Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Peter Opie on Book Collecting

Iona and Peter Opie collected children's books, mostly eighteenth-century books. Peter Opie died in 1982, the Opie collection went to the Bodleian Library in 1988; Iona, seemingly immortal, still maintains their large collection of historic toys and games. In 1989 OUP published a volume of essays, celebrating the collection: Children and their Books.

This books has sat on my shelf undisturbed for five years. When I was packing my children's books today—I am moving, and write this surrounded by 102 large cartons, all but a few of them full of books—I decided to put this aside for a closer look. What particularly caught my attention were two essays: "Selections from the Accession Diaries of Peter Opie" by Clive Hurst and "Collecting Children's Books: Self-Indulgence and Scholarship" by Brian Alderson.

Well, I'd like to see more of the Accession Diaries of Peter Opie! Here's why:

25 May 1965: Twenty years seems a long time when one is looking ahead. It even seems a long period when one is looking at it in a history book. It has not seemed a long time to me while I have been living it. When a historian of collecting comes to look at this period he will remark on how circumstances have changed [but] … The feel of collecting has scarcely altered. When I began collecting chapbooks at 2/6 each, they were expensive trophies I could scarcely afford … Collectors items have, I suspect, always been expensive. Possibly because no collector worthy of the name limits himself merely to items that he can afford.

Damn straight. But, contrarily,

11 June 1980: A collector does not need to live dangerously. The secret of success lies I think more in keeping on and on and on rather than in spending beyond his means. Given that he keeps his eyes open, given that he has taste, judgement, discrimination… and given that he has a third eye which is always fixed on his target, success is simply the natural result of the amount of reading, the amount of thought, and the number of years he is willing to devote to his objective. He needs endurance, plus courage in an emergency. If I had had a little more courage when something splendid was suddenly offered me my collection would now be superb.

Of course, the Opie collection was superb, but he is right in other respects. We might alter the language a little today: success was "simply the natural result of the amount of reading" a collector did only in an era of printed catalogues. Now it is "simply the natural result of the amount of searching" we do on the internet. But, either way, success lies more in "keeping on and on and on" rather than in spending beyond one's means.

On the same date as the first quote above, appear two other interesting observations:

It took me some time before I realised that 'rare books are common.' I probably acquire an item or two which is unique, or almost unique, every month of the year.

but …

It has always seemed to me incredible that one can be an ordinary person, with no official standing, and can go into a shop and come out again having bought something unique.

I have few unique items, but many are genuinely rare, and yet it has also, always seemed incredible to me that such rare works are so easily and so cheaply purchased. I marvel at it daily. The internet is the collector's greatest gift.

(I can't resist an example. Yesterday, my copy of the following work arrived: An Interesting Narrative of the Travels of James Bruce, Esq. into Abyssinia, to Discover the Source of the Nile. Abridged from the Original Work. The Second Edition. By Samuel Shaw, Esq. (London: Printed for the Editor; and Sold by all the Booksellers in Town and Country, 1790).

Now, James Bruce, Esq was an amazing man, a six foot four Scottish traveller who spent more than a dozen years in North Africa and Ethiopia, where he traced the origins of the Blue Nile. Only yesterday, at an English Department seminar, Dr Paul Tankard (visiting from the University of Otago) gave a vivid account of Bruce, who was twice interviewed by James Boswell.

Anyway, the copy that I bought was in its original marbled boards, uncut. It is a trade binding, so it is not particularly pretty now. The paper spine is gone, the page-edges are dark, there are one or two stains; however, ESTC lists only one copy of this edition (under t223024) and yet it cost me £4.99 on eBay.)

4 February 1965: [Re: institutional collections] … after the original impetus of their founder their collections may tend just to come about, & they cannot know all the purposes to which their collection will be put. The collections of the Institution almost inevitably lag behind those in the dedicated private collection in any special field in discrimination, in detail, in condition, in novelty, & in love.

I think this related to Peter's observation about "keeping on and on and on"; it takes that maniacal glint in the eye to keep developing a collection, as well as the narrow focus on the actual use of a collection. An institution can rarely maintain such a narrow focus, and so they develop haphazardly ("tend just to come about").

The following two quotes go together, though they are slightly contradictory to my mind.

11 May 1968: Each copy of a book that has been standing around for 200 years or so is liable to vary from other copies, even of the same printing, and to have acquired its own characteristics. Its binding may vary from other copies, its condition certainly does; in addition it may carry the label of its original bookseller, surprisingly often it may still have its original price marked in it. It may bear an inscription by its original owner or donor, there may be comments in it written in a contemporary hand; it may be possible to trace its change of ownership over the years … It is always good to be reminded that the history of a book does not end with its being written and being published, but with it being read, and a catalogue of actual copies can show more vividly than can any general bibliography or history, the story of its readership.

22 November 1973: We are most interested in those books & objects which have been the most popular, or are the most ordinary, or are the most typical of their period. We prefer the trivial to the pretentious, the ephemeral to the monumental.

As Brian Alderson says, many of the books collected by the Opies were not just pretty acquisitions, they were "an artifact whose significance could only be realized by placing it alongside as many equivalent works as possible." Some of the significance of these normal, commonplace books might be realized by placing them alongside as many equivalent works as possible, but each is, indeed, unique as an artifact.

18 November 1967: On the flimsy blue-paper covers of these periodicals, or on tipped in pages which the binder removes before binding, were contemporary advertisements of many of the books I have in this room [i.e., 18C children's books]

This passage appears in a section where Peter Opies describes a large collection of eighteenth-century magazines he acquired in their original wrappers. I have recently bought just four issues of The Microcosm of 1787 [ESTC: p2566]—the only eighteenth-century magazines I have ever seen in original wrappers. These I would like to see "alongside as many equivalent works as possible" precisely for the reason mentioned, to see what sort of information an original reader got to see, which is missing from the bound runs, and the digitised versions that are based on them.

5 November 1970: … had I done so [visited a local bookshop] I know I would now possess that book, the earliest edn of the fairy tales in this country, and, in the mysterious way that ownership has, my voice would have had that much more authority.

This amused me enormously. Ah, the authority that book ownership gives one … in our dreams.

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

The Opie collection is amazing - and I love the tales they tell about collecting.