Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 7, 2012

I <3 the Shahnameh

In his 2003 A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, Nicholas Basbanes tells the memorable and, speaking as a bibliophile, devastating story of the Houghton Shahnameh.

The story goes like this: Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a 20th-century American book collector, has among his insanely valuable books a manuscript which has been described as the most spectacular example of Islamic art, if not of manuscript art, ever produced: The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. This copy of the Shahnameh (a 50,000 line poem first put to paper in 1010 by the Persian poet Ferdowsi) managed to survive intact from its creation in the early 16th century until the 1970s, when it ran afoul of Houghton.

Houghton acquired the manuscript from Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1959 and almost immediately put it on deposit at Harvard University with “the understanding that an elegant facsimile would be published by the university’s academic press.” (Basbanes 2003) Then, for whatever reason, he abruptly withdrew it from Harvard in 1972 and donated 78 of the most valued pages to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, he cut out seventy-eight pages and gave them away.

There’s some speculation that Houghton intended to eventually donate the rest of the manuscript to the Metropolitan Museum, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, between 1972 and 1996 the remaining 180 pages of the manuscript were sold off or traded, in batches both by Houghton and later his estate, to a variety of private and public collections. Souren Melikian wrote in his 1996 report on the final Sotheby’s sale “It was a great day for commerce but hardly for the preservation of cultural treasures.”

Long story short, a priceless treasure of book art was destroyed by a single owner. But all was not entirely lost: in 1981 Harvard University Press did manage to produce a facsimile in two volumes, 600 copies of which were actually sold to the public. Nowadays you can get a copy of this facsimile for the comparatively low price of $3500-$4500.

Ever since reading Basbanes’ tale in 2003 I have been mad to own a copy of this facsimile. It was absolutely in my top-5 list of books I’d buy if I, you know, had the resources to spend on collecting that I wish I did (along with Frank Wild Reed’s Bibliography of Alexandre Dumas and the 1893 deluxe edition of the Beardsley-illustrated Morte D’Arthur, in case anyone wants to get me an especially lovely birthday present). And so I nearly had an aneurysm when I saw the solicitation from Yale University Press for a new facsimile: The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp.

Now, I couldn’t buy the deluxe edition. But I’ll be damned if I’d let a book I’d been fantasizing about for the last decade go totally un-bought. I picked it up yesterday from the Bob Miller Book Room.

My new baby!

But here’s the best bit:

Being, as I was, at headed for the Bob Miller Book Room, I thought I’d take the family to the Royal Ontario Museum for Maggie’s Daily Dose of Dinosaur and, lo and behold! They are currently showing a special exhibit on the Shahnameh! Among the ROM’s holdings are pages from another great Shahnama manuscript also broken up during the 20th century, the Great Mongol Shahnama. These and other pages on display from McGill University and other sources represent a rather depressing history of decontextualizing Islamic art, but that’s a post for another day. As an introduction to the stories and cultural value of the Shahnameh, the exhibition is absolutely worth seeing. They even have a copy of the 1981 Houghton Shahnameh from Harvard on display – “The most luxurious and lavishly illustrated royal manuscript” preserved to “document and contextualize…” the illustrations.

A context we only get now in facsimile, thanks Houghton.

The ROM’s Shahnama – The Persian “Book of Kings” exhibit runs until September 3, 2012 in the Wirth Gallery of the Middle East, Level 3.

May 6, 2011

Obligatory Pre-TCAF Post 2011

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is one of those events that I budget my whole life around for an entire quarter. Which is funny, because if all you know of me is what you learn from this blog, you might not have me pegged as much of a comic geek: I tend to blog about book collecting, book-as-object issues, bookselling and Canadian literature. Comics, a huge subject on their own, I tend to pass over for other things.

The truth is that I am a bit of an outsider when it comes to comics. I’m aesthetically barren and not especially hip, yet not nerdy enough for mainstream comic geekery.  I encounter and consume graphic novels with a kind of layman’s how do they DO that??? awe.  There’s no doubt that I love the finished product, but I have little to no insight into the techniques, styles, influences, communities and trends that come together to produce the work.

However, there are a few things I can say for sure. FACT: TCAF is one of the best, if not THE best, non-mainstream comic shows in North America. FACT: Toronto itself has produced a disproportionate number of incredibly influential comic artists and cartoonists, suggesting there’s something to the community here (or maybe just in the water) that’s creating a comic arts nursery.  FACT: The Beguiling, the instigator and host of TCAF, is just about the best comic book store ever. FACT: The graphic novel is becoming an increasingly legitimized literary form and TCAF is probably the single best place to learn about and buy the best and brightest of the form.

Last year I posted 5 Things That Will Be Totally Amazing About TCAF 2010, and the year before I discussed The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care. This year I admit I have nothing to add to those points. But the importance of TCAF hasn’t lessened any, so consider this a simple reminder: Get out there! The launch party is tonight, and the Toronto Reference Library will be packed to the rafters with vendors, exhibitors and panelists Saturday and Sunday (May 7th & 8th).  The show is free so there’s virtually no reason not to check it out.  It’s even kid-friendly.  Aside from being a colourful spectacle of the graphic and literary cutting-edge, there’s also a whole rooster of kid programming.

It has been a good spring for book festivals so far!

April 1, 2011

The Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book: Digital Reviewing

Last night I attended the 17th annual Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book for the Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  The lecturer this year was the very prolific and always amazing Prof. Linda Hutcheon speaking on, to my delight, “Book reviewing for a New Age”.  Well well!

Though Prof. Hutcheon is an academic and the Thomas Fisher is an institution within the University of Toronto, the Gryphon lecture is intended for a “layman” audience of supporters and friends.  Unlike so many talks I’ve attended on book reviewing and the internet, the audience here was entirely devoid of persons employed by the publishing industry.  These were readers, heavy ones, and especially, readers of print book reviews. So understandably, much of Hutcheon’s talk was aimed at making a case for digital forms of book reviews, and what they offer to readers.

In this regard, she was not tremendously successful. She began with outlining the decline of the print review, giving us a good history of which papers have scrapped their Books sections and why. The reasons given by the papers and by Hutcheon were all economic: it is no longer, apparently, worth it to a publisher to buy advertising at the same rates and quantities in print.  The blame for that has been placed on the internet, probably rightly. The same advertising budget now has to include websites like Amazon.com, the lit blogs and the review copies given out through the thousands of social media channels.

The decline of print reviews has been matched by a much larger increase, however, in digital reviews. All signs point to an overall increase, rather than decrease, in engagement with books. Hutcheon explored at length the “economic, political and ethical” implications of this new divide.

I’ll leap ahead to the end in order to justify my opinion that she ultimately failed to make her case, however: no matter how many good points she made about the value of a more democratic engagement with books, or about increased readerships, the discussion never came full circle to re-include the print reviews.  Ideally, she argued, print would broadcast the paid reviewer’s specialty: reviews with a “broader cultural scope”; expansive, reflective articles from persons who (ideally) are more professional and accountable than the customer-reviewer of the internet.  Which sounds like a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t explain how this is going to be paid for.  If publishers haven’t the advertising budgets to maintain Books sections in newspapers across the Western world, I don’t think it matters whether they contain snappy, puffy reviews or expansive, global-scope ones.  Who’s paying for it?  The internet has split the same dollar, and I don’t see either new money being added to the pile, or the internet losing it’s advertising appeal.

In any case, Prof. Hutcheon made some lovely and eloquent observations about the literary bloggosphere that addressed our weaknesses and highlighted our strengths.  Though the most-often cited advantage of internet reviews is the “democratization” of the process – now anyone, anywhere can (and does) have a platform to let their views be known and the “tastemakers” or “gatekeepers” are losing their grip. But Hutcheon rightly points out that more noise doesn’t necessarily mean more dialogue – after all, can it be a dialogue if nobody is listening? Can critics have the same effect on our “cultural consciousness” if the discussion isn’t being broadcast (vs narrowcast) to a large audience?  This is certainly a fair critique of the lit blog formula. Regardless of how measured, professional and well-spoken a blogging critic is, if he or she doesn’t have the same impact on the public sphere that the Globe and Mail, New York Review of Books or Times Literary Supplement has, the role of the critic in society is being diminished.

There are many advantages to the fragmented online review scene. It allows readers to seek out and connect with reviewers who share their tastes.  Meta-tools like “liking” reviews on amazon.com do provide a way (however flawed) to distill some of the noise into helpful information.  The customer-reviewer is an excellent person to consult when your question is “do I want to buy this” rather than “what does this mean” or “how does this fit into a greater cultural context?”

That customer-reviewers are a wonderful marketing tool is pretty inarguable. But are they anything else? A blogger isn’t as much a taste-maker as a taste-matcher; after all the reader can always go to another reviewer if they start to sense that her tastes are diverging from the reviewer’s.  Hutcheon advances the suggestion that online reviewers are “cultural subjects” (after Pierre Bourdieu’s “Political Subjects”), meaning that even if they might not be the focus of a cultural turn or shift, they can at least be the subject of the discourse on culture – and I would take this to mean that the bloggosphere as a whole can be spoken of (“the blogs are saying…”) rather than specific blogs. This certainly has an egalitarian feel to it – we the masses making cultural decisions rather than individuals in powerful (paid) positions. Hutcheon suggests bloggers and reviewers are motivated by the reputation economy and by, of course, love of the subject.  So perhaps as cultural subjects our impact is freer from the politics of power.

Except, I have to interject, I think that view of the bloggosphere as a rabble of altruistic amateurs happy to contribute freely to the dialogue is at least a little naive.  The CanLit blogging scene, for example, is definitely blurring the professional/amateur line. Many of my favourite lit blogs are written by freelance print reviewers, and those that aren’t are written by people who, for the most part, have ambitions of becoming part of the paid “real critic” circle. Their blogs are, in this respect, proving grounds and elaborate CVs for budding writers and journalists who would be thrilled to death to be the next William Hazlit or Cyril Connolly.  It seems difficult to escape the fact that the same people who are blogging are the people who are reviewing for the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail, writing for the Walrus, Canadian Notes and Queries, and the National Post, and publishing books destined to be reviewed by the same.  It’s a small world out there.  These are “customer-reviewers” to an extent, but it’s also becoming and increasingly legitimate in-road to becoming a professional critic.  Even for those who have not made that leap to legitimacy yet, their contributions have to be read as something coming from someone who does consider themselves professional, even if no money is changing hands – yet.

In any case, the audience of Prof. Hutcheon’s talk seemed interested but unmoved by her arguments for the cultural importance of lit blogs and customer-reviewers. The average age of the audience-member was probably 65 years old, and these are, don’t forget, a self-selected group of people who choose to donate money to a rare-book library. The question period certainly was dominated by incredulity and derision at the state of the print reviews.  Still, it’s good to know these issues are reaching even these, the least-receptive ears.  The dialogue is spilling out into a wider audience, and it will be interesting to see how the discourse develops as the institution of reviewing continues to evolve.

October 29, 2010

A Busy Weekend in Books

If you aren’t busy enough already shmoozing at the International Festival of Authors, rooting around at the St. Michael’s College Book Sale, or trying to read 40 Canadian novels before November 7th; there’s an extremely exciting alternative available to Torontonians (and her visitors) this weekend: The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair.

After a month-long marathon of the University of Toronto’s excellent book sales, book-hunters might be inclined to give this one a miss, but step back for a minute and reconsider.  This is not just another book sale.  For the first time in fifteen years, Toronto will be hosting some of the biggest and best rare and antiquarian book dealers in the English-speaking world in one spot, and attempting to pull off a show that compares with the excellent New York and Boston International fairs.  This is a significant step above the lack-luster local Toronto Book Fair & Paper Shows.

Pre-register: this will get you a coupon for $5 the entrance fee, bringing it down to a very reasonable $10 for unlimited access for the whole three days of the show (October 29th, 30th & 31st).  Roughly 50 dealers are scheduled to be showing there wares at the cozy Metro Toronto Convention Centre site.  Among these will be the excellent and approachable local dealers like London, Ontario’s Attic Books and Toronto’s own (organizing force) Contact Editions; as well as big International names like Baltimore’s Kelmscott Bookshop and Maggs Brothers of London.

While firms like Maggs and Adrian Harrington can be reasonably counted on to bring some high-visibility (and high-priced) rarities, don’t think this is just a show for established collectors with deep pockets.  The promises of “something for everyone” are likely to be well-founded.  I’ve always loved looking through Attic Books’ reasonably-priced early-20th century children’s books, or David Mason‘s specialty, the “1st Canadian editions” of important works.  While a show like this isn’t for bargain-hunting cheap used copies of paperbacks, you can still find some under-appreciated treasures in the $10-$50 range.  Furthermore who wouldn’t want to go see some of the higher-profile books or documents?  I might not be able to afford a $275,000 map, but if I should be so lucky, I’d love to glimpse one.

For the amateur collector, this is also an excellent opportunity to approach dealers who don’t keep open shops and sign up to receive their catalogues.  I don’t think I’m the only person who reads catalogues for fun: they’re a treasure trove of bibliographical information, a good way to make wish-lists and the best way to get an idea of what books cost on the market.  The catalogues themselves are also frequently beautiful things.  See the wonderful offerings from Oak Knoll or Roger Gaskell as examples.  You’ll never wonder why so many people collect 18th century scientific treatises ever again.

For full details, visit the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair’s website.

July 13, 2010

This Isn’t Specifically About Books

If you are at all connected to Academia in Toronto, you might have read one or both of these two reports about the University of Toronto’s proposal to amalgamate a number of their programs into one big “School of Languages and Literatures”.  We’re told this is some kind of utopian idea which will save $1.5 million while losing nothing but “administrative costs”.

U of T has been amalgamating classes and programs for some time now, and let me tell you what it looks like at ground zero:  Fewer classes are offered with higher enrolment caps.  Fewer professors teach with the help of more TAs (graduate or, sometimes, keener undergraduate students).  Imaginary degrees are offered which you can make up out of classes from diverse departments, but rarely can a cross-disciplinary degree student get space in other-department courses.  Money is the problem; no money to hire faculty or run departments so we all have to make do with fewer teachers, bigger classes, and slave-waged TAs and sessionals.  What can you do?  No money means no money.  Right?

I have been an undergraduate at U of T on and off for 11 years now.  When I first enrolled in 1999 I took JEF100, “The Western Tradition”.  There were, at best, 30 students in my class.  I would attend tutorials once a week with 6-10 students.  There were many sections of the class available, each taught by a professor aided by at least 1 TA.  The school year was 26 weeks long, excluding exams.

This year U of T is offering instead ENG150, “The Literary Tradition”, capped at 480 students.  Tutorials will likely be capped at 40 students, and headed by teaching assistants.  Two sections are offered, both taught by the same professor who will be assisted by a small army (12-14) TAs.  The school year is now 24 weeks.

11 years.  This has happened across the Humanities at U of T.  There is a book to be written (and there are books being written) about what’s happening to Humanities departments across the Western world, but right now I just have one question:  where did the money go?  Why, inside of 11 years, has the money directed to a course like JEF100/ENG150 been cut (it looks to me) to a tenth of what it was?  Tuition is higher than it was in 1999.  Enrollment is up.  Where has the money gone? WHERE IS THE MONEY???

June 21, 2010

Who Goes to the Small Press Book Fair?

I love the Toronto Small Press Book Fair.  I love how well run it is, I love how the participants are, to a person, super excited to be there; I love the deals offered and I love seeing stuff you will never, ever see in a regular bookstore.   I always have to set myself a very strict budget before going ($100 ON PAIN OF DEATH) or else I will bankrupt myself.  This year I hit it within $5 and I tell you, I was looking for something to buy with that $5.

My haul was impressive.  I bought A Is For Alice by George A. Walker (Porcupine’s Quill), Mother Goose Eggs by Jim Westergard (Porcupine’s Quill), DA * 53 (Porcupine’s Quill), Urban Legends by K. Riedel (Iron Rabbit Bindery), The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema (ChiZine Publications), Sword of My Mouth by Jim Munroe and Shannon Gerard (No Media Kings),  Room issues 32.2 & 31.4 (Room Magazine), Descant issues 145 & 147 (Descant), and Carousel v22 (Carousel).

I was THRILLED that the lit magazines were selling back issues at various 2-for-1-like discounts. This let me load up on a number that I’d never read before to decide if I should invest further.  This is a great way to “sample” from Canada’s very busy literary journal landscape.  Smart, smart publishers.

Nevertheless, I felt like an oddity there: a simple reader looking to buy books to read.  Upon approaching a table, the publisher would immediately launch into their spiel about content submissions, letting me know what kind of fiction/poetry/art they were accepting.  I’d hastily interrupt that no, I was just there to read and spend money.  I felt like I’d stumbled into the wrong party – that this was a trade show where publishers and writers meet up and network.  I suppose it is, too.

But that’s a real shame.  Many of the publishers and vendors who attend the show haven’t got mainstream distribution and are hard or impossible to find in a book store.  Newsstands often only carry the latest issue of a literary journal, so back issues have no visibility.  Readers should be attending this show; we should be attending it in droves.  It beats the living pants off a show like Word on the Street which, frankly, is usually just an orgy of discounted publisher’s overstock books; shiny, gaudy, mass-produced cookbooks, Thomas the Train sets and Spiritual Exercises.   The Small Press Fair has that perfect balance of quality, affordability and discovery.

It made me wonder (not for the first time) what percent of Canadian’s literary journal subscribers are writers looking to be published.  Is this our economic model: 100 aspirant writers buy the magazine and 1 is published?  Struggling wordsmiths pick them up as research or business expenses (bonus: also fun to read) only because they hope some day to appear within the pages?  I’ve always wondered if the hurdle over which to leap for literary journals is simply how to reach the Common Reader.   Duh, says you.  But honestly, I’ve never seen any advertising directed at Just Plain Readers.

Not long ago a poll in the UK claimed that “writer” was the top dream-job amongst those polled.  Is that the mentality that fuels the small presses and literary journals?  Now I find myself wondering.  If we were all happily employed as carpenters and legal clerks and rights managers, would we still have our subscriptions to Canadian literary journals?  Hum!

June 4, 2010

This Just In!

I didn’t get enough warning to make a proper listing of it on the Events page, but The Bloor Street United Church’s annual Book Sale is today and tomorrow:

“Giant Book Sale”
Bloor Street United Church, 300 Bloor W.
Friday, June 4th, 3pm – 5:30pm & Saturday June 5th 10am – 3pm

I’ll be schlepping over there in about 45 minutes. Cheers!

May 19, 2010

BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities”

BookCamp T.O. seemed to me to be peopled by three types of people: 1) representatives from publishing houses (often, publicists) 2) technology/new media geeks and 3) commenters and critics – i.e. bloggers.  I certainly felt I was there in my capacity as the latter, and so the sessions I chose were those I thought would speak to me and my vocation best.

So I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final session of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online”.  Far from being concerned with community-building or readership, this session wound up being about leveraging existing community in order to generate sales.  Tan Light of Random House pointed out to us that social media, while “free”, is extremely time consuming and thus requires a lot of man hours.  So, by building (or finding) self-sustaining communities, you basically have an engine that will generate that labour for you.

Needless to say, from this “community as marketing tool” standpoint, most of the discussion focused around what to do when the community is saying bad things about your company or product; how to manage or minimize the things you don’t want the “community” to be saying.  Customer service!  Transparency!  Smiley emoticons!  Okay, that last bit is mine.

I’m sure the publicists in the room were thrilled.

But for my part, the session left a bad taste in my mouth.  Is that what I am?  An unpaid publicist?  Is that what we’re building all these “communities” for?  To sell books?

This has been an issue with “free knowledge” rhetoric all along.  The “knowledge economy” is supposed to save us from economic collapse, but who along the knowledge production chain gets paid?  If I am participating in a critical community which is hashing out important issues in, say, bookselling and then a media giant comes along, scoops up the buzz and the discourse and the leads we’ve worked up and prints it in their for-profit newspaper, we (the critical community) have produced the bulk of the knowledge to be sold by a third party.  This is part of the problem with copyright in general: What right has anyone other than the content producer have to make money off of an intellectual property?

But someone should make money – I don’t advocate reducing people whose talent is for knowledge production to slaves or hobbyists.  If what you do is write or make music or draw or think, you should have the right to make your living off of it.  You don’t owe it to “society” to give away your product for free.  And you certainly should be annoyed if you do give something away for free and someone else capitalizes off of it.

So I wonder how the blogger model fits into the new economy.  Blogging is almost always done for free. The Quill & Quire profiles a number of “big” book bloggers in their latest issue and we learn that among them are only two who actually make money from it – BookNinja and GalleyCat.  So what’s in it for the rest them?  I hate to be so crass, but let’s be honest: sure, there’s an element of fun and community to it, but most bloggers have some back-of-the-brain idea that blogging will net them something in the long run.  Money?  Legitimacy?  Popularity?  A job?

“Hits” are a big deal.  We let our stuff be quoted, linked and promoted elsewhere, often by companies who use our influence to promote a product of theirs that we’re lauding, because there’s an expectation we’ll get traffic in return.  The Quill’s article suggests the legitimacy of blogs like BookNinja and Maud Newton comes from being cited by “real” news sources like the Washington Post or the New York Times.  Great publicity for the bloggers, right?  But Maud Newton isn’t underwritten by a media conglomerate and she doesn’t run ads.  Major media sources use her work, and in return she gets…

On the one hand, it’s nice to imagine that most of us are blogging for the altruistic purpose of “contributing to public dialogue” or “making a difference”.  Maybe we really love Canadian Literature and want to see it succeed, or we feel strongly that new transmedia projects will make the world a more equitable place.  But fact is, this is a time-consuming practice.  Blogging as a form of philanthropy is, like all philanthropy, the privilege of the already-underwritten-by-someone-else.  As we move into a future where blogging is an increasingly legitimized form on journalism, and “real” newspapers are dropping like flies, there’s really nothing just about a blogging model that expects the new journalism to come from generously employed hobbyists with a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak.  If we as a society value the knowledge production they’re engaged in, we’ll find a way to make this their full-time job.

I sort of wish I’d gone to mesh  ’10 because I think there might have been more opportunity for me to learn about these issues.  But then, I have a job I had to attend, and a toddler to take care of.  My exploration of media issues isn’t being underwritten by anyone, so I’m left musing to myself in my “spare” time.  Hopefully I haven’t fired way off the mark this time – what do y’all think?  How do you reconcile your status as unpaid publicist; dharma bum?

May 17, 2010

Book Camp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. I: Book as Object

Two of the six sessions I attended at BookCamp T.O. this weekend have given me real meat for thought – a pretty good ratio, I think.  The other four, to give you a quick summary, went down like this:

The EBook in Academia was somewhat hijacked by someone who seemed to have no idea why we were there; meanwhile the “good” discussion mostly concerned open-source movements which, while academically exciting, wasn’t very useful to the thirty publishers in the room.

The Literary Grassroots session was alright, but the absence of Taddle Creek’s representative left a big gap in the discussion.  Lots of handwringing, no real information on how a literary publication might stay viable in this environment.

CBC’s Canada Reads panel featuring JK, Kerry Clare and Steven Beattie was excellent, but there’s not much more to say about it.  Good format, lots of community involvement, we look forward to continuing that involvement!

I also sat in on a discussion on bibliographical metadata, a subject about which I knew nothing.  Well, now I know something!  Not very useful to me as I am not in publishing, but nevertheless gave me something to think about about the costs/challenges small publishers face if they want to be part of this big globalized industry.

The 11:30 talk on “Book as Object”, on the other hand, was fascinating.  What was fascinating was that the room was packed with people. They lined the walls and sat on the floor.  Maybe word got around really quickly that Anstey president Neil Stewart had brought along a free handout, a beautifully bound blank notebook that reads “NICE BOOK CAMP BOOK” on the front cover (this may or may not beat the wine Michael Tamblyn fed his Kobo session).   But more likely I think we were experiencing a bout of nostalgia.  Few of us went into English Lit or Publishing or whatever with the intention of bringing about the obsolescence of the codex, but years of reality checks later that’s what we’re doing for a living.  I think people wanted to hear there’s a future for the object, even if most of us won’t really be working with them.

Certainly, the book-objects Neil Stewart and his partner Aurélie Collings were not the sorts of things most of us could ever create.  Stewart works on commission, producing limited edition fine letterpressed editions which are absolutely works of art.  His bindery employs 18 people, among them printers, sewers, binders and designers.  This is high-end craftwork in addition to publishing.  Stewart told us of a limited run he did of Margaret Atwood’s The Door featuring a relief print “keepsake” done by Atwood “in her kitchen with a spoon”.  Two were auctioned off for charity and fetched, according to Stewart, $1600 (Abebooks.com reports they went for $2000 and $1800).

Aliquando Press's The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy - $65 CDN.

But buying private press books needn’t be that expensive.  Compared to buying art, Collings rightly points out, these books are downright cheap.  Actually, they’re affordable even when compared to frontlist trade books.  Many private presses have books in the $65-$90 range, including Barbarian Press’s Rumour of a Shark by John Carroll ($75), Aliquando Press’s The Quest for the Golden Ingots by Maureen Steuart ($65), or Frog Hollow Press’s The Book of Widows – Contemporary Canadian Poets: Volume 6. New poems by M.Travis Lane (Deluxe Edition) ($60).  This is not appreciably higher than frontlist hardcovers have come to cost – consider that John English’s Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is $39.95, while I bought the Modern Library’s Adventures of Amir Hamza for $57.00, or the new Library of America Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor at $50.

In fact, the print runs of both a private press book and a non-blockbuster trade book might not be that different.  These days a new Canadian author can consider themselves lucky if they sell as many as 1000 or 1500 copies of their book.  In reality, most Canadian fiction trade books sell 200-500 copies – well within the range of a limited edition run.  This isn’t to say there’s no difference between publishing with a private or craft press and a commercial one – the differences between publishing with a small or large press were discussed at length at That Shakespearean Rag a couple months ago – but buyers who love the book and authors who love to be published in book form need not necessarily panic.  The private press model is almost as accessible, available and affordable as the conventional one.

Of course this doesn’t mean all publishing can be replaced by small or private press work, but it does seem to support Stewart & Collings’ thesis that there is potential for a healthy fine publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  We all still love books.  There are people out there who publish beautiful books (often 100% Canadian content I might add, right down to the paper and cloth).  We don’t necessarily have to pay much more for these books, nor are they any more scarce than most new literature.  All we need is to discover some of the book availability that exists out there beyond Amazon.

Most private presses are just that – private – and you need to make a little effort to seek out their work, but it’s not rocket science.  Most have webpages, however basic.  Trade organizations like the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) keep lists of membership.  And best of all, they go out to trade shows like next month’s Toronto Small Press Book Fair (June 19th 2010) where you can gawk and browse and even (*gasp*) buy to your heart’s content.

Neil Stewart repeated his assertion  that he didn’t want to be “all things to all people”, and I think that’s fantastic.  One of the best things about new reading technology is the diversification of work available: nowadays, there’s something out there for everyone, no matter what your taste.  Private presses fit very well into this new personalized world.  Next time you need to buy a gift, consider a book object that really is irreplaceable.  Your gift-ee will probably just download the latest Ian McEwan or Peter Carey onto their iPhone anyway.  Try something different.

May 14, 2010

The Other Thing I’ll Be Doing This Weekend

(Because, you know, BookCamp T.O. isn’t enough to keep me busy. I need another major book event the next day!)

The twice-yearly Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show will be this Sunday, May 16th and me, I have a mission: to find and acquire any of the works of George Taylor Denison III. Why him? Who’s he? He’s my great-great-great uncle (fun fact: he is also the great-grandfather of Oberon Press founder Michael Macklem, making Macklem my 3rd cousin, once removed – did you know they have calculators for this kind of thing?)

Uncle George (George Taylor Denison III)

The politics of George Taylor Denison stand in stark contrast to my own, but nevertheless he was in his time a fairly influential politician, military officer and writer. His works ranged from the polemical (Canada, is she prepared for war? or, a few remarks on the state of her defences, pamphlet, 1861) to the historical (Reminiscences of the Red River rebellion of 1869, Toronto, 1873) and contain a good amount of local Toronto flavour (Recollections of a police magistrate, Toronto, 1920).  It’s this latter title that set me on my search.

The Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show can be, in a lot of ways, a sad little show, but there’s no question it’s a brilliant place to find works of local history.  I have always known I had “writers in the family”, so to speak – family legend has it that the library of Rusholme (the old “family estate” which would have been bounded by what is today Dovercourt Road, St. Anne’s Road, Rusholme Street, and College Street) contained not just George Taylor’s works but those of my great-great grandfather, Frederick Charles Denison (Historical record of the GovernorGenerals Body Guardand its standing orders, Toronto, 1876).  But by the time Rusholme was sold and bulldozed in 1953 the library had vaporized.  Certainly my family retains some books as well as other keepsakes – I’m sure the same can be said of other descendants – but as for a comprehensive collection there is none.

At last year’s book fair I happened to stumble across a copy of Recollections of a police magistrate. It was inscribed by George to some unknown, and priced at $60.  I was sure someone in the family had a copy so I let it pass, thinking I’d just track down whoever it was that inherited Uncle George’s books and take responsibility for them.  Silly me.  The family seems largely agreed that if any books had remained at Rusholme by the time Uncle Harold (Harold Edmund Denison, son of Frederick Charles) sold it, they were either sold or absconded with by some distant and unscrupulous relation.  Nobody has any copies of anything.  Suddenly that $60 Magistrate looks like one that got away.

But if collecting were easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.  After a year’s reflection I’ve decided to get snapping and track the family books down in some shape or form.  Any copies would be nice, but wouldn’t it be fine to find the family copies from Rusholme?  I’m seized with the thrill of the hunt.  In any case, I feel after my unfriendly review of the Book Fair last year I owe it a second go.  It’s worth mentioning that Heritage Antique Shows has lowered the entrance price from $7 to $5 – maybe they read my post?  Perhaps this indicates some thoughtful planning on the part of the show organizers.  So off I go, in search of my bookish heritage.

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