Some preliminary notes on the aesthetic merits of interesting catalogues.

I am willing to break my silence when I receive several immensely pleasing bookseller’s catalogues in my post office box in one fell swoop, as I did this morning. Stuart Bennett’s fiftieth catalogue, Unique? A Catalogue of Apparently Unrecorded or Unlocated English and American Books, Pamphlets and Broadsides [1670-1851], collects 50 items for which, as Bennett notes in his foreword, “I ask readers to infer for each entry, ‘Not found in BLC, COPAC, ESTC, NUC or OCLC.'” The items range [inter alia] from an unrecorded 1805 New England broadside elegy for a 5-year-old girl (item 5, $575) to A Curious Dissertation on Pissing [1787], here rescued from obscurity and priced $4,500.

The second catalogue that grabbed me was Charles Cox’s catalogue 57, John Fowles: The Collection. Books from the library of John Fowles, Part II, 382 items that reflect Fowles’ varied and various interests and that here include curious French literature, early English material, trials and scandals, low-life material, the anxious scaffold confession of a 17th century adulterous clergyman who had murdered his illegitimate infant, etc.

My aim here isn’t to give an exhaustive review of each catalogue but rather to try to start to figure out what pushes a catalogue out of the realm of simple commercial utility into the realm of quasi-literature. Perhaps the interesting catalogue sits somewhere in the intersection of curious material pointed up by obvious learning and a certain restrained enthusiasm. (Is an interesting title in a catalogue still interesting if you are not shown why it is of interest?) A brief explanation of the merits of a late 18th c. chapbook edition of Tom Jones is a tonic to the implicit rhodomontade of glossy auction or high-spot catalogues. (For all their fanfare and shine, these offerings often become wearing, like listening to somebody on a cell phone discuss financing a summer home.)

One pefers to see previously unknown swaths of ingnorance seeded with judicious descriptions of obscure items. (I am working on the assumption that one would happily meditate upon John Fowles paging through an 1830 offprint of Notice historique et physiologique sur le Supplice de la Guillotine, extrait des Archives Curieuses [Paris, 1830], or to marvel at the good fortune of one Ann Leckie, an amateur “Printer Extraordinary” of Portsea, to have a copy of the 1823 Poetical Chronology of the History of England [“By a Lady”] survive long enough to be brought back to light.) The imaginative leap to sympathy with Ann Leckie is more pleasant to undertake than a fitful illumination of one’s mental library with the reflected glare of morocco spines, and the prospect of a kindred literary resurrection by a simple notice of one’s forgotten work — even within the relatively restricted compass of antiquarians and librarians — has a certain comfort in the light of inevitable mortality.

Natter, natter. In any event:

Stuart Bennett, Rare Books & Manuscripts, Mill Valley, California.

Charles Cox, Treglasta, Launceston, Cornwall, UK.

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3 Responses to Some preliminary notes on the aesthetic merits of interesting catalogues.

  1. Mike Widener says:

    My nomination for catalogues as quasi-literature: Maggs’ series of four “Books and Their Readers” catalogues. John Drury Rare Books has done several interesting thematic catalogues, the latest being “Radicals and Reform.” And I can’t help mentioning the heading for a Scottish cookbook in a PRB&M catalogue several years ago: “How to cook haggis, but not why”.

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