It was simple enough when it started. A catalogue from Waddington's, the auctioneers, which on perusal contained some books of interest, the most compelling being a copy of L. M. Montgomery's rare book of poems, The Watchman. This is a very scarce book, although not nearly as scarce as Anne of Green Gables, which is not only the most desirable Montgomery title but the rarest of her books. But the copy of The Watchman to be auctioned was a presentation copy, inscribed by Montgomery to Frede MacFarlane, her cousin and her closest friend. The inscription read 'To Frede, with the author's love, Xmas 1916' ...
Mitsuo Nitta is the doyen of the rare book trade. As one of the founding members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Japan (ABAJ), initiator of many antiquarian book fairs in Japan, Corea and Hong Kong and, with Yushodo, as owner of one of the most famous antiquarian book companies in Japan and the world, he was – and still is – a key figure of the antiquarian book business in Asia. Some 10 years ago Nitta, who is ILAB Member of Honour, analyzed the general characteristics of the trade in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
This Monday morning, the biggest news to hit the antiquarian book trade in roughly 400 years became public: my colleagues Dan Wechsler and George Koppelman, booksellers in New York City, unveiled a copy of a sixteenth century dictionary which could, quite plausibly, have once belonged to William Shakespeare - complete with annotations possibly in the bard's hand and many tantalizing, if ultimately circumstantial, linguistic and stylistic links to his plays. I'll leave it to better minds than mine to make a final determination regarding the dictionary's provenance. Wechsler and Koppelman have laid out an entire volume of compelling evidence in their just-published book, Shakespeare's Beehive (a copy of which I've just ordered); the Folger Shakespeare Library, the New Yorker, and numerous book bloggers have already begun weighing in, and I'm sure many more scholarly voices will be added to the fray over the coming months and years. I hope it's years, not months. I hope it's real, real enough at least to merit many years of scholarship – I really, really do.
As 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.
Time now to go and have tea with some booksellers. Anne Marie Wall and Jim Hinck (Hinck & Wall) are booksellers specialising in garden history and landscape architecture, early horticulture, and architecture and town-planning in general. Americans both, they have settled in Cambridge after a spell in Paris (where they retain a pied-à-terre). It's an absorbing story. They realised, much earlier than most of us, that with the advent of the internet, the book-trade's traditional staples – the good, solid and essential books on any subject that everyone needs – were about to become a rapidly diminishing asset. As Jim puts it in a thoughtful recent post on his viaLibrian blog (required reading), "the pool of findable books exploded". Their customers, often in American institutional libraries, were no longer going to want books they could find anywhere at the click of a mouse. The correct deduction was made that they would continue to want the rare and the unique, and that American holdings would generally be weakest in early non-English language material. To Europe they came to find just that material.
Open an old book and find – a flower, or better: a bank note, photographs, letters, notes scribbled on the pages, exhibitions tickets. Even if a book is boring you may find something interesting between the lines or pages, if it is an old book, not a Kindle. The Guardian Book Blog muses about "marginalia and forgotten mementoes" in the age of the internet.