The incomparable Peter Howard once said something to the effect that “Books are mysteries for booksellers to solve.” If that’s the case, my professional life has been one long Raymond Chandler novel.
Last week, as I was making my way down the mean streets of the Eastern Macro Metro Corridor, a kindly lady placed a book in my hands.
“What do you think of this?” she asked.
“I think I should buy it,” I replied.
“It” was a 47 page quarto, bound in later brown leprosy morocco, and a second 41 page quarto volume, bound with yet a third, 13 page work, with its own title page and pagination. They weren’t cheap. The three of them just about equaled the resale value of my car. But I pounced.
That other incomparable, Charlie Everitt, equaled Peter Howard by once saying something to the effect that he made his living by being able to recognize “Texas” and several other key words in many languages. The title page of the bound volume contained the words “breadfruit,” “Ellis,” and “East Indies.” That made it a no brainer for me. I knew that Ellis had been on Captain Cook’s voyage, and that breadfruit had been on Bligh’s voyage. Furthermore, “East Indies,” on a title page dated 1773, could not be ignored. Still, the thing was a muddle. What was up with that rebind? And why were the gutters of every page remargined?
And why did the plates have such narrow margins?
Were they offprints from earlier works? Were they all parts of a larger work?
A couple of days later, back home and relatively sober, “no brainer” and “muddle” took on ominous alternate meanings. Would this lot join that ever growing pile of screw-ups that a wise old colleague had once referred to as “my personal collection?”
I started my investigation with a trip to The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages. There I learned that Captain Cook’s surgeon on the third voyage had been William Ellis, not John Ellis, who was the author of my recent acquisitions. Uh-oh!
The Dictionary of National Biography contained an informative entry on John Ellis. He was a prominent English naturalist whom Linnaeus termed “the main support of natural history in England.” He’d written several important works on exotic and newly discovered plants, and my lot were among them. Better still, the dates of publication on their title pages matched those given in the DNB. Whew!
I noticed that two of the lengthy titles contained the phrase “our American colonies” so I consulted Molnar’s index to Sabin which led me (eventually!) to a citation in Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America, that confirmed title, pagination, format, and date of those two works.
Then it was off to Worldcat
which gave me publisher, date, plate count, and page size for the titles in question. Two were complete, with all plates present. One, in which the Venus Fly trap was first described, was lacking the plate of that plant. It had probably been missing for a long time, or possibly this copy had been published that way, because someone long ago had drawn a line through mention of the plate on the title page.
The page height was given as 29 cm. My copies were uniformly 25 cm. That suggested to me that they’d been trimmed (hence the narrow margins of the plates) for binding into a larger volume, from which they’d subsequently been removed. For some reason, possibly having to do with this removal, the gutter margins of the breadfruit work had been damaged. Thus the repaired margins, which would have been necessary to re-sew the sheets and get them into their leprous leather covers.
Worldcat also cited as references the Parsons Collection and Du Rietz, which in turn cited Cox and O’Reilly Reitman. I am re-citing all this because these sources uncovered a sub-mystery. Parsons and Du Rietz say the breadfruit book has 48 pages. Worldcat, O’Reily Reitman, and Gibson say 47. The book collates complete. Are there different states? Different ways of counting? My reference books weren't talking.
Unfortunately, we must leave this mystery - possibly to be lifted out of the cold case files in a later blog - for a news flash.
This Saturday’s Boxborough Paper Town - The Original Vintage Paper, Book & Advertising CollectiblesShow promoted by the tireless Flamingoz and held in the sumptuous Holiday Inn
was, contrary to my expectation, a lively event.
Sensible hours (9-3 on Saturday with a Friday setup) kept everybody energized. The room was filled up with dealers and there was a good range of material on display. Sure, very little of it was “high end” – as more than one dealer remarked, the event had a sort of flea market feel - but so what? It was fun!
I asked Tina Bruno, promoter of the event, what accounted for the resurgence of dealer interest in her show, She told me, “Cheap booths. I had to do something!”
We’re glad she did!