Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
by Bill Johns
Have you ever seen an ad like this and thought it must be written in Romulan or Sanskrit?
Einstein, George. The Home Manufacture of Cosmoplastic Antimatter. Positron Press, Boston, 1933. A nice copy of an important book on the amateur production of antimatter. 1st edition, second state, with 2 of 3 points. Presentation copy, inscribed and signed by author. Loose signatures, boards shaken and moused, crayoned marginal notes, scuffed and rubbed. In a fair dw, chipped and sunned. 756pp, 8vo. g/fr. Overall good. $125.
Welcome to the arcane language of book dealing. To the true collector of books, condition is more important than content. This has led book sellers to develop elaborate terminology to describe almost any possible defect. And there's a surprising degree of consensus on what the terms mean.
Let's dissect the description above. The initial entries are fairly self-evident. They're included to allow general identification of the book so potential buyers know what they're looking at. Then we get a statement of why this book is important enough to include in the booksellers catalog and why potential buyers should add it to their library. Here the seller - usually a frustrated novelist - can get creative. It may be a simple statement or it may become a mini-essay on the significance of anti-matter production during the great depression, placing the manufacturing in its social, political, and economic context.
Then we get down to the details. Even more important to the true book collector than condition, is priority. Book collectors want the earliest possible version of the book. Serious Book Collectors don't care about accuracy or authors intent - they want the first book off the presses. Collectors, over the years, have identified the errors and corrections that occurred in important books. These errors are called points. When the publisher sends the book to press for the first time there are invariably small errors in the printing plates. You never find them until the presses are running and the finished copies are spewing out. Then it's discovered that there's an omitted word on page 118, a missing comma on page 245, and the formula for building the anti-matter containment vessel on page 347 is missing a part of the energy equation (a fatal flaw that will cause the containment vessel to implode, wiping out most of Manhattan.) Serious book collectors live for these errors - not because they plan to build a containment vessel but because they know that the publisher stopped the presses, corrected the comma, added the omitted word, forgot to fix the formula, and started the presses up again. Then the publishers realized they'd missed the formula correction so they stopped the presses again. The result is a first edition with three states. The version with all three errors is the most desirable. The second state has the commas fixed. The third state has the formula corrected. The third state is the safest book, technically correct and reflecting the authors intent. If you're planning to manufacture antimatter, it's the one you want, but if you're collecting books, it is the least valuable of the three versions.
There are whole books compiling these points. The best place to find such compilations is at a major library such as the New York State Library. Can you imagine the effort that goes into comparing hundreds of copies of the same book, line by line, comma by comma, to ferret out the errors and corrections that occurred during the printing process? It's a mind-boggling obsession.
Moving on, we see that this book is presented, inscribed and signed. What this means is that the author autographed the book. Further, he presented the copy to someone and inscribed the copy with a note: "Hi Jimmy - Don't try this without getting your mommy to help - Uncle George."
The reference to loose signatures begins the section describing condition. Pages are printed in large sheets, then folded into groups of pages called signatures. These signatures are then sewn together before the covers are attached. Over time and heavy use, the thread holding the signatures together breaks or stretches and the signatures become loose. Look at the top spine edge of most hardcover books and you'll see the signatures. The other common form of binding today is called "perfect binding" (based on our recent tradition of naming things for their opposites.) Perfect binding is a cheap form of binding used in magazines, paperbacks, and many book club hardcovers. The pages are lain in a pile and glue is applied to the spine - like a note pad. With any significant use, the book splits open at the spine.
Shaken and moused boards also refer to condition. Boards are the covers on a hard bound book. Moused is a vivid term indicating that the cute little critters have had a picnic - with the book forming the main course. They love the glue in the bindings. Shaken means that the pages have become partially separated from the boards. Shaken boards are one step up from detached boards.
Normally, writing is a serious defect. Marginal notes can be an exception if the notes are interesting or written by someone significant. If the author wrote pointers for Jimmy, that is a very good thing. Since these are crayoned notes, it is more likely that Jimmy was writing notes for his buddy Weird Albert.
This book was issued with a dust wrapper. That is the paper cover wrapped around the heavier cloth or leather covered boards to protect them from getting scuffed, rubbed, or sunned. This is also sometimes called a dust jacket, dj, or dw. Scuffing and rubbing are what happens when something hard is drawn across the book leaving a mark. Sunning is what happens when the book is left near a window and the sunlight causes the color on the binding to fade.
The dust jacket is extremely important to book collectors, usually representing at least half the value of the book. It is a fragile thing, compared to the book itself. It takes a beating doing it's job, and rarely survives in excellent condition. It sits on a shelf and gets sunned. It slips a little and then gets shelved that way, tearing the edges. This damage is called chipping. The dust jacket was not intended to show the same durability as the book. It deteriorates with age, becoming fragile and easily torn. In a way, we should consider it ephemera rather than bibliophilia.
8vo is a particularly arcane term. Historically, the printer began with very large sheets of paper, as large as the bed of the press could accommodate. The type for the pages of the book were then grouped on the press and multiple pages were printed at the same time onto one sheet of paper. That sheet was then folded down to the size of the pages and trimmed to cut off the folded edges on three of the sides. This is the signature we discussed earlier. The size of the pages determined the number of folds in the sheet. Since the sheet size was standard, the smaller the pages, the more folds were required. This led to a system of stating book size based on the number of folds in each sheet. 8vo is an abbreviation for octavo - "oct" being the latin for 8. Quarto had four pages to the sheet and produced a much larger book. There is a complex sizing code ranging down to 64mo. The normal size book today is an octavo, about 9" tall. Some dealers today are listing sizes in inches. Perhaps, if we ever move on to metric, bookmongerdom will move up a couple of centuries and embrace inches.
Finally, we get the book dealers estimate of condition. You might read the description of loose signatures, crayoning, mousing, and all that and think the book was pretty scrungy but the dealer grading the book has said it is in "good" condition. Well... grading is highly subjective. Generally, the seller thinks the book is in better condition than the buyer. That's just one of the immutable laws of the universe.
That having been said, what do the letters mean? Going from best to least, most dealers use "M" for mint. A mint book is pristine, in the same condition it was in when it came off the press, and without any manufacturing defects. "NM" is near mint. This book might have "eye-tracks" on the pages. That is, it might have been read (by someone with clean hands.) "F" stands for fine. A fine book shows very minor evidence of use but on first glance would pass for new. "VG" is very good. It shows definite use but no serious defects. "G" is good. It shows use and might have penciling in margins, sunning on the spine or cover, etc. This is generally the lowest grade that serious collectors will tolerate. "Fair" or "fr" is not so desirable as a fair maiden; it is more akin to an old crone. The book might have loose signatures, torn pages, etc. And "RC" for reading copy, is the lowest of the low - a book good for nothing but reading.
A book will often get two ratings, as is g/fr. The first grade is for the book, the second is for the dust jacket. The phrase, overall good, is a highly subjective judgement about the total impression the entire book makes when viewed in toto.
The difficult with any abbreviated rating system is the lack of precise agreement on what constitutes each grade. You have to read carefully the description of condition and judge for yourself. The more you love the book for it's intrinsic value (a.k.a. content) the less sticky you are about grading. I'm happy to have a shaken book with a chipped dust jacket in my collection, and I'll call it a very good book. Other collectors would dismiss the same book as a mere reading copy - and toss it into a dumpster.
Oh, yes. Bookmongering. A monger is "the seller of a specific commodity" often slightly disreputable - as in fishmonger, ironmonger, bookmonger, or warmonger.
Next time, we'll talk about the evolution of the book from the earliest hand copied manuscripts to the most modern coffee table opus. The Book has changed dramaticaly over the centuries in response to the changing economic and sociological conditions of society. The story of the evolution of the book is really the story of the democratization of society.
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