Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Frankenbook; Or, What Goes Around, Comes Around

As you can see, this copy of Eliza Haywood’s Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Gentleman has had a hard life. Verryyy hard.

At some point in the eighteenth century this book was the treasured possession of a schoolboy who used the blank pages at the back of the book to record the cost of his education (see below).

Did his rough handling detach the boards and break the spine? Did he sew the detached boards back on? It seems unlikely, but I guess it is possible. Was this caring act driven by love or frugality? And what of the missing pages? Were they still closed into the book when it was pushed to the back of a shelf and forgotten? And then what?

[...] payd to Mr Johnson
[...] for blotting paper £287-19-9
payd to Mr [F]illis for quils
and everything proper 1986-18-85
Total £2073-18-5
thus nothing farther payd
for my education.

* * * * *

This book’s early, turbulent history has marked it heavily. It’s recent, turbulent history, hardly at all. I bought this “Internally clean” book in 2001 for GBP250 (at the time, about A$600) from Dead Mens Minds in Wales, even though it was described as “split in half at page 123.”

For me, a PhD student at the time, this was an eye-watering sum. But this was one of the few important Haywood books I could get at a reasonable price: because only I knew it was by Haywood. (I think this is called insider-trading.) And I knew that, after I published my Bibliography—and the world knew that Eliza Haywood was the author of Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Gentleman—prices would rise.

(As it happens, it took ten years before a bookseller listed a copy under Haywood’s name, and that one listing is still the only listing for Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Gentleman under Haywood’s name. So no price rise and—happily, I guess—it is still possible to buy copies of this book at reasonable prices.)

Anyway, when the book arrived I realised that it was not just split in half, but missing five leaves (A1, E11, E12, H12, I1). I mentioned this to the bookseller, expecting him to offer to discount the book. No such luck. He was extremely sceptical and demanded that I return the book. And so I very reluctantly posted this six hundered dollar Frankenbook back to Wales.

Since 2001 I have bought for myself five more copies of the first volume, two copies of the second and a copy of the not-by-Haywood third volume. I have also helped three local libraries obtain sets. One of my five copies arrived missing a few leaves and when I mentioned this to the bookseller, he reacted in exactly the way I had expected the proprietor of Dead Mens Minds to react: he reduced the priced from USD500 to USD35.

(I wish I could remember who the bookseller was so I could memorialise their kindness, but they probably wouldn’t want me to publicise the fact that they had sold a defective copy anyway, so perhaps it is just as well I didn’t record it.)

You might think I had grown tired of this book, or that the eight volumes on my shelf would have lessened my appetite for more. No chance. So when a particularly ugly copy turned up on eBay recently I made sure to buy it. And, after I bought it, I was informed by the vendor that, by accident, the fact that this copy was missing pages was not mentioned. But that the missing pages had been taken into account when pricing the book.

After a few emails we agreed on a reduced price (GBP75), the book was sent and I got to inspect my purchase. And when I inspected it I noticed a small pencil notation of the date: “11.12.1”—in my handwriting! Only then did the penny drop. This was the same book I had bought from Dead Mens Minds, and returned to them eleven years earlier! My Frankenbook has travelled from Wales to Melbourne to Wales (again) to Melbourne (again).

And so I have been wondering again, as I did in 2001—what was the proprietor going to do/what did the proprietor do with this book? Did he sell it as an incomplete book, or try to pass it off as complete again? Did it go into his “hospital” (which all decent bookshops have) and, if so, how came it to be sold off by someone else on eBay eleven years later. (I have asked the vendor but, alas, no answers are forthcoming!)

I have also been wondering, as I have done many times since 2001, how large a percentage of the Haywood books sold in the last decade have come to me. What percentage of the market do I occupy? Have I driven up prices? I seem to have bought most of the copies of Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Gentleman, so I guess it is inevitable that I would get this one back. But in book collecting the accepted wisdom is You. Do. Not. Get. Second. Chances.

And so I have tried not to let any chance pass me buy. As the great Richard de Bury wrote concerning “What we are to think of the price in the buying of books” in Chapter 3 of his Philobiblon:

From what has been said we draw this corollary welcome to us, but (as we believe) acceptable to few: namely, that no dearness of price ought to hinder a man from the buying of books, if he has the money that is demanded for them, unless it be to withstand the malice of the seller or to await a more favourable opportunity of buying.

So, um, disregard dearness of price (check), but beware the malice of sellers (check), await favourable opportunity of buying (check). Thanks Rick.

The other moral to this story it is in the subtitle above. If you try to charge a small fortune for a frankenbook, you get nothing, and the buyer gets the book (eventually) for a pittance. Or, what goes round (the world), comes round (the world—again)!

PS: This machine-stitched frankenbook has nothing on my beauty!
[UPDATED 2016.02.24: reinstated images]

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