being Polidori, got nothing, except sadder and more resentful and desperate until finally he killed himself at the age of 26 in 1821. Byron was still in exile and would remain so until his death in 1824. John Murray wrote stiffly worded letters, John Cam Hobhouse grumbled and muttered but the good ship Colburn made a good deal of money and The Vampyre stayed in print and in the public eye, it was still being performed on the stage in the second half of the 20th century and was pirated, redistributed and reprinted right the way across the globe. It is basically almost solely responsible for giving us the vampire genre in its current and by far most enduring form…and without it the landscape of our popular culture would be significantly different.

Information wants to be free!

We’ve been tidying up our cataloguing recently, and generally trying to look at the world of rare books through the eyes of people who have an interest but weren’t abandoned in the wild and brought up by bookdealers. Those few unfortunates out there whose first words weren’t “Incunabula” (which most people think is a spell from Harry Potter) or “Trigesimo-Secundo” (which actually is).
In the interests of such bereft types, I’ve scrabbled together some information regarding book sizes, (in addition to the blog article I did a while back with the help of my little brother) and I hope it will be if some use.

In the future I’ll be adding more bits and pieces, problematic technical terms (or just silly words we use), and if anyone has any queries that need clarifying I’ll have a go at that or find some actual clever grown up who can…so feel free to ask.


I’ve been experimenting with new format of online catalogues for displaying our books n’ stuff to the world…The latest attempt is full of library sets and collections of elaborately bound sweetmeats.

Experience its wonders here: Your Library M’Lord, Ma’am…

Gasp! Black Magic…

Gasp! Black Magic….

You don’t by any chance know the way through this labyrinth, do you?

Who, me? No, I’m just a worm. Say, come inside, and meet the missus.

Well, dearly beloved. Yesterday I was all righteous annoyance and impotent nerdy snark…which is obviously a great look for me.

Having thought about it though, it did occur to me that the real problem with that Treasure Detectives malarkey was not even the fact that they had no clue what they were on about…more the fact that to someone “normal” it would be really hard to tell.

If I were wandering the earth all besotted with books and suddenly had a windfall from a mysterious Romanian Great Uncle I’d never previously heard of, and I wanted to start collecting books…how would I go about it?

First…there are rules. They are for you, and like all of the best rules, they are rules that don’t just apply to book collecting:

1. Collect What You Love: Later on you can branch out into other areas, but when you first start to pick things up and feel them and leaf through them, use your heart as much as your head. If you collect things you know you already have an attachment to, they will lead you to other things. Start with what you love. Always, always start with what you love. End with it too, if you can.

2. Collect The Best Copy You Can Find or Afford: You see it, you want it…but it’s got those chipped bits and the inside is a bit browned. This is suggesting you should have a scout around a bit, if the book you want is particularly rare then learn the skill of asking for it to be put on hold or reserve while you have a think (although do me a favour, if you decide against it, at least tell me…I won’t mind). If all the copies are much the same or worse, or there are no other copies, fine…buy that one. It is better to have the book that you wanted in some form, than not have it and wish you did. The problem of finding it better elsewhere is part of the learning curve and can be reduced by building a relationship with a decent book-dealer…if you come to me wishing to upgrade for example (translated to “part exchange” in this context), there can often be grounds for a discussion. While you’re about it, walk up to that luminous, irresistible person and respectfully ask them for coffee or something, even if they say no (I’m looking at you; tall, gorgeous goth girl with eyes like saucers, 1995, Camden!), then at least you won’t spend your life wishing you had.

3. Never put anything on your bookshelf that is going to irritate you every time you look at it. Get rid of it, sell it, trade it in, donate it. Give it as a gift to a niece you’ve always found annoying. You made a minor mistake, this is part of all the learning. When you make such a mistake (provided it was your mistake) you either move it where it will no longer bother you, or you use it as a reminder not to make the same mistake again. (Franklin Library; that’s right, move along).

There are other rules, naturally: No means No. Neither reverse racism nor misandry are proper things. Consent and Coexistence are Everything.Wash is not dead. Winter is Coming and make friends with book-dealers.

Doesn’t have to be me, but building a cordial relationship with book-dealers is the most useful tool. They know more about books than anyone, they occasionally make tea and have biscuits, they all have a bottle somewhere on their desks and occasionally you’ll meet one who is also a Time Lord. True story.

This is basically just a blue, rectangular book allegory

This is basically just a blue, rectangular book allegory

Where To Start:

The obvious answer is go to a bookshop…a second hand or antiquarian bookshop with lots of tiny diamond shaped windows, smelling of mildew, romance and crackling electric potential, with an old man in elbow patches behind the counter and a sleeping dog in front of the glowing fire.

They’re the best ones, the ones where Strange Old Bookseller ™ reaches under the counter and says he has just the thing you’re looking for and the next thing you know…Bang! It’s all Luckdragons, talking mice and everyone’s calling you Khaleesi. Goblin kings in resplendent battle mullets want to date you and there’s an airship needs fixing or we’ll never get the princess out of here.

Unfortunately, due to the high cost of business rates in most areas, Strange Old Bookseller ™ had to move and in his place there is a young man from Poznan who wants to know if you’d like an extra shot and a free skinny muffin with that. This is what happens when the orcs win. It’s like the Battle of Helm’s Deep was prosecuted from a distance with Saruman contesting that not once had a single Lord of The Mark requested planning permission for the Deeping Wall.

Three Starbucks and a Caffe Nero...soon all of Charing Cross Road will kneel before me...

Three Starbucks and a Caffe Nero…soon all of Charing Cross Road will kneel before me…

So, that’s the sexy bit out of the window. Which is a shame, because if there is anything sexier than a good book I have yet to find it.

Next step is a more up to date version of the same thing. You wake up one morning deciding you want to collect books seriously because of that one thing your girlfriend got you and you go looking for a second-hand bookshop. You find one, you walk in to ask some questions and you find that it’s a) very busy and there’s no dog, and b) it doesn’t do questions…it looks you up and down from somewhere between its fedora and its Mumford and Sons t-shirt and waves you into the basement to be terrorised by giant teetering stacks of book shaped…stuff.

Oh, yeah, print's totally dead...I'm only working here until I can afford an ipad in a sustainable teak case.

Oh, yeah, print’s totally dead…I’m only working here until I can afford an ipad in a sustainable teak case.

So there’s that happening. That is a thing.

Then, there’s the internet. There’s actually way more than the internet…but it’s likely that’ll be where you end up next.

So here’s what you get when you Google Book Collecting for Beginners…give or take:, once hailed as the footstep of Doom for the book trade…now one of the few things keeping its head visibly above water. They have their issues, but there’s a wealth of information there. Some of it is meh, some of it is treasure…but the main advantage is that its all in one place right next to the books. You can search for a book you fancy, say “Dracula”, and then cross reference the description (however arcane or expensive it may be) with the glossary of terms and the tips for beginners. You’ll immediately pick up an idea of prices, publishers, edition, impression and issue terminology, book sizes and a bunch of other stuff to go away and think about after you’ve bookmarked the site. If you’re wary of contacting me because you think I look like the uncle you’re told to stay away from at family events, this is a good place to start.

This is trying, but it succeeded in confusing me, so…It’s heart is in the right place but there’s no actual information. Also, for the love of Whedon, stay away from Ebay until you feel confident you have an immune system built up…even wreckers must breathe, and that is where they do it. again, this time with a list of possible reference works (the featured John Carter book is the best, hands down for basic terminology, it’s like a Haines Manual for books, I have two editions right in front of me now). Some of them are incomprehensible at best…and some of them are just histories or memoirs which are interesting, but are kind of like reading someone else’s description of kissing; not as good as the real thing.

This starts off shaky (Sherlock Holmes first appeared in Sign of Four? Really?), but gets better, it has good information on identifying first editions and skates over stuff like priority and the importance of dust jackets (dust-wrappers, wrappers, jackets etc.). It also has a couple of sample descriptions for you to absorb, and some useful pictures.

A rundown of a Percy Muir book on book collecting. Unless you are the reincarnation of Ian Fleming, Mr. Muir, whilst a heavyweight of the trade, didn’t have you or the internet in mind when he wrote this.

An interesting collection of articles, many of them very commercially minded…but he manages to get across the infuriatingly nebulous nature of condition assessment and pricing, which can be a bit annoying to a new collector. I’ll look at one book and describe it as Near Fine, then I’ll look at another and decide it’s Very Good…and to someone who isn’t me there won’t be much of a discernable difference…I might price one at £100 and the other at £65 and it will look very much to you as if I’m making it up as I go along. I won’t be, but explaining how is pretty tricky on occasion.

Nope. Afraid not. Filler; there’s a lot of these out there.

Again, its heart is in the right place, and the condition information is probably useful…the pricing information is best disregarded in favour of doing your own legwork on abebooks or (which is kind of a hardcore raiding zone version of abebooks).

Now we’re talking! This is what I would have written if I had any conspicuous talent. It’s from Laura Massey of Peter Harrington Rare Books, if you look up “Nobody’s Fool” on Wikipedia there’s a picture of her. It definitely contains the “spirit” of how you should be preparing. The technical articles and glossaries and descriptions of pitfalls are all very well and good…but book collecting is a lifelong predisposition rather than a temporary hobby or a method of making a bit of quick cash. It can be those things too, but it is far more rewarding and inspiring when you step off the path and get out into the deep woods. Her 6th point on the list is vital. Look at books, touch the books, let them know you exist.

More to follow…but you knew that.

Meanwhile: Some Utter Nonsense.

How to Spot a Fake Book!!!!!!


Right, that link will lead you to a CNBC page referring to an episode of a programme called “Treasure Detectives.”

In the video, a gentleman disguised as Damian Hirst will attempt to inform you that fake books smell of walnut oil, and that the easiest way to spot one is to look for signs of over-ageing. I can only assume that this is taking place in some parallel universe where people actually sit down and fake entire copies of rare books, painstakingly printing every single page, aging it with…walnut oil (Why? What? How?), “painting” the binding (Really?) and then waiting for you…the hapless punter to come along and pay “A week or even a month’s wages…” for it.

Obviously, this is what we in the ABA and ILAB refer to as “Bollocks.” The likelihood of anyone sitting down and faking any complete, known collectable book to a degree of success where someone would genuinely be deceived enough to actually buy it would require a level of artisanship that in and of itself would be worthy of the highest respect. We’d actually be impressed. Seriously. You fake me a copy of the Hypnerotomachia and I will cover myself in walnut oil. Although the possibility of anyone liking that sort of thing is just as remote as the faking.

Took me three hours to knock this up...difficult part was sourcing pink walnuts.

Took me three hours to knock this up…difficult part was sourcing pink walnuts.

People don’t fake collectable books. They might fake a previously unknown edition (if it was short enough), they might fake an important pamphlet (with a suitable supply of old paper and access to the right type etc.)…but to be honest they are far more likely to fake a signature, an inscription, a letter of provenance or some-such. Rather than educate potential book collectors about those possibilities (which are a very real and present danger to the neophyte), this show has instead opted to introduce the spectre of  “Total Rare Book Fabrication” as a possible peril of entering the field of book collecting. Cheers Treasure Bloke! You Rock!

Yay! You're opinion was just what I needed!

Yay! Your opinion was just what I needed!

Where previously I might have had to call upon the cumulative 100 years of experience myself and my colleagues can summon to explain how I know that this is definitely Tolkien’s signature, or perhaps even point them in the direction of Christie’s or Sotheby’s verification departments to validate the provenance and veracity of an inscription…I am now going to have some poor chap asking;

“But how do you know it’s a real book?”

To which I am very afraid I will have no answer but to to say;

“Well, test it yourself. Does it smell of walnuts?”

Should anyone have any queries about rare books, rare book collecting, how to start, possible pitfalls, what they should collect, terms of the trade or indeed any one of a thousand possible questions (yes, we know we are strange and off-putting, but it’s worth it, really) please just feel free to ask, rather than taking this kind of ridiculous story fabrication seriously.

If you wish, you can ask me, and I will do my best to answer, or I will call upon the experience of the several thousand other fully qualified and well-informed rare book dealers and collectors and get them to assist. Really, that’s what we do. You will recognise us at book fairs because we don’t smell of nuts, and really very few of us have been over-aged.


Weapons of Choice 3: Artificial Nocturnes.

Charles Dickens; the beginning of modern fandom?

The “Dickensian” 19th century is probably where by loose mainstream (not to mention Western, and thus probably predominantly male) definitions, we start to become able to easily recognise cultural and social touchstones as being not too dissimilar to our own.

The everyday stuff; shopping, clothes, streetlamps, street layouts, art galleries, leisure pursuits, newspapers, literature, music etc. could all be considered to be loosely the same. Whilst we might be thrown off by a 15th century Florentine street scene (unless we’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed), we can look at a photograph of Christmas shopping in the 1870’s and say “Oh, Oxford Street!” We don’t have any difficulty accepting gaslight gradually morphing into the beginning of municipal electricity usage, the hansom cab, gentlemen in bowler hats, ladies in corsets and crinolines and Jack the Ripper as all having been iconic components of this period.

What's my name? Yeah, it's a byword for poverty, cruelty, deprivation and urban horror. That's how I roll.

What’s my name? Yeah, it’s a byword for poverty, cruelty, deprivation and urban horror. That’s how I roll.

A far as successful British 19th Century writers were concerned Charles Dickens was the commercial equivalent of J. K. Rowling. He was huge, without doubt the most popular novelist of his time and place. There are numerous possible reasons for his overwhelming popularity, but one deciding factor would be the broad nature of his readership. He wrote for everyone, and he did it at a shilling a go.

A nicely produced hardback book could cost up to a guinea, for many that would be a luxury too far. Dickens weekly parts were cheap, plentiful and conformed to a standard that had been popular since the end of the 18th century.

Dickens’s most famous works were serialised, most often appearing in 19 weekly parts bound in powder blue decorated paper and accompanied by illustrated engravings. “Great Expectations” on the other hand was serialised in “All The Year Round” from December 1860 under Dickens’ editorship. Thus for those of us whose purses didn’t run to building a library; periodicals and part publications were the way to go for a regular fix of excitement, romance and adventure.

It’s easiest to envision the illustrated parts as episodes in a TV series. Each one was likely to end with a dilemma or some sort of a cliff-hanger and the readership would wait in eager anticipation to discover the next event in the life of Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby. The only people to get their hands on each installment in a timely fashion would be people living in the larger cities. Copies would be distributed from person to person, read around firesides and gossiped about in cafes and railway carriages. Those who were living abroad during the height of British Imperialism could and did wait months for their prized periodicals to arrive and break the dreadful monotony of Company or Crown service overseas. They weren’t just appreciated and read as entertainment; they were shared and communally devoured as a pure and accessible form of escapism.

Think of me as a DVD box set of the entirety of Farscape...

Think of me as a DVD box set of the entirety of Farscape…

This then appears to be one of the components of a flourishing fandom:  A “readership” that stems from many different walks of life coupled with the shared anticipatory experience of waiting. In addition it also needs the kind of social structure that permits a form of leisurely speculation as to motivations and physical and emotional repercussions on the part of the characters. There must be “gatherings” of followers discussing how Nicholas would get Smike free of Dotheboys Hall.

Nowadays the arena of fandom is incontrovertibly the internet…enough emotional energy has been expended on Tumblr to determine any potential for a relationship between Molly Hooper and Irene Adler, or the possible sexuality of Stiles Stilinski (which incidentally is something the show’s writers don’t even seem to see as an issue…crucially it’s the fans who desire and discuss the boundaries and the labels, who take and own the characters and settings) to power a medium sized Chinese city.

In the mid to late 19th century Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook would have been the after supper fireside or a walk in the park or the parlour in the evening…Dickens, Collins and many of his contemporaries ran a regular circuit of talks, lectures, amateur dramatics and informal gatherings, pretty much the pre-internet equivalent of posting spoilers or hosting a podcast.

The emotional connection of the readership to Dickens’ characters is undeniable, and again the pre-eminence of emotional over “intellectual” appeal seems to bind a group of viewers or readers into a fandom. It’s all about the emotional impact of a narrative; identifiable characters with clear cut motivations facing unusual events in a manner with which we can empathise. It’s one thing to make us think, but if you can make us laugh like drains and sob uncontrollably week after week…you have a fandom.

Possibly one of the most familiar examples of this would be the reaction to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, the final part of which was published (in “Master Humphrey’s Clock”) in February 1841. This from the inestimable Victorian Calendar:


“Countless tears are shed across Britain at the death of dear Little Nell.  Her passing takes place in the newly published final chapters of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. The final scene is as famous – or infamous – as anything in Victorian literature:

‘She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who has lived and suffered death … Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead.’

Dickens had struggled mightily: “I am breaking my heart over this story,” he told a friend. Dozens of readers wrote him begging that Nell be allowed to live. His close friend Macready, England’s greatest actor, after reading the final pages, wrote the author, “I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain.” It seemed everyone was grief-stricken. Lord Jeffrey, one of the nation’s leading judges, was found openly weeping by a friend, “I’m a great goose to have given way so, but I couldn’t help it.” The Irish champion, Daniel O’Connell threw his copy across the room, more in disgust than grief, claiming Dickens “had not sufficient talent to maintain Nell’s adventures… so he killed her.” When English ships reached American ports, people stood on the dock shouting, “Is Little Nell dead?” Sales of Dickens’ struggling journal Master Humphrey’s Clock rose to 100,000, many of them soon tear-stained.

For early Victorians, the open expression of grief was not anything to be ashamed of. By the latter stages of the century, however, the reaction had set in. Fitzjames Stephens wrote that “so many foolish tears had been shed” over Nell.”

"Poor Nell...Too...Many...Feels."The Editor, London Illustrated News, Feb. 1841

“Poor Nell…Too…Many…Feels.”
The Editor, London Illustrated News, Feb. 1841

The parallels between reader response here and reader response to the death of Dumbledore (just as an example) aren’t much of a stretch. It’s doubtful that anyone who developed a favourite Dickens’ character ever again rested entirely easy until the last page was turned and the finale reached still breathing. Charles Dickens, Ladies and Gentlemen; The Victorian Joss Whedon.

In 1841 I could have quoted her death scene to any of Mr Dickens’ multitude of readers and would have received a response probably very similar to the one I’d get if I was on Tumblr and said “I am a Leaf on The Wind.”

I would not be popular.

I would get this...The Black Spot of the interwebs,

I would get this…The Black Spot of the interwebs,

Next up Sherlock Holmes; the fandom that will not die even if you chuck it off a waterfall…and my problem with the concept of “quality”.  Actually my problem with quality should be pretty self-evident, but hey…

Weapons of Choice Part 2: Hard Won Love Affairs.

I suppose it’s important to set some guidelines on this investigation, otherwise the logical answer to the  beginning of imaginal, erm, preoccupation (aka fandom) would be mainstream religion. On first impression it ticks all the boxes, consisting of both canon (eg: Old and New Testaments) and head-canon(eg: The Rapture). Additionally it’s based on a book or a series of writings; it has intensely complicated character interactions and often a persistent landscape and terminology with which it is relatively easy to familiarize yourself and thus immerse oneself into.

It’s not really what I’m after though, much as I’d love to visit religious people and ask them who they were shipping right now (“David and Jonathan? Cardinal, doesn’t that contravene some fairly major…oh ok, no harm no foul…”), and much as I’d love to see large devotional gatherings featuring Goliath and Jezebel cosplay…it’s probably just going to end up as an unplanned diversion into what I find really funny. So, no.

“I now declare this Synod open. Archbishop SpaceBadger, the floor is yours.”

It’s also not the same if the people are real. I’ve always thought of Byron as a good candidate for the first major modern fan obsession. Women fainted, flushed and palpitated in his presence, men took up defensive postures and waxed Hectoral about what they’d do if he so much as looked at them (whilst secretly hoping he didn’t because the man did not mess about…or secretly hoping he did, because the man had something of a reputation for…messing about), and in general the reputation far exceeded the reality. His poetry transcended good or bad and ended up forever graven onto the hearts and souls of those who read it. Young women would gather in firelight and read each other passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and The Corsair. Many bosoms were heaved in his general direction, there was much bodice ripping, and in the case of poor Caroline Lamb at least, a detrimental degree of preoccupation with what he did, to whom and where.

He also unwittingly created two very closely related gothic horror fandoms by inviting everyone to write horror stories at the Villa Diodati during the non-existent summer of 1816. The modern view of the vampire and the monstrous creation of Victor Frankenstein were both conceived on that evening…to the same father. (Cue lightning and crashing organ chords).

“I, I am The Daddy.”

In many ways, however close Childe Harold may have been to Byron himself and however closely he skimmed the misty borders of actually becoming a work of fiction in his own right, he doesn’t really qualify.

What’s the next candidate then?

There’s the Penny Dreadful craze of the 1830-40’s where stuff like “Sawney Bean” and “ Sweeney Todd” were selling like hot pies and everybody was desperate for the next instalment of “Varney The Vampire.” There’s “The Great Moon Hoax.” Of 1835 where fictional accounts of life on the moon observed from a fictional observatory in South Africa through a fictional super powerful telescope were passed off as genuine factual news by the New York Sun (a tradition of fabrication carried proudly into the 21st Century by Fox News as far as I can tell). It’s awesome, but something of a flash in the pan more akin to Orson Welles’s “War of The Worlds” broadcast than anything enduring, although people did go to parties as Martian bat-men, and there were drinks named in honour of this great step forward in cosmic exploration.

But what I’m really looking for is the point at which reading a story became wanting to live within that story for a large enough proportion of its audience to make them want to change aspects of their “real” lives in order to move closer to their desires.

“Immerse ourselves in a fantasy world of our heart’s desires? What, and leave all this?”

So, here he is, the one, the only, the heavily bearded , frequently haunted perfectionist best mate of Wilkie Collins: Charles Dickens…

Which is a thing I’ll be rattling on about in a little while, along with the first true modern fan-dom; Sherlock Holmes. In the meantime it’s adventure time as I’m off to The Boston International Book Fair for a week or so. My next post will be about what’s happening in newly re-Obama’d  America and what’s on show at the fair. Any questions or queries are welcome, if you’re coming to the fair and you’d like a guided tour just give me a shout and please feel free to do the same if you have any questions about book collecting, the trade, or in fact anything.

Weapons of Choice.

Whilst exploring the tangled and thorny jungles of the internet one discovers many things. Last week I discovered that Mitt Romney doesn’t know why you can’t open the windows on aeroplanes. I found that there are a large number of people who suggest that he should be free to experiment with window opening at 30,000 feet, provided they aren’t on the plane. I discovered the interesting fact that lots of people are delighted not to like J.K. Rowling’s new book, presumably because they were just getting really sick of everything else she did being good and a change is as good as a rest. I also discovered that people are seemingly only happy with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson possibly being able to have sex if they’re both of the same gender.

I personally have never been of the opinion that sex ruins anything, provided that thing is both consenting and adult, and it really, really helps if the thing in question is totally fictional.

“That cardigan really suits you…”
“Sorry, not my division.”

What really fascinates and encourages me and fills me with a sort of bubbly excitement is the sheer degree of energy people out there are devoting to this seemingly fairly subjective and innocuous issue.

Because it’s not innocuous to the people who are invested in what they would refer to as their “fandom”; it’s a massively important issue that hits heart deep into their individual identities.

The identity question is an important one. The internet, which is where a huge proportion of people today spend a large amount of their time, is predominantly faceless. This isn’t news to anyone I realise, anyone who has had to sit their trying frantically to remember their username or password knows that; simply screaming “But it’s me!!!” at the monitor doesn’t help. The internet does not know you and is not your friend.

You are however free to construct and present yourself in any way you see fit. I for example could have constructed the persona of a muscular, handsome and dynamic antiquarian book dealer with encyclopaedic knowledge and a dry, yet gentle, wit. Justin Croft beat me to it, however, and I ended up with this.

As we are often told in warning tones the internet is full of people pretending to be something they aren’t.

So is the outside world, that’s what people do. Who on earth wants to be what they actually are?

Internet fandoms are massively complex and shifting communities. A better word might be territories, a word that brings with it the suggestion of the occasional border conflict or the possibility of a turncoat or two. Doctor Who, Glee, Supernatural, John Green fans, Twilight fans and a million more islands of avid devotion float in a massive sea of instant communication. Occasionally temporary alliances or a sudden shift in fan numbers might cause a few of these islands to swing closer together; Whovians and Supernatural fans (is there a word for them? Enquiring minds need to know…is it Idjits?) seem to have a lot in common and there’s a fair amount of sharing. Similarly giant rifts can open up overnight and you wake up discovering that opposing Glee fans have turned on each other.

There’s a lot of hugging and gif producing between Who fans and Sherlock fans (who may actually be the same people considering the family atmosphere of the Gatiss/Moffat Axis of New Old Fiction), and Harry Potter fans seem to be pretty cool with everyone provided you love Snape and hate Umbridge and have no objection to identical ginger twins snogging each other.

Game of Thrones fans are too terrified of their favourite characters being killed off by George R.R. Martin to attempt making friends with anyone else. A man knows how they feel.

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
I didn’t even need to make anything up for that one…

So alright, the internet is a big sea of people who really like stuff floating around looking for people who like similar stuff, and it’s easy for them to do it because…internet. The motto of the internet is “MOAR!!!1!” and its crew simply reflect that, drilling deeper and deeper down into any fictional construct in order to extract every last shred of fulfillment from it.

I recall watching hard-core fans of “Lost” go frame by frame through shots of the jungle, the Black Smoke and each character’s apartments; stripping out every possible clue to what might be happening. In the end their suppositions and theories were far, far more interesting than the ideas of the actual program producers. Fan fiction (of which there are several Alexandrine Libraries full floating around out there) is frequently as engaging and interesting as the narrative structure it pays homage to.

What has this to do with books, you dribbling idiot, I hear you ask? Well, aside from the fact that a lot of these fandoms stem from books and that a lot of fandoms are held up and propogated by massive amounts of writing?

We’re not talking about this. We’re glossing over this completely.

Even after the books have been absorbed by the Shoggoth of Hollywood the fandoms often bestride the two camps rather triumphantly, or at least amiably. The book fans apparently consider it partly their responsibility to encourage the screen fans to join them in their enthusiasms, and the phrase “The Books Were Better.” has achieved ironic t-shirt status.

I asked  my favourite expert where she thought it had all started, she pondered for about 15 seconds (God knows what I’d have to ask about to have to wait longer than that for an answer) and said the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

So that’s what the next couple of posts will be about: when did we stop simply being readers and become fans? What was the first fandom?

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