My fingers travel down the book’s spine and the smooth leather gives way to a slight indentation where the binder’s stamp applied gold. I briefly trace the gilt ornamentation in the first spine compartment, following an elaborate maze of flourish. My fingers continue to a raised band, which adds not only beauty to the spine but also conceals the binder’s chords that have helped hold the book together for 200 years.
I think of the bookbinder, the man who bound this book that I hold in my hands. He is long dead, likely forgotten, but I hold his work in my hands. My thoughts linger but my fingers move on to the next compartment containing the book’s title, Histoire des Poissons. Again, I imagine the bookbinder and this book, new and smelling of fresh leather, text block and binding united for the first time. The binder lays his tools on the spine. “Histoire des Poissons” appears new and sparking in gilt. Imagination yields to the present, and I see Histoire des Poissons as it is today, slightly chipped and dulled but still proud. I remove the book from between its shelf mates – two other books with their own histories – created decades and continents apart but now united, however briefly, in a collection. I place the book in my lap and smile. Its weight feels familiar. I open the book and the front hinge creaks. I read the title page and feel the bite of the type – Histoire des Poissons. A History of Fish.
I collect books on fish and have for nearly as long as I can remember. Specifically, I collect books on fish published before 1901. As a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology who studies fish, I know much of the information contained in my books is, well, antiquated, but that is precisely part of their appeal.
My collection satisfies for me three unifying purposes. First, and most generally, collecting satiates the impulse to acquire. For what collector does not enjoy the thrill of the hunt – discovering, obtaining, and integrating a “new” book into a collection? Second, and more specifically, my collection affords the opportunity to immerse myself into the history of my chosen field, to understand better the research and researchers who came before me. Third, and most personally, collecting pre-twentieth century books allows me to appreciate intimately the book as an object.
I love everything about a book – binding, paper, type, illustration, provenance – everything. These three unifying principles motivate and focus my collecting. I will explain, with a series of examples, how these principles manifest in specific books from my collection.
I will start with my oldest book, Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch (pictured at right), the second German edition printed by Christoffel Froschover in Zürich (1575). Fischbuch is bound in recent full vellum. Through the centuries it has lost its original binding, likely oak boards covered in blindstamped pigskin and held shut with metal clasps. The book also has other evidence of brushes with destruction. The margins of several folios contain old repairs to cuts and tears, damage that presumably accumulated as the original binding perished. But, even with repairs and a new binding, oh what a book it is!
Gessner’s effort on fish, part of a larger Historiae Animalium, is a compilation of all extant Western knowledge on “fish” at the date of publication. Many of the book’s 500 plus woodcuts are immediately recognizable to zoologist and layman alike. Northern pike, perch, and tuna are all rendered in life-like accuracy. However, fantastical sea monsters and other mythical creatures, such as the “mermonk,” are included. Gessner lived during a time of great scientific upheaval when new theories replaced old myths and superstitions. Gessner’s work is admirable for its relative degree of scientific rigor, including numerous citations. However, the persistence of ancient myth in the 16th century, as evidenced by the mermonk and numerous other sea monsters, is clearly evident in the book.
Fischbuch satisfies all three of my collecting principles. It remains the oldest (and most significant) book I’ve purchased, and researching editions, auction records, and collations of other copies to assure completeness was just plain fun. Additionally the book provides fascinating insight into the context of 16th century natural history, and without doubt, this book, as an object, is beautiful.
My copy of Gessner has numerous imperfections, as do some other books in my collection. Condition is of paramount importance in book collecting, and including damaged or repaired books in one’s collection is anathema to some collectors. I do not disagree with the importance assigned to condition. In fact, books in the finest condition will almost always be the rarest examples and hold their monetary value the best. However, there are other ways to ascribe value, and I believe that a book’s imperfections can provide valuable insights into an individual book’s history. For example, I value the repairs and imperfections in my Gessner, as they are tangible evidence of the book’s journey through centuries.
I include in my collection another set of books with “condition issues,” the first edition of all four volumes of Jonathan Couch’s A History of the Fishes of the British Islands (pictured, left). The books were published in 1862-1865 in London by Groombridge and Sons and contain 252 spectacular chromolithographed plates of both fresh and salt water fishes. Each fish also receives a detailed taxonomic and ecological description. These volumes are bound in contemporary marbled boards, but when I purchased them, the joints and spines of all four volumes were beset with red rot. Shortly after purchasing the books, I had them rebacked. While a “purist” may prefer a copy of Couch in publisher’s cloth, I delighted in purchasing this particular copy. Why? Inside each volume is a bookplate from the Norfolk & Norwich lending library commemorating the books’ rescue from a library fire in 1898. I derive a great deal of pleasure from repairing these books, which were snatched from destruction over 100 years ago, and I have hopefully equipped them to navigate successfully their next 100 years. My copy of A History of the Fishes of the British Islands, while not “as issued,” adds interest and character to my collection, character that would be absent in a pristine set.
While I enjoy purchasing and preserving “character copies” of fish books, not all my books fall into this category. As mentioned, understanding the history of ichthyology is one of my core collecting principles, and several of my books reveal significant historical aspects of fisheries. For example, I include in my collection a copy of William Harris’s The Angler’s Guide and Tourists’ Gazetteer of the Fishing Waters of the United States and Canada published in New York in 1884 by the press of the Armchair Angler. While I do not typically include books strictly on fishing in my collection, this book is valuable for its thousands of entries detailing fishing waters and their resident fishes in the latter portion of the 19th century.
In particular, one aspect of this book has special meaning to me. Although I now make Canada my home, I was born and raised in Michigan. The Angler’s Guide contains several entries on Michigan, including more than 15 cities with notable fishing for the Michigan grayling. Additionally, the book’s original publisher’s cloth binding features a gilt stamp of the Michigan grayling. The portrait and mentions of the grayling are poignant, however, as the Michigan grayling, once abundant in 1885, was extinct through anthropogenic actions by the 1930s. This book is a stark reminder of how nature’s resources, even those which seem inexhaustible, are still vulnerable. The loss of the Michigan grayling was a tragedy, but its memory is preserved in my collection.
Many other “fishing books” contain interesting natural history observations of fish, and I include some carefully chosen fishing books in my fish book collection. I include, for example, the first edition (1845) of John J. Brown’s The American Angler’s Guide in original gilt-stamped publisher’s cloth. This book is significant, as it is the first book composed and published in North America devoted solely to fishing. In addition to tips on fishing, however, the book contains over 150 pages of natural history observations of numerous fish species. Rigorous description of American fishes was in its infancy in this time period, so the observations contained in The American Angler’s Guide were important additions to the burgeoning knowledge of American fishes.
I also include books in my collection whose historical interest is derived from their provenance. Many scholarly books were inscribed by their authors to other academics, and I include such association copies in my collection. My copy of George Brown Goode’s American Fishes, published by The Standard Book Company in 1888, is inscribed to another famous author of fish books, Frederick Mather. As well, my copy of Edward Cope’s Synopsis of the Cyprinidae of Pennsylvania, published by the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1869, is inscribed to an influential scientist, Frederic Ward Putnam. These inscribed copies provide insight into the personal relationships that existed among scientists of the 19th century.
As I conclude this essay, I think of the numerous books in my collection that I did not treat to detailed descriptions above. My copy of a fragile, mid-19th century chapbook, The Little Fisherman, tells a cautionary tale of young boy who delights in hooking fish until he himself is impaled on a meat hook! What an interesting insight into how 19th century moralists viewed the ethics of catching fish, not to mention the nature of stories presented to children. I also think of Joseph Seabury’s An Ode to Lake Bass, self-published in 1890. This volume contains saccharine yet endearing verse immortalizing the author’s attempts to catch bass; one fish is caught and another eludes the angler’s net. I think of my copy of Sir Humphrey Davy’s Salmonia (pictured, right) - a later edition of a common book that happens to be a souvenir of a memorable family vacation to Winnipeg.
All my books have been individually chosen for my collection. I’ve purchased books from a diversity of sources, from eBay to British auction houses and from flea markets to books fairs. Each book was a pleasure to acquire, and collectively, I feel my books provide historical context to man’s relationship to fish. But moreover, each book also has an intangible, almost primal appeal. In the age of ebooks and ereaders – which do serve a very useful role – many cultural commentators mock the “fetishizing” of printed books. They mock those who love the “feel of the paper” or “the smell of old books.” However, the tactile experience of books is real, important, and moving. I would like to close with a quote from the great book collector, Robert Curzon. This quote summarizes, almost perfectly, the feelings I have upon adding a book to my collection.
“Why when I get a new book, (or rather an old one,) I never stop looking at it, inside & out, right side uppermost, & upside down and I torment all the other old volumes, by shoving the new one between them, on the shelf. Heavy broad-backed old MSS. are disturbed, routed out and pushed about, woke up from their slumbers, & poked in the ribs, by the new arrival, till I have found a snug place for him, between 2 other old fellows about his size more or less, & then I pat him on the back & let him alone for a while, but I could never let him remain in the box for ½ an hour after I get him, even under the most desperate circumstance.”
Curzon’s vivid description, penned in an 1861 letter to Sir Thomas Phillipps, is timeless. These sentiments, or something very close, have been felt by bibliophiles through the ages, and I look forward to experiencing that moment of bliss for many more years, and many more books, yet to come.