Skip to main content
Article |
| Books about Books

John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors

Like all good reference books, the ABC for Book Collectors conveys much in a little, sets limits to its subject and keeps within them, and — saving grace — treats that subject with individuality as well as authority, in a style at once concise, forthright and witty.
Published on 07 Dec. 2009

By Nicolas Barker

Like all good reference books, the ABC for Book Collectors conveys much in a little, sets limits to its subject and keeps within them, and — saving grace — treats that subject with individuality as well as authority, in a style at once concise, forthright and witty. It is, in short, a masterpiece, whose merits are acknowledged by the fact that it has never, in forty years, been out of print. The author, John Carter, was born on 10 May 1906 and died on 18 March 1976. A scholar of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, he knew too well what scholarship meant to embark on the academic life that his attainments might have made his. Instead, in 1927 he joined the famous New York firm of booksellers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, with which he remained, apart from war service, until 1953. From then till 1955, he was attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. He then joined Sotheby’s, for whom he was largely responsible in opening up a new market in the U.S.A., retiring in 1972. He was also a book-collector, forming a notable collection of A.E. Housman and another, unsurpassable, of William Cory, the Eton master and poet.

He was, thus, well equipped to see the book collector’s world from every angle, to record it at once dispassionately and with insight. Although for so long a member of the trade, he was never truly in it. Its older members disliked what they took to be his de haut en bas manner and still more his detachment, which they sensed rather than knew, because he was punctilious and honourable in all transactions. But there was nothing snobbish about the generosity and encouragement that he extended to the young, ‘bibliomites’ of the trade or collectors hesitantly beginning, or again those with their foot on the first step of the bibliographical ladder. I was one of them, and I shall never forget the kindness and practical help he gave me, particularly when I had, at short-notice after John Hayward’s sudden death, to take over the editorship of The Book Collector. It is strange, now, to look back on those days. Our world was indeed a small one and, it seemed, contracting. There were few antiquarian booksellers, mostly old men. Their memories stretched back to the Depression and beyond, when old books were commoner and so were collectors—the problem was to sell the books. Now where were the books, and the collectors? They were, they felt, the last generation: the last books would soon be locked up in institutional libraries, and the trade that they knew would soon be wound up.

There was, then, a certain defiance, an assertion of facts and values that might be forgotten, in the ABC when it came out in 1952. Memories of Michael Sadleir and the ‘Bibliographica’ series (both no more), the opinions and trenchant style of Stanley Morison, the centre of our little circle, echo in its pages. But how soon it was to change—had changed already by 1971, when the fifth edition came out, by which time, Morison had mischievously said, it ‘might be a serviceable thing’. It is hard to date the beginnings of the change: the release of the residue of the Phillipps collection after ten years’ seclusion, the sale of the Abbey collection, alluringly catalogued by Andreas Mayor and Anthony Hobson, were certainly a turning point. But the real change was a larger and more subtle one. The rise in property values forced booksellers to value the space their stock took up: ‘high street’ shops became less and less viable. The wise betook themselves to country rectories and postal business by catalogue, free from opening hours, non-buying browsers and business rates. There was time to look for books (not so hard to find after all if you had the time), and to catalogue them with a shrewder eye to a market now more accurately defined. The only problem was that the number of customers grew no larger. To this the book fair proved the answer, not just the London fair but one in a country hotel or some other public building, where a car full of books might furnish a modest booth, with some over to replenish it if sales were good.

At first, I suspect, sales were mostly within the trade (a version of the Indian rope trick whose final economics I have never quite understood), but gradually the public which had come out of curiosity stayed to buy. Why? Partly because, in the more prosperous 70s and early 80s, there was a little money to spare; partly, paradoxically, due to the ‘flight from money—better if you had it to put into something less prone to erratic fluctuation; partly, too, owing to the decline in modern book production, particularly the PAPER and the misnamed PERFECT binding of paperbacks whose leaves fell out on bookshop floors as thick as those that strowed the brooks in Vallombrosa. All this woke a new interest in books, old and not so old. It was not just the old staple of literature and the classics: art and the theatre acquired new professional collections; the decline of industry put a new premium on previously unsaleable obsolete technical manuals; newly cheap travel produced devotees of books about remote parts of the world, particularly those which you still could not reach easily. New collectors, a species believed to be on the brink of extinction, became almost common. New antiquarian booksellers set up. Rare book librarianship, once the province of a few isolated enthusiasts, has become a profession, stimulated by Professor Terry Belanger, formerly at Columbia University, now at the University of Virginia, and a generous contributor to earlier editions of the ABC.

All this growth would have delighted John Carter, as it does me. One other change he would have viewed with more sadness, the dissolution of the ancient craft of bookbinding into book conservators and art binders. Many of the old terms for materials and practices, discussed long ago with Howard Nixon of the British Museum and Kenneth Hobson of Sangorski and Sutcliffe, are now obsolete or disused, except in booksellers’ catalogues. Their survival there is an excuse to leave them in now; perhaps another revival, in the still neglected history of the internal, as opposed to external, structure of bookbindings, may give them a new interest when the time comes for the next edition. It remains only to thank all those who, with suggestions for improvement and other encouragement, have lightened the task of preparing this, the first edition to be entirely RE-SET. I hope that they and others will continue to maintain their critical interest: there is always room for improvement.

Introduction to the 7th edition of the ABC for Book Collectors (Oak Knoll Press 1995). It is presented here, with our thanks, by permission of Bob Fleck, Oak Knoll Press.

  • share