An Unstandardized, Decentralized Carnival Fire: How Rare Books Are Cataloged
Oliver Darkshire on Learning the Tricks of the Antiquarian Book Trade
“Extra-illustrated, my friend, that’s what you want to call it.” James is picking through a set of books he’s left with me for cataloguing. He picks one up and flicks through the pages. “A tad faded… no, not faded… mellowed. A little mellowed on the spine.” I’m busy making notes so he keeps going. “Attractively so, I’d wager.” He looks over my shoulder at what I’ve written so far. “No, see, you can’t say all the books are different colors, that won’t sell them. How about…” He mulls it over. “Perhaps a ‘harlequin set’?” He winks. “Scarce thus.”
He heads back to his desk, pleased with a job well done. “Now you see, young Oliver, that’s, uh… what do they call it, Georg? Entrepreneurial spirit?”
There is a muffled grumble from behind a shelf: “They call it bullshit, James.”
Running the Travel and Exploration department, a blighted role which before his arrival had chewed up and spat out three or four booksellers in short order, Georg has proven utterly immovable by the unholy forces which drove out his predecessors. He can often be found wandering outside the shop, smoking and drinking coffee on the curb of Sackville Street in his favorite leather waistcoat.Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that doesn’t mean one has to be rude about it.
If you’ve ever seen one of those nature documentaries where the tiny birds eat flies off a larger animal, then you’ll already have a good grasp of my symbiotic relationship with Georg. He can destroy a computer simply by proximity, which means I spend a fair chunk of time at his desk figuring out the precise way in which it has melted down this time. In return for my ambiguously proficient computer expertise, Georg provides wisdom and advice, which for a beleaguered apprentice sounded like a rather wonderful arrangement.
As part of his role running the Travel and Exploration department, Georg trades in books on just about every place on the globe. I highly suspect he has read all of them, too, because his vast well of peculiar stories never seems to run dry. He tells them in such a spellbinding manner that you always believe them, though I suppose that when it comes to memoirs and histories the truth must be a relative thing. Travelogues, diaries, entertainingly incorrect antique maps… he knows them all. In the truest sense of the word, he’s a savant.
Learning how to catalogue properly is an essential part of bookselling, though exactly what constitutes “properly” will change depending on who you ask. As an apprentice bookseller, it was learning the intricacies of the cataloguing process from my colleagues which consumed any spare time I had when not hauling boxes or fixing Georg’s desktop.
In days gone by, when dinosaurs and Mrs. Hawthornes ruled the earth, booksellers didn’t have the advantage of color photography, or the luxury of printing out reams of pictures to send to book collectors. The majority of selling was performed (and to a certain extent still is) using gigantic sales brochures crammed with information on the newest books in stock, printed in tiny type and shipped off to the homes of book collectors around the country, who would eagerly flip through them, scanning the rows and rows of text for juicy treasures.
Collectors being as fastidious as they are, booksellers were faced with a unique challenge—to describe as accurately as possible a specimen of a particular book, communicating all the flaws and merits of that very specific copy, while using as little ink and space as possible. Thus the art of cataloguing, which invokes an entire dialect of terms, abbreviations and insinuations to paint a picture of a book without leaning too heavily on images. On any given day, it’s very likely this is what the booksellers are doing, lurking with their heads in a pile of books, brows furrowed as they try to work out if their copy is supposed to have nineteen pictures.
The actual day-to-day minutiae of cataloguing encompasses a vast array of tasks that take a book from “I bought this” to “This is now on the shelves.” It involves identifying the edition, checking for damage, writing some advertising copy and logging this all into the archaic computer system so it can be referenced later. The hardest part, though, lies in recording precisely in what ways a book has survived the ravages of time.
An entire lexicon of book-related terminology has evolved over hundreds of years for exactly this purpose—terminology that means absolutely nothing to the average observer. It’s traditional to adopt this baroque language when describing your books, for two reasons. The first is that the specific language of the book trade allows you to be exceedingly accurate and precise without using hundreds of words, and the second is that the elegance of it serves to dull the blow a little. Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that doesn’t mean one has to be rude about it. It’s much more charming to describe a book as “foxed” than to tell someone that the pages have developed an unsightly mottling, and that if this were a zombie movie we’d already have taken it out back and put it out of its misery.
It’s convention to call a sheepskin binding “roan,” and parchment made from calfskin is oft baptized “vellum.” If we call a book “sophisticated,” we’re saying that we know the book was tampered with, faked or “someone tried very hard to make this look like a first edition,” but that we also feel this perhaps adds to its historical value rather than subtracts. It’s a feature, we argue, not a bug. Using the correct terminology is part of a performance, an elaborate ritual, a secret handshake performed on the part of the bookseller to entice discerning clients.
As I learned how the trade worked, James would bring over piles of books to my desk, and armed with a copy of Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, I would set to work trying to identify each item one after another. Not expensive books, not for an apprentice—anything with a spine and pages would do. Whenever I looked confused, someone would wander over and holler at me a term I didn’t understand, which I would dutifully note down time after time until the associations began to stick.
It took a while to get to grips with the basics, because there is so much to learn before you can even engage with the fundamentals. Is it a red book? Well, you can’t say that. It’s actually maroon. Or burgundy. And the binding? Leather. But what kind? No, that’s not cow, it’s roan. It’s not speckled, it’s lightly becankered. It’s not half morocco, it’s quarter morocco, which has nothing to do with the country and something to do with goats.Book cataloguing is less an art, not really a science, and more of a completely unstandardized, decentralized carnival fire.
Further to all this confusion, your average antiquarian bookseller is expected to make some comment as to the condition of the book. You might, for example, think to say “this book is in fine condition” or perhaps “this book is in good condition.” Both would seem quite reasonable ways to describe a book without any obvious flaws, one might think, but in this context they are two different things. You may only describe a book as Fine if it has recently nestled in the bosom of an angel, and a Good book might as well be on fire, because you’ve inadvertently just called it a dog’s breakfast.
Heaven forbid you ever designate anything a Reading Copy. I attempted this once (and only once) before James descended upon me clutching a copy of my description in white knuckles, and in a quiet voice made it very clear that I would on no account use those words again in that order.
Much like any other discipline, you never really stop learning how to catalogue, because it’s a process that evolves with your understanding of the material. Unlike other disciplines, book cataloguing is less an art, not really a science, and more of a completely unstandardized, decentralized carnival fire. What I haven’t told you yet is that 90 per cent of booksellers will have their own professional interpretation of what each word means in a given context.
Imagine the scene. There I am, puzzling over a book bigger than my armspan which rests in the cradle of my desk like a bible on a lectern, idly looking way out of my depth. James drifts by. Well, that’s a Folio, he says, on account of the size. It’s a big one, no more to it than that. No sooner have I picked up a pen than Georg drifts by. Not a Folio, he advises, looking at my notes.
You see, if you look at the way the pages are arranged, you’ll see it’s actually a Quarto. He wanders off to attend to something else, before someone else chances past. Technically an Imperial Octavo, they say, getting out a ruler as if drawing a dagger. Battle is joined, and a merry period is spent with various parties firing pointed salvos across the work floor, as the book remains completely uncatalogued. The disagreement is fundamentally unresolvable, because no one is technically wrong, and the row continues until everyone gets tired and the book is discarded into a pile of problematic tomes to be dealt with at a later date. It’s all just a matter of carefully crafted opinion, and eventually the individual bookseller has to make a call and live with it.
Most bookshops inhabited by more than a single bookseller will have what is called a House Style, which all the booksellers internally adhere to. These styles are more or less constrictive depending on the bookseller, and Sotheran’s allows its sellers a fair amount of freedom to interpret. Weep for Oliver, then, because as time went by (and more people got involved) the determination of each bookseller to make sure I received a proper education was matched only by their zeal in making sure it was their language I adhered to. To this day I will still find people suggesting a full stop here, or a comma there, or staging a group intervention in response to a rogue apostrophe.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller by Oliver Darkshire. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.