ABAA and ILAB honouring Sid Lapidus and Jay and Jean Kislak - New York Book Fair, April 14, 2012
By Sid Lapidus
The speech by Sid Lapidus was held on April 14, 2012 during the official ceremony at the Park Avenue Armory's Tiffany Room (New York) in which Lapidus and Jay and Jean Kislak were welcomed as ABAA and ILAB Patrons of Honour.
First, I wish to thank our two sponsoring organizations, the ABAA and ILAB, for creating this new award for collectors, and naming me as a Patron of Honor. It is much appreciated.
The announcement of the Patron of Honor awards states:
“The ABAA feels these individuals demonstrate how the printed word materially affects history, scholarship, and cultural intelligence and the importance of collections to institutions and the public.”
Collections in the hands of collectors may be noteworthy and important to the collector, but it is only when they are in appropriate archival institutions that they become important to the public.
I assume and hope you have honored the Kislaks and me in part because of the donations they and I have made, and will make, to American archival libraries.
● In Jay’s case to the Library of Congress and perhaps others, and in mine to a number of libraries, starting with Princeton’s Firestone Library, and including the American Antiquarian Society, the New York Historical Society, and the American Jewish Historical Society. I am actively involved with all of these wonderful institutions.
The New Republic just published an article by my friend David Bell, a professor of History at Princeton, about the demise of print encyclopedias. He concluded by saying:
“The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information.”
The digital world is upon us in full force.
● Google and other search engines now make information quick and easy to retrieve.
● In this digital world, there are those who question the role and relevance of the antiquarian booksellers of America. I don’t.
● These limitless oceans of information make your role as antiquarian booksellers to archival libraries all the more necessary.
● These libraries are the repositories of the Western and indeed the entire world’s cultural heritage. It is where important material such as first editions, manuscripts, and broadsides must be collected, preserved and made available to scholars and the general public.
However, since almost all of these libraries have limited funds with which to purchase the many items offered, we collectors have an important role to play.
● We are the ones who are the purchasers, the gatherers, of our cultural patrimony from antiquarian booksellers. Moreover, many of us should and do donate part or all of our collections to the archival libraries of the world.
● Another significant point is that, at present, archival libraries are the ones in the best position to digitize their existing holdings and new accessions, and make them available online.
● There are only a few collectors who today will go through the effort and expense to digitize his or her library, and then make it available to the public.
The ABAA and the ILAB have honored me this morning with your Patron of Honor award.
● I wish to return the compliment by praising your members for your role as middlemen in the rare book world.
● We buyers need you. And the sellers need you also.
There is another function you do, for which I am also very grateful.
● You ferret out books from willing and often reluctant sellers and give us collectors the opportunity to build significant collections.
● You educate the buyers as to why and how the item offered for sale fits into a mosaic as to what might make the item attractive enough and important enough to attract an institutional buyer or collector.
● The principal theme of my collection was embedded in the title of the first rare book I purchased, Tom Paine's Rights of Man, but it took years before I became aware that this theme related to "rights" and "liberties" in the eighteenth century.
● My first antiquarian book was purchased in London in the summer of 1959.
● I had just graduated from Princeton as an American history major, and I was absentmindedly scanning a bookseller's dusty window.
● I noticed a small book, a 1792 edition of Tom Paine's Rights of Man.
● The price? About the equivalent of $ 5.00.
● How could I not buy it?
● My book collecting career had started.
● But as you booksellers know well, there is a big difference between being “just a collector” and being a serious collector.
Although he didn’t use my phrase, “serious collector”, Thomas Tanselle, the eminent scholar-collector, in his 2005 Nikirk Lecture at The Grolier Club, perhaps best described what serious collectors do, or at least what I try to do:
“Collectors not only preserve historical evidence; they also create a view of the past through their collections -- by the scope they set for themselves and by the arrangement they impose on the artifacts. They have the pleasure of taking objects from disparate sources and fitting them together into a coherent entity.”
Later on in his lecture, Tanselle made another perceptive remark:
“The fun of collecting increases, paradoxically, in proportion to the seriousness which one takes it.”
There are three ingredients necessary to be a serious collector: the interest, the time, and sufficient discretionary income.
● First, the key has to be the intellectual interest in whatever it is that you are collecting.
● Although I am sure that no one, especially me, was aware of it at the time, I credit my Princeton education for being largely responsible for generating my subsequent lifetime interest in the politics and economics of the eighteenth century.
● Second, despite the busy life I led during my forty years in the private equity business at Warburg Pincus, I was gradually able to find the needed time for my collecting.
● Third, thanks to my burgeoning career I was also able to become a more active buyer with the wherewithal to buy more expensive items.
Some of my early collecting interests gradually faded away as I became aware that a good deal of my intellectual life was being spent in the eighteenth century, and I began to focus principally on the politics and economics of that era.
● At least at the outset, I gave no thought to any disciplined exploration of this period. I just very gradually got drawn into wanting to know more, and I began making connections between events and people and pamphlets.
● Although I have never had any interest in scholarly research of my own, and I must admit that I was only an average student at Princeton, I developed as an adult a keen interest in wanting to collect the contemporaneous writings on politics and economics of the era.
● So rather than researching and writing about the period, I collected it!
My collection originally focused on the period from 1760 to 1800 as the colonists traveled the road to independence, arrived at their destination, and then grappled with how to make the national government of the thirteen states function adequately.
● I have always viewed the American Revolutionary Era, indeed the entire eighteenth century, through a transatlantic lens, a focus I learned as a Princeton undergraduate from the eminent historian, R.R. Palmer.
● The most important non-Princetonian academic influence on my collecting was the Harvard historian, Bernard Bailyn, by way of his seminal work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
● Somehow, I adopted it as my mission to collect the first editions of the pamphlets Bailyn and other historians of the Revolutionary Era considered important.
Bailyn laid out the collecting road on which I was to travel.
● His work emphasized the importance of the inter-play of ideas that created the framework for the revolutionary events.
● These ideas were mostly expressed through the medium of the pamphlet, which became the principal means for the literate population in both the mother country and the provinces to disseminate and debate the ideas leading to the landmark events.
Since my first Princeton exhibition in 1991, my interest in the ideas and ideals of the Revolutionary Era has deepened - and so has my collection.
● I have retained my transatlantic focus, and I have acquired many more American, British, and French eighteenth-century pamphlets.
● I have widened my scope chronologically, mostly looking for themes of the Revolutionary Era that began much earlier, many reaching back into seventeenth-century England.
In thinking further about rights and liberties, I realized that in my favorite century, the eighteenth, I had neglected one of the greatest examples of man's inhumanity to man - slavery and the slave trade.
● Of course, slavery had existed for millennia, but the craving of Europeans for the agricultural products of the New World (especially sugar), led to the horrific transatlantic slave trade and the imposition in the Americas of the barbaric institution of legalized slavery.
● Finally, beginning in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, led by Quakers and Evangelicals in America and England, the efforts to abolish the slave trade took root and sprouted.
● My self-assigned mission widened to include the printed materials that led to the ultimate success of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807 and in America in 1808.
● I now think that this part of my collection is among the most important.
Turning to my life as a collector, my library continues to grow.
● Even after the book donations I have already made to archival libraries, I own more than 2500 items, almost all published prior to 1800.
● About half my holdings are British imprints, perhaps 40% American, and most of the remainder French.
Although I and most other book collectors rarely collect just for investment, we are not immune from being curious about the current market value of our holdings.
● The good news is that antiquarian books, like most other valuable collectible items, have in general more than kept up with inflation.
● My observation is that eighteenth-century pamphlets have been on a long, gradual upward trend in market value, with many items far outpacing inflation rates.
There are some book collectors who focus on a literary or historical figure and try, for example, to collect all editions of the works by that person.
● My collecting approach is very different. In general, I am most interested in the contents of the book, and whether and how it addresses the issues that concern me.
● Next in importance is the author, whether known or anonymous, and there were many anonymous pamphlets published in the eighteenth century.
● I am not overly concerned with an item's condition or quality of binding.
I try to purchase the first edition of any title in which I am interested. In the collecting world, a first edition is more highly prized and therefore more expensive.
● A first edition represents an author's initial presentation of his ideas in print, and the work stands or falls on its initial reception.
● Most of the time there are no subsequent editions.
● However, one should not necessarily infer that a work is historically less important because it does not get reprinted, or that it is not a first edition.
Bibliographies of eighteenth-century books are very useful reference tools to book dealers and certain kinds of collectors like me.
I use them to ascertain publishing facts, such as how many editions of a pamphlet were published, and where, when, and by whom.
● I also use a number of bibliographies as scorecards, as I make a pencil mark next to an item I have bought.
● I do this mainly so that when a future pamphlet becomes available, I have another way, besides my printed and on-line entries, to determine whether I already own it.
● Most of the time it works, but there are times when due to carelessness, enthusiasm, or both, I buy a duplicate of what I already own.
Unlike some other serious collectors, I do not use an agent to find and/or recommend books to me.
● Moreover, I do not buy books in bulk, which is what dealers and some collectors often do. Every item is selected and purchased on its own merits.
● I purchase books from a fluid network of over fifty rare-book dealers, mostly in the United States and the UK, but also in Canada, France, and the Netherlands. Many of you are here today.
● However, I guess that in the last twenty years I have only visited the shops of less than ten of these widely scattered dealers.
● My purchases are still primarily made through dealer and auction catalogues, which differ considerably in subject matter, in quantity and quality of books offered, as well as level of pricing, and adequacy of the descriptions of the items offered.
● As a frequent customer, I often receive a galley proof of a catalogue, or an e-mail about items before they appear in print.
● This is much appreciated, since if I want an offered item and I respond reasonably promptly, I almost always will be the buyer.
Bookseller descriptions of items offered for sale range from very useful to useless.
● Fortunately, there are many dealers and auctioneers who, in addition to the recitation of the bibliographic facts about the book, provide worthwhile descriptions of the author, the contents, and place the book in the historical context of when and why it was written.
● This is a great way to learn and to "connect the dots."
● Thus, when reading catalogues, the principal question in my mind is always: what would a particular item add to the intellectual content of what I own?
Almost all book dealers I know are interesting and knowledgeable. You are fortunate to be able to combine your vocation and avocation. I am pleased that so many of you have become my friends, especially Joe Felcone, Bill Reese and David Lesser.
● Antiquarian book fairs, particularly the annual April event in New York, are an excellent place for me to refresh relationships with current dealers and meet new ones.
Let me conclude with the last paragraph from the Foreword to my 2009 Princeton catalog which summarizes my collecting experience:
“Book collecting by its very nature is a solitary pastime.
● Every collector does it his or her way, and there is no right or wrong.
● It is just the way you do it. Period.
● To me, collecting has been a voyage of discovery of part of me that I didn't know existed.
● It has been a fascinating intellectual voyage, and although I normally suffer from motion sickness, this voyage has been mostly smooth and, at times, exhilarating.
● I meet so many interesting people, and I encounter so many concepts that continue to intrigue and challenge me.
● And what I find boring, I ignore.
● It is a voyage I am glad I embarked upon, and a voyage that I hope will continue for many more years to come.”
>>> Sid Lapidus and Jay and Jean Kislak - ABAA and ILAB Patrons of Honour
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