Reproduced from the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association Newsletter issue 379, with the kind permission of the editors:
Taste and Technique in Book Collecting (the title and large parts of the substance taken from John Carter’s 1947 Sandars Lectures in Bibliography) updated for the digital age was the subject of Jim Hinck’s informative Tuesday night seminar, organised by the Institute of English Studies and the Rare Book Society. Its corollary, book selling in the digital age, is too often a fraught subject for the wrong reasons. With more dealers than collectors in the room, Hinck’s assertion that this is a golden age for collectors provoked more eye-rolling than excitement, and it’s not hard to guess why.
The state of debate within the trade, such as it is, is largely stuck on whether ‘the internet’ is a good thing or a bad thing. Dealers on either side of the great digital divide are apt to view their opponents as philistines, as if we have no common interests. Hinck’s seminar pointed up the absurdity of continuing to argue in such simplistic terms – while Carter was delivering his lecture in Cambridge, EDSAC, the world’s first practical stored-program electronic computer, was being built in a lab just down the road. While few could have then predicted the role computers would have in daily life nearly 70 years later, EDSAC was designed for accessible use by mathematicians, engineers and scientists – not tech wizards. It was a tool to help others pursue their interests, so in its most basic sense the digital age was already dawning.
Carter’s definition of the collector in his time centred round the idea of connoisseurship. It was hotly argued by audience members that Carter crystallised the definition of the serious mid-twentieth century collector without necessarily espousing it, particularly when Hinck noted Carter’s seeming dismissal of ‘modern’ and ‘fine’ books as snares for the unwary novice more caught up in shallow snobbery (or “the necessity for justification”) than serious bibliophily. The true collector possessed ” the ability to distinguish good from bad… with some concomitant satisfaction in the exercise of that ability.” Carter’s connoisseurs, so far from appreciating beautiful dust wrappers or examples of the binder’s art, ended with “eliminating physical considerations altogether.”
Hinck speculated that the sea change in more contemporary collectors’ tastes could be linked to the digital production of books, and the subsequent craving for beautiful, original and ‘real’ objects. This is perhaps too narrow a perspective – it doesn’t take into account the mass production of poor quality books which surely by the same token would prompt the craving for beauty, nor cultural movements towards authenticity in other areas of life like food and interior design. But he wasn’t there to explain the entire cultural landscape of early twenty-first century Britain, and it’s certainly true that when people young enough to be digital natives come into my shop they are often struck by the aesthetic qualities of the book as object. Another bookseller remarked that people finding his material online (googling away in general pursuit of their interests rather than with any intent to find books) were pleasantly surprised to find that they could even own such unique objects in exchange for money.
These new kinds of collector and buyer couldn’t really exist in any great number in the pre-digital age, not least because the world Carter describes seems to have been stiflingly proscriptive. The connoisseurs collected a) books of imagination and b) books of thought, with possession the only purpose of collection. They had also to possess a nose, if only so that the booksellers of the time could lead them around by it, along well-mapped terrain defined by absolute rarity (the number of copies of any given book) and practical rarity (a function of fluctuations in the marketplace). The tools for outlining and vetting any guides to rarity belonged firmly to the booksellers. In the digital age access to those tools is democratised, but as with any tool still best used with expert knowledge, as ably demonstrated by Hinck’s given example of Stuart Bennett‘s 2008 catalogue Unique?. Bennett’s criterion for inclusion in the catalogue was that every item should be unrecorded in OCLC and all the other principal databases of library holdings.
Carter, or rather the fraternity of collectors and dealers he describes, warns against originality in collecting. The collector striking out on his own is regarded as a dangerously unclubbable beast – “only an eccentric can exist comfortable in a private vacuum of his own creating.” The internet, of course, is a collection of millions of such private vacuums as well as vast meta-vacuums joining them together. The social aspects of the digital age are well-documented – Carter’s club isn’t exclusive any more but open to everyone. Where dealers might fall behind is in refusing to understand this or to acknowledge the way people live out their lives online. Simple analogies (the internet as newfangled communication device) or skeuomorphic ones (the internet as shop window or book fair) don’t help us to understand this new breed of customer.
A simple replication of the physical bookshop online might fail because it also fails to take into account (or make anew for the digital age) aspects of dealership beyond availability of stock and the ability to process transactions. To use the internet to our joint and several advantage we must understand it as a way of organising information, power and money. Nobody could deny that the trade has a lot of the first, and we can all agree that we’d like more of the others.
One wonders what our corner of an ideal digital world might look like. It could be a bookseller-owned and operated platform, or a properly branded and promoted part of something bigger. It could start by demonstrating a commitment to the much-vaunted specialist knowledge and integrity of ‘proper’ booksellers – mirror selling (a species of parasitic shenanigan whereby sellers list books they do not own, with images and descriptions lifted wholesale from other dealers) would be out; algorithmic pricing would be challenged; material misdescribed either wilfully or through ignorance (and the people doing the misdescribing, at least after serious or repeated infractions) would not be welcome. Lists of parked and speculatively priced books would not be allowed to clutter up and distort the market. A star rating system, based solely on order fulfilment but strongly implying quality, would not be needed at all in a mature community of dealers fostering an equally mature community of readers. The enormous wealth of cultural capital could be shared in any number of web-friendly ways.
An organisation like the ABA does not have to accept declining standards (or fortunes) as inevitable. It could see bookselling in the digital age as a unique opportunity to expand and enhance its influence, and send an appealing message to booksellers outside its traditional constituency. Shaping the advance of the digital trade to the advantage of dealers and collectors would not be cheap or easy. But it would be preferable to the kind of ceaseless, helpless adaptation to a digital free-for-all that places power and profit in the hands of people who neither know nor care about books. Insisting on responsibility and agency goes very much against the grain of automation and the refusal to ‘police’ content (the faux-cuddly caveat emptor of the digital age), but since when have booksellers ever behaved like other people? Perhaps the glorious spirit of pedantry and contrarianism that animates the trade could be put to good use.