Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

When I picked up The Man Who Loved Books Too Much off the shelf at Borders, I thought it was about me. But no, apparently there is another bibliophilic obsession besides staying up too late at night reading. This book is the true story of a man who is addicted to stealing rare books.

As the thief, John Gilkey, is pursued by Ken Sanders, security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the rare book business. Both men are motivated by their love of books rather than by money – Gilkey keeps most of the books for himself instead of fencing them, and Sanders’ position as security chair is a volunteer post. Gilkey is also motivated by the prestige that comes from owning these works of art. As the author, Allison Bartlett, interviews Gilkey, she walks a fine line between being a journalist and inadvertently giving Gilkey the prestige he craves.

This makes their story just as much about the psychology of obsession and addiction as the world of rare books. As someone who loves books too much myself, but in the less pathological sense, I was more interested in the “books” part of the book.

Most of what Gilkey “collected” was first editions – the first print run of a book. If a book or author later becomes popular, their early first editions can become very valuable. First editions are sometimes sold very cheaply at garage sales or estate sales, by unknowing owners or their relatives. Book collectors who pick up these gems can turn a quick profit, or build a collection of their own inexpensively.

Most anyone would recognize that an ancient, hand-copied and illuminated vellum manuscript was a thing of value. But few people would likely recognize the difference in value (or any difference at all) between a first edition Harry Potter and a subsequent edition. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is presently worth about $50,000! Only 500 were printed – no one suspected the remarkable success the series would become.

A type of rare book that Bartlett only describes briefly, but which I thought was fascinating, was books with disappearing fore-edge paintings. The fore-edge of a book is the edge opposite the spine. When a book with a fore-edge painting is “fanned”, the painting appears. When the pages are returned to their normal, closed position the painting disappears, hidden by the gold gilt edge.

Disappearing fore-edge painting is believed to have originated in the 17th century, but did not become popular until the 19th century. The more valuable ones are those that were painted when the book was originally bound, and which reflect the content of the book (the characters, theme, setting, etc.). Less valuable ones have paintings that were added later, sometimes images from popular culture that are unrelated to the book, added to boost the sales of languishing titles.

When a fore-edge painting is being applied by the artist, the pages are clamped tightly in the fanned position to reduce bleeding of the paint between the pages. Watercolor paints are used, to prevent the pages from sticking together. As little water as possible is used, and the pages are sometimes treated to minimize water absorption. Finally, the pages are lined up again and gold gilt is applied to cover the paint on the edge. (The image is on the outside of the margin of each page rather than on the actual edge of the page).

Here is a fore-edge painting entitled “Alexander Pope’s Residence 2”, from The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope published in 1863. It is from the Albert H. Wiggin Collection of fore-edge paintings at the Boston Public Library, the largest public collection in the United States.

Many variations of this art form have developed over the years. This is an example of a “split double” containing two fore-edge paintings. (A “two-way double” would also have two paintings, one that appears when the pages are fanned in one direction, and one that appears when they are fanned in the other direction. A “two-way split double” combines these techniques for a total of four paintings on one book.) This photo is from the website of Martin Frost, an artist practicing this ancient craft today.


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