Friday, June 17, 2022

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker

The arcane terminology of bibliophilia
ABC for Book Collectors is an alphabetical guide to all the arcane terminology used by bibliophiles engaged in the hunting and gathering of antiquarian books and documents, a discipline in which many of the terms employed originated in the printing, publishing, and bookselling industries of centuries past. The ABC is published by Oak Knoll Press, a publisher that specializes in books about book collecting and the history of books and printing. The first edition was written by John Carter (1905-1975) and published in 1952, and it has since been updated by Nicolas Barker. Both are English, so there is a slight Britcentric tilt to the text, but they clarify when American terminology differs from that used in the bookshops of London. I read the eighth edition of this book, which was published in 2006. A ninth edition, illustrated with photographs and diagrams, was published by Oak Knoll in 2016. The eighth edition has no illustrations.

The entries in this ABC include names for different parts of books, different stages in a book’s production, printing and typesetting terminology, and many different binding materials (types of animal skins, cloth, paper, etc.). The main purpose of this book is to serve as a glossary for reading descriptions in booksellers’ and auction catalogues, so frequently used adjectives of condition, rarity, and provenance are also included. Also valuable are references to authoritative texts and bibliographies that collectors and sellers tend to refer to only by the last name of the author (e.g. McKerrow, Greg, Sadleir), or by acronym (e.g. ESTC [English Short Title Catalogue]). The average entry in the ABC is more extensive than a dictionary definition yet smaller than an encyclopedia item. Enough information is provided to not only define the terms but also impart some interesting nuggets of book history.

The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) provides a free pdf of the eighth edition on its website. Presumably this is to encourage more people to take up the avocation of book collecting, which of course would be a positive thing for the members of this organization. The way this book is written, however, is not very user-friendly nor very inviting to the prospective collector. I am not a book collector, but I have worked my whole life in publishing, printing, book design, libraries, and archives, and I still found many of these convoluted definitions difficult to decipher. The authors have made more of an effort to be stylish and sound erudite than to be clear and educate the reader. The ABC doesn’t read as if it were written for beginners who actually need the information but rather for experienced aficionados who are sure to chuckle at the inside jokes, roll their eyes at examples of book collecting faux pas, and nod knowingly at statements beginning with, “Of course, everyone knows that . . .” The entries are not just insufficiently clear in their explanation of arcane terminology but also often rather off-putting in tone. This book gives one the impression that book collectors are not a welcoming community but rather a coven of snooty and insecure elitists scornful of novices. Not having seen the earlier editions of the ABC, I can’t say whether this is the fault of Carter or Barker.

Despite its annoying and obscure passages, book lovers can learn a lot from ABC for Book Collectors. Someone seriously interested in embarking in book collecting, however, would probably be better off starting with a non-alphabetic introduction to bibliography, such as those by Ronald B. McKerrow (1927), Fredson Bowers (1947), or Philip Gaskell (1972).

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