Genre Snobbery

“As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, states that “retellings of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible” for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, “Retellings of slavery, incest, and genocide are not eligible.” Fairy tales contain all those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply… not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfit a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily misunderstood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order.”

– Kate Bernheimer, in her introduction to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

An Oldie but a Goodie

I know, I’m embedding a YouTube video, right?  Well, it’s been a slow week.

The 2nd National Book Collecting Contest: An Interview with Kieran Fox

Last week the winners of the 2nd Canadian National Book Collecting Contest were announced, and I was fortunate enough to be able to gather a Q&A from each young collector!

Kieran Fox is a 27-year-old psychology graduate student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, BC.  His collection (called Superlative Works from the Subcontinent) is an intriguingly unusual one – these Tibetan-language books were all acquired over two trips to the East in such diverse places as Dharamsala, Lhasa and Kathmandu.  Though not a conventional book collector, these works brought together in one place (sometimes transported across borders which considered them contraband) form an impressive whole.  He  placed 3rd in this year’s contest.

Kieran (right) and Gregory Robert Freeman (left) at the SFU Harbour Centre.

Would you have described yourself as a book collector prior to your fateful West – East trip? What are your usual book-buying habits like?

I never thought myself as a collector of books until recently, though I have been buying and reading them compulsively since the age of about 18. Now I think my book-buying borders on addiction; I buy more than I will ever have time to read, but somehow it is nice to have a personal collection behind your back as you go about your daily affairs. And though I’ll never get to them all, you never know when a particular book might be waiting for you at the right time, and suddenly you will end up reading it and agreeing with everything though it’s been sitting on your shelf for years, untouched.

Have you considered adding to your collection since returning to Canada?

More than that, I have considered making a third trip! And this time intentionally keeping my bag light so that I can fill it up. Dharmasala seems like an ideal place to do this – if and when time and money allow!

If it had been possible, would you have prefered to pick up the texts you did in a digital format?

Not at all. There is actually an immense amount of Tibetan material available digitally online, much of it free – but this has never been the same to me as holding a book, being able to take it out to the woods with you, highlight it, annotate it.

In your essay, you said “A work not worth highlighting, is one not worth reading.” Can I take this to mean you prefer a book to be “personalized” by your use? Can you elaborate on what you meant?

What I meant there was that there are millions and millions of books out there; anyone who is serious about their reading will soon realize that no matter how fast or how much you read, you cannot even begin to scratch the surface – even in English alone! You have to be very selective about what you read, even if you are reading dozens of books a year. So what I meant here is that if you are reading books that you don’t feel you must highlight – that you don’t feel have passages that speak to you and that you would want to see again sometime when you flip through that book in your library – then you are obviously reading the wrong books.

Do you have a favourite book from among your collection? Which, and why?

If I had to choose, it would be ‘The Life of Milarepa’ or the Mi-le Nam-thar in Tibetan. Milarepa is probably the most famous folk hero in Tibet, I think it says a lot about Tibetan culture and people that their greatest hero was a holy madman who went to live in caves and practice Buddhist meditation for his entire life. It is really a wonderful story of falling into darkness and climbing slowly back to the light, all in a single lifetime – it is probably the most encouraging biography I know of.

How did you hear about the National Book Collecting Contest, and how did you initially feel about your odds of placing?

My mother used to be a journalist and reads about three newspapers every day. She noticed the contest ad in one of them and encouraged me to apply when I was home over the holidays for Christmas last year. She suggested that very few people would enter and so my chances would be good and I agreed. But honestly after I sent out my essay I forgot all about it and didn’t really anticipate winning.

Any opinions on how to encourage other young people to take up collecting?

Keep your own collection and your kids will take after you. Our house was always full of books; my mother and father and older brother all read like maniacs. Growing up with all those books around you, and a kid’s natural curiosity, it’s inevitable you will find things you like and I think this is where my love of reading came from. I don’t know if you can instill that in someone later on in life, artificially as it were.


You can read the interviews with this year’s 1st place winner  Justin Hanisch here, and 2nd place winner Gregory Robert Freeman here!

The 2nd National Book Collecting Contest: An Interview with Gregory Robert Freeman

Last week the winners of the 2nd Canadian National Book Collecting Contest were announced, and I was fortunate enough to be able to gather a Q&A from each young collector!

Gregory Robert Freeman is a 26-year-old collector from Surrey, BC. His collection titled The Tudors & Stuarts consists mainly of English history and Protestant theology from the 16th and 17th centuries. He  placed 2nd in this year’s contest, and once again I hope you will check out his essay and list once they have been published by the Bibliographical Society of Canada .  Mr. Freeman has been very active in Antiquarian collecting communities, maintaining the Olde Documents Repository and the Facebook group Antiquarian Book Collectors which I recommend checking out if you are so inclined!

Greg's (gorgeous!) books.

When and how did you realize you were more than just a book-buyer or reader, that you were a book collector? Can you elaborate on your discovery of book collecting as a discipline?

For a time I considered my first $200 purchase as the beginning of collecting rather than buying; but price gives a false impression. Paul Tronson, one of the world’s greatest restoration artists, gave me little bits of advice now and then to raise myself up and collect better books. Doing that was a process of trying to wean myself off cheap periphery items and focus on definite paths with original editions.

Do you have a prefered method of acquiring books for your collection?

For the most part I purchase from my main dealer who only does business by internet and fairs; he often makes acquisitions from London via online auction, and he’ll get something for me by request if I find anything. I search by keywords on abebooks, such as ‘vellum’ or ‘sermon’, etc., with a range of publication dates, and that often brings up some great items. If I’m in the mood for some adventure I’ll go to Vancouver to sift through the mountainous piles at MacLeod’s (they’re strictly brick & mortar).

How do you think internet resources (like eBay, and online auction houses) have affected book collecting?

eBay and abebooks, etc., have had an enormous effect on book-collecting in the past ten years, and I think much of it good for both collector and seller. It’s rare nowadays that one can ever find an antiquarian bookstore that’s not online (like MacLeod’s). Collectors can pick and choose copies of a title now, where before they might have only found a single copy after decades of searching. A former-bookseller friend of mine (he was recently put out of business thanks to his landlord raising the rent by 50+%) said once to me that antiquarian shops cannot survive anymore without being online. I don’t necessarily agree with that; the larger high-end shops could survive offline very nicely I think, sending out catalogues, such as Maggs in London who has been in business for 160 years. But for the lower end shops, vintage, cheap ‘antique’ and modern all mixed together in a store, the internet has become necessary for many of them and a great source of added income – one that hopefully covers the rent each month. I resort to searching abebooks whenever I’m curious about a certain title and normally I find a copy.

Do you have any other subjects that you “collect”?

I also collect Mediaeval England and handwritten documents of the middle ages to 17thC. Naturally it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to acquire original material of the Saxon period (tho I will try); with the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII tons of Saxon manuscripts were released, and some of those were published by the foremost collectors in the 16th-17thC, one being the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in parallel Latin-Saxon edited by Gibson in 1692. The oldest piece of handwriting that I have so far in my Mediaeval document collection is a land grant from Essex dated to ca. 1270. Most of my documents are of the 16-17thC, typically land agreements, which I’ve taught myself to read; the handwriting on these is gorgeous, and most have wonderful initial letters. Another aspect of my library in general is a small collection of books once owned by prime ministers, with their bookplates, including Canadian PM’s Sir John A Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper, and British PM Lord Rosebery.

Your collection shows a great depth of knowledge about your subject matter – a subject which is pretty obscure to 21st century laymen. How do you go about researching your books?

I research new acquisitions using other books of mine, with the occasional help from the internet. E.g., In attempting to find out more of Bishop Overall, I searched first the Athenae Oxonienses where I discovered he attended Cambridge, not Oxford, so I looked in the Athenae Cantabrigienses hoping to find him. I still couldn’t. Then it was pure chance that brought a new title, God’s Secretaries, to me, and lo and behold, there was plenty of information, which I compared and supplemented with findings online and in my other books. Overall is a very obscure name to even well read reformation enthusiasts, despite the fact he’s listed as being in the First Westminster Company for translating the King James Bible 400 years ago (of which he must have made a distracted effort, his wife had eloped with a certain gentleman at that time causing great scandal).

If you could add any single book to your collection, regardless of cost or availability, what would it be?

It’s difficult to choose one specific book. Perhaps a Wycliffe bible handwritten ca. 1390 in contemporaneous binding with early ownership inscriptions (about 170 Wycliffe bibles are said to survive).

How did you hear about the National Book Collecting Contest, and how did you initially feel about your odds of placing?

This second contest I heard of from John Meier (Deacon Literary Foundation) while at the Vancouver Antiquarian Book Fair in October. After losing in the first contest a couple years ago I was far more cautious about everything, though I thought I still had a good chance. The months leading up to the deadline were exciting with nail-biting decisions on what major items to acquire on time.

Any opinions on how to encourage other young people to take up collecting?

I’d say to read absolutely everything that comes your way in order to discover your favourite topics and various likes / dislikes. My collection started from buying everything 50-100 years old at a thrift store for 75 cents each, which progressed to older books from bookstores for $10-50 each, and so on. Collecting has been an enormous joy for me, reading, researching, and enjoying what I’ve gathered. For knowledge (even self-knowledge) it may be the most useful hobby in existence.


Read my interview with 1st place winner Justin Hanisch here, and 3rd place winner Kieran Fox here!

The 2nd National Book Collecting Contest: An Interview with Justin Hanisch

Last week the winners of the 2nd Canadian National Book Collecting Contest were announced, and I was fortunate enough to be able to gather a Q&A from each young collector!

Justin Hanisch is a 27-year-old collector from Edmonton, Alberta currently pursuing a PhD in Ecology at the University of Alberta. His collection on The History of Fish placed 1st in this year’s contest, and though I have had the privilege of reading his entry, it has not yet been published by the Bibliographical Society of Canada so you will have to wait a little longer to see exactly how impressive this collection is! Take my word for it – it’s very impressive.

Justin & Deacon Foundation president John Meier.

When and how did you realize you were more than just a book-buyer or reader, that you were a book collector?  Can you elaborate on your discovery of book collecting as a discipline?

I was a reader from a young age, but I can remember the first book I bought for both its text and its appeal as an object.  I was probably 12 or 13 and found a beat-up, soft cover copy of Jed Davis’s Spinner Fishing for Salmon, Steelhead, and Troutat a library book sale.  I no longer collect fishing books, but this book still has a special place in my heart.  I bought it because I like fishing, but I also bought the book because the objectappeared to have lead an interesting life.  At that moment, I think I became a book collector— someone who buys books for both the text and the object.  I like to think I’ve refined my collecting since then, but I’m still very interested in the provenance and individual histories of the books in my collection.

For the past 5 or so years, I’ve started to read books about books fairly heavily.  I really like bookseller memoirs and book collector biographies, like A.S.W. Rosenbach’s Books and Biddersand Donald C. Dickinson’s Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries.  Reading books like these has really helped me to learn about and appreciate the history of the book trade and book collecting as a discipline.

Do you have a preferred method of acquiring books for your collection? 

In theory, book fairs and book stores are my preferred method of acquiring books, but in practice, I have to rely on the internet.  Most general shops and regional book fairs don’t have a large stock of old fish books, so I have a variety of regular eBay searches.  I also have a few dealers whose websites I frequent and whose catalogues I receive.

How do you think internet resources (like eBay, and online auction houses) have affected book collecting?

I think the internet has benefited collectors tremendously.  It has revealed that a lot of books thought to be scarce are really quite common, which benefits me as a collector through lower prices.  The internet has also resulted in a huge flood of books, which previously would have been offered through expert book dealers, being offered by novice dealers.  This results in a lot of bad material being poorly described but also results in a lot of good material being poorly described.  With thorough research and careful questions, some excellent books can be purchased for very little money.

The internet also makes research materials easily available.  The University of Alberta has online access to American Book Prices Current, which I reference frequently.  I also make use of digitized books, often through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to compare books I’m interested in purchasing with other examples.  Interlibrary loan is also a great way to request bibliographies and other materials through the internet.  I do hate wading through legions of print-on-demand books that flood searches, though.

Did your decision to study ecology (and fish) follow your collection, or pre-date it?

About the time I decided to study fish at university, I decided to refocus my collection from books on fish and fishing to books exclusively on fish.  I’ve since sold a lot of my fishing books and put the money toward books specifically about fish.  However, I have retained in my collection some specially chosen fishing books that reveal something interesting about fish.  For example, I have a fishing book in my collection from 1884 that lists many places in Michigan (my home state) to catch Michigan grayling.  The Michigan grayling is now extinct through anthropogenic actions, so the book remains testament to a beautiful species that was wantonly destroyed.

Do you have any other subjects that you “collect”?

Although almost all my collecting budget goes into my fish books, I do have small collections of books about books and first editions of Canadian literature.  If money were no barrier, I would rapidly expand both those collections, and I’d love to assemble a library of every book Darwin referenced in his On the Origin of Species.

If you could add any single book to your collection, regardless of cost or availability, what would it be?

There are several books that come to mind.  There are some incredible colour plate books like the folio edition of Bloch’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische, and Cuvier’s Histoire Naturelle des Poissons.  I also covet some early works from the 16thand 17thcenturies. But, I think the one book I’d choose is Rafinesque’s Ichthyologia Ohiensispublished in Kentucky in 1820.  The book is rare; no copies are currently on line, American Book Prices Current lists only 4 auction records (three of which appear to be the same copy), and there are very few copies in institutional libraries.  So, the book is quite uncommon and also very early for a book printed in North America on North American fishes.  But, there is an even more interesting story behind the book.  Rafinesque was an acquaintance of John James Audubon and reportedly destroyed one of Audobon’s favorite violins while using it in an attempt to capture a bat.  In revenge, Audubon made up descriptions of fictional fish and gave them to Rafinesque to publish in his Ichthyologia Ohiensisas a practical joke.  I love this story, and combined with the book’s rarity, I think it’s my “holy grail.”

 How did you hear about the National Book Collecting Contest, and how did you initially feel about your odds of placing?

I’m a member of the Alcuin Society, and at the time of the first National Book Collecting Contest, members of the Alcuin Society were ineligible to apply.  I saw the second contest advertised in Amphora, and the statement disqualifying Alcuin members was absent.  So, I decided to apply.  In fact, I was quite excited by the contest and had finished and submitted my entry a couple months before the deadline!

I was cautiously hopeful that I would place in the contest.  Books and fish are my primary passions, and as such, I have spent a lot of my time reading about books in general and fish books in particular.  I felt I was knowledgeable about books and had assembled a decent collection, so if I could craft a good essay, I hoped that I would place.  Needless to say, I was delighted to win!

Any opinions on how to encourage other young people to take up collecting?

I’m not sure it’s fruitful to encourage someone to collect who isn’t already predisposed to it.  Of all the people who’ve I’ve talked to about my collection, not a single one has said, “Boy, that sounds like fun, I think I’ll collect books!”  That being said, I do see an encouraging number of young people at book fairs and book stores.  These young people are the ones likely most amenable to learning more about book collecting as a discipline.  I think a “Young Collector’s Booth” could be set up at book fairs to hand out free electronic copies of books on books that are in the public domain (like A. Edward Newton’s Amenities of Book Collecting).  The same booth could have a contest to win current books on collecting, like ABC for Book Collectorsor books by Nicholas Basbanes.  There is also a large infrastructure of University-level book collecting contests in the States.  I think Canadian universities could sponsor similar contests.

It should also be stressed to potential collectors that you don’t need a lot of money to collect books.  There are countless under-collected or non-collected fields in which a new young collector could quickly become an authority.  Such collections may also serve as important sources for future historians.  But, I will echo the advice I often hear: collect something you are passionate about.  A successful collection requires a good deal of research, which can be exciting and rewarding in a topic of interest, but tedious without a driving passion.  If your passion falls into an under (or non) collected area, then you’ve potentially hit the jackpot!


Read my interview with 2nd place winner Gregory Robert Freeman here,  and 3rd place winner Kieran Fox here!


“Value added” is one of the hardest things for me to accept in our consumerist culture.  Unlike, apparently, everyone else on the planet, I don’t see a lot of stuff I didn’t ask for as added value.  If I want a cup of tea, I just want a cup of tea.  I don’t want a 24 oz tankard of tea, even if it costs the same amount.  If I’ve just eaten a lovely dinner, I don’t want a huge slice of cake even if it’s the most delicious cake in the world.  If I need to get my daughter around town, I don’t need a 45-lb monster stroller with a coffee holder, on-board books and toys and seventeen different kinds of covers for every conceivable combination of rain and wind.  Call me old-fashioned.  I even knead dough by hand.

The publishing industry is of course in no way exempt from this practice of pushing all kinds of extra stuff on you along with your book.  The textbook publishers are the most aggressive with their packages: you can’t buy a thing now that isn’t shrink-wrapped along with a guide on how not to plagiarize, a code giving you access to online content, and a DVD.

We are assured, as textbook sellers, that this extra content costs us nothing extra, but students are extremely suspicious. The most common question we get about textbook packages is “Do I have to buy the whole package, or can I just get the textbook?” Assurances that the cost of the textbook alone would be the same do nothing to calm them. They see the extras as a “hidden cost”. I don’t totally disagree with them, but the cost that concerns me isn’t monetary, it’s environmental. I don’t use the extra material, so it invariably winds up in the garbage. What a waste! The extra packaging used for a class set of 200 copies of a textbook is enormous.  But that’s just me.

Trade publications are getting on board with extra content too.  Nearly every frontlist literary publication from a major publisher now comes with a reader’s guide, an author interview and “topics and questions” for bookclub discussions.  I used to find this addition patronizing but I admit now I’ve become sort of blind to it. One regular customer recently asked me (tongue in cheek, I hope) if he were to tear out the extra material and leave it at cash, if he could have a discount? Even in jest the lurking suspicion that this stuff comes at a cost remains.

In both cases, the extra material provided by publishers is treated, at best, with resigned tolerance and at worst with suspicious anger. I have never, not once in 8 years of bookselling, had a customer pick up a book and say “Oh goodie! A free author interview! I love extra stuff!”  So what is this all about?  Why are these things being pushed on us?

Part of it, of course, is a publishing industry flailing for something to justify their prices to a public which doesn’t want to think much about real costs. I appreciate this. Maybe the $74.95 they ask for a writing guide will seem less painful if it’s gussied-up with all kinds of extra paper.  The $106.95 film text can pretend the DVD that comes bundled with it adds $29.95 of “free” value.  (In the latter case, by the way, the publisher is so determined to hide the real cost of the textbook that they refuse to sell the text without the DVD, even if both the course instructor and mediating bookstore refuse to buy the text with it.  “But it’s free!” they insist. That the instructor doesn’t like the teaching style the DVD uses or prefers the students didn’t crib their exam answers from the “extra” content is no matter to them. Free is good, right?  Who can deny that?)  Prices are high and nobody likes that, but maybe if it looks like the customer is getting more, it will hurt less.

This model, though, is wrong-headed. It isn’t working and the simple reason is that the only thing most customers care about is cost. They don’t want the same high prices with more value thrown in, they want lower prices without a lot of bells and whistles.  Is this unfeasible? I won’t pretend to understand academic and textbook pricing schemes. Pearson Canada puts the price of every textbook up every year by about $5 even if it’s the same printing of the same edition of the same book they’ve been selling for ten years.  Does this reflect a real increase in their costs? I don’t think customers care.  They’re furious.  A new InfoTrak doesn’t make it better at all.  If anything, the extra content looks like an extra cost and customers won’t hear anything to the contrary.

I love colouring these. LOVE.

Some publishers seem to manage to keep their costs lost AND offer useful extra content for free.  I’m just in love, these days, with Dover Publications.  Yes, these are hideous cheap books often based on old, abridged, and out-of-date texts.  But they serve for some purposes and for those purposes they seem to be a great deal. $3 for a real book beats the heck out of a free online document every time.  Dover also offers some great online content for, again, free. All you have to do to get free samples is drop in your email address.  You can get sheet music, colouring pages, puzzles, short stories, and reference sheets and none of it costs you anything – you don’t even need to make a purchase to go with it.  I think this is brilliant marketing because frankly, now my daughter and I are addicted to Dover colouring books and we’ve placed orders for several of them, even though we could just keep downloading and printing out colouring sheets.

The difference is that nothing has been pushed on us.  The free content isn’t a condition of a more expensive purchase.  We’ve been given a choice rather than being upsold. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but for the customer the feeling of control and respect is a big one.  People want to know what they are buying and why.  “No no, trust me, you’ll love this.” just makes people angry and they feel manipulated.  And you know what?  If you can lower the price of the book by a couple dollars by leaving out the blasted guide to plagiarism, you’ll be saving everyone money, time and grief as well as the environment.  Slap an url on the back page – they can read the plagiarism guide online for free. Even if they don’t buy the book.

Treasures from Far Away

I received a very generous package in the mail a couple of months ago, a gift I’d have blogged about sooner but for the fact that I hadn’t, at that time, any real information about what I’d been given.  It was a box of books, all by Alexandre Dumas, and all published in Hebrew.

The sender, a collector of Hebrew children’s books who lives in Israel, had included little notes telling me the literal translations of the titles, but little else.  I suppose not much else was needed, but the book historian in me wanted to know more: were the books printed in Israel?  Was the art local as well?  Are these abridged or complete editions?  What kind of things might be added, or subtracted?  What makes these books distinctive or representative of where they came from?

So they sat on the shelf at my book store waiting for a Rabbi acquaintance of mine to visit so that I might pick his brain.  He did, finally, arrive, but I’m sorry to say he couldn’t give me much more information than I already had.  The books didn’t have much more direct information printed on them, and my research is hamstrung by a linguistic barrier. My kingdom to be a polyglot, let me tell you what.  But this is an old story in book history circles – we all only read so many languages (in my case, a whopping two) and so the study of literature tends to be pretty localized.  Never mind.  The books are still beautiful.

The books in the photo on the left are Hebrew editions of The Three Musketeers (right) and something called “Au service de la reine” (left).  The latter is not a title used by Dumas for any of his works, and so could be anything from a selection of short stories, to excerpts from one of the romances, perhaps the Musketeers or The Queen’s Necklace. Both are large print editions, and Au service also shows use of vowels, something not typically included in a grown-up book for native readers of Hebrew.  The name of the author has been translated differently on one book than the other. To the best of my knowledge, the cover art is specific to this edition.

Next, we have a 2-volume edition of The Count of Monte Cristo which looks decidedly more serious.  Editions of Monte Cristo tend to, no matter where they are from.  I suppose this is because this is one of literature’s most famous stories of uncompromising revenge.  Not quite all fun and games for kids, though I hasten to add that The Three Musketeers has its share of tears as well – recall that D’Artagnan’s lover Constance Bonacieux is done away with pretty handily, as is Milady. I have a sombre Spanish edition of Monte Cristo (“El Conde de Montecristo“) that I once felt reflected something of the Spanish character, but I now suspect is more in keeping with most publishers’ interpretation of the story.

If you have any idea what this one could be, do share. The title is, literally translated, The Twin Hunters; again not a title Dumas uses for anything.  It is a collection of children’s stories about animals. The pictures are often very clearly influenced by 20th century renditions of well-known fairy tales, but are also examples of very early Israeli engraving and printing (circa 1960s).  Based on the pictures I found myself doubting if these were Dumas at all, but the work is most certainly attributed to him. Well, who knows?  This is the fellow, after all, who penned the version of The Nutcracker that we all know from the Tchaikovsky ballet.  If he’d hacked up a version of Sleeping Beauty or similar as well, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Part of me loves that I have no idea what these books are.  It’s all part of the ongoing mystery.  I am a wretched book collector in that sense – I don’t have a neat and tidy checklist of specific editions that I intend to buy, I prefer lobs from left-of-field. Put together now, for example, I have 18 copies of The Three Musketeers in five different languages.  Nothing would please me more than a whole array of foreign editions, each less scrutable than the last. I do love the universality of Papa Dumas, and the endless diversity of books humanity has produced!