Winner Samuel Jang
Photo credit: Peter Mitham
AbeBooks was a proud sponsor of the National Book Collecting Contest for Young Canadians Under 30. The contest allows young Canadian book collectors to showcase their books. Any type of collection is welcome, provided it belongs to the entrant in its entirety.
Entrants were asked to submit a 1,500 to 2,000-word essay about their collection, describing important features such as binding, decoration, illustrations and key bibliographical aspects. The size or financial value of the collection was not a determining factor. Instead, the judging panel examined the focus of the collection, how it was put together and the manner in which the books were described.
There were three winners, to whom a first place, second and third place was awarded, who took home $1,000, $500, and $250 respectively. Our friends at the CBC and National Post also threw their weight behind the contest, which was administered by the W.A. Deacon Literary Foundation (DLF), the Bibliographical Society of Canada (BSC) and the Alcuin Society. The 2011-2012 winner was Samuel Jang, from Victoria, BC, who submitted his impressive collection of Aesop's Fables. His essay is reproduced below for our readers. The second place prize went to David Fernandez from Scarborough, and Saskatoon's Gideon Foley landed third prize.
The goal of my essay is to give the reader a sense of the fun I have had collecting Aesop’s Fables for 18 years, and how the discovery process – snooping around used bookstores and garage sales – has been the lifeblood that has sustained my passion and grown my collection. I was a book person from childhood. I memorized a children’s Mother Goose book before I learned to read. My passion as a collector, however, ignited at the age of eight. The catalyst was a magnificent Christmas present from my parents: Russell Ash and Bernard Higton’s Aesop’s Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition. The book’s physical aspects enamoured me: The profuse illustration of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse outlined in a blue border on the bright dust jacket, the smoothness of the thick pages as my tiny fingers opened the book and the spine made a cracking sound for the first time, and the irresistible “new book smell” of paper, ink and glue. The book featured black-and-white and colour illustrations by 29 artists spanning from 1857 to 1944 with the exception of a set of unpublished lithographs from 1970. The contributions were from English language editions and one German calendar. The frontispiece featured a colour plate from Walter Crane’s Baby’s own Aesop, the introduction was a five-page history of Aesopic art, and the front flap spoke of “the finest illustrations of the last 100 years” all in one place. I thought, “What a wonderful gift! This book is a library in itself!”
In Aesop’s kingdom, animals enact people. The fox plays a cunning courtier; the lion is the ruler; the monkey calls upon reason or science; the donkey is the fool. I was captivated by how the animals would assume human characteristics and inaugurate a role, making each fable seem like an elegant stage production. The fables are playful, but sincere, usually conveying a valuable truth about philosophy, politics, ethics or human nature. In one of my favourite fables, The Dog and his Shadow, a dog bearing a piece of meat mistakes his own reflection in the pond for that of another dog. As he attempts to lunge at the dog in the water to snatch a second morsel, he loses his own piece in the reflection in the water. The moral is that we give up what we have when we lunge for what we want, but the fable’s lightness of touch rendered Aesop beautiful in my eyes. Fables are not abstract. They are simple, can be read for pleasure, yet make hidden truths seem as if they have always been known. No two editions of Aesop are alike. Some authors aim to teach a moral; others seek to entertain. The fables are written for children, and also for business people; scholarly versions inviting deep reflection exist, while others take on the rhythm of a thought-provoking joke. I wanted to build a collection that would reflect the evolution and diversity of Aesop’s tales, from Renaissance editions with moralistic medieval roots, to books with beautiful illustrations wherein readers would hardly know they were learning something useful. My goal was to build a distinctive, lasting, and substantial collection that I could eventually designate to a museum. Images of calf-bound books, gilt-decorated spines, marbled endpapers and signed illustrations left my imagination running wild. I wanted every one of the 29 books referenced in Ash and Higton!
Today, my collection contains a total of over 200 Aesop’s books and is vast and eclectic with great breadth, ranging from a handful of Renaissance reproductions to 18th and 19th century illustrated children’s editions; text-only versions without pictures; influential early editions by prolific authors La Fontaine, Avianus and John Gay who each rendered Aesop into verse; big books with a wide selection of fables containing witty line drawings and silhouettes, as well as books such as Tom Paxton’s Androcles and the Lion featuring ten delightful stories; amusing “tongue-in-cheek” books such as Robert Kraus’s Fables Aesop Never Wrote; books written in English, Latin, Chinese, French and Japanese.
My collecting philosophy evolved as I matured, as did my collection. First, I focused on illustrated children’s editions published in the 20th century, with a bias for books that contained colour plates or wood cut drawings. I was highly undiscriminating. My initial selection criterion was simple: Any English language book containing the word Aesop in its title would get me excited. For five years, my main hunting grounds were used and new bookstores in Vancouver, garage sales, Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and a handful of rare book dealers in Seattle. Condition was unimportant. Book dealers soon knew me as the “young Aesop’s Fables collector” but rarely remembered my first name. One of the first books I received was a 1991 copy of Aesop’s Fables written by Graeme Kent and illustrated by Tessa Hamilton. The visual approach of this hardcover children’s book is unique. The backgrounds are varied and the morals are captioned within borders beneath the lively illustrations. In some instances, illustrations echo each other, with a repetition of a detail from a larger picture on the very next page. Illustrations include Zeus unwittingly smashing the eagle’s eggs as he attempts to brush off the beetle’s dirt on his lap in The Eagle and the Beetle (92-93), an exhausted town mouse slumbering back home in The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (37), a grungy crow trying to transform into a swan in The Swan and the Crow (121), and a mouse thumbing his nose at a bull in The Mouse and the Bull (10-11). A second book I wish to highlight is Arnrid Johnston’s Fables from Aesop. A beautiful book I had read about in the Ash and Higton edition, I was ecstatic to find this book. The publication date is not stated, though the 1940’s is a reasonable estimate. The edges are worn, the blue cloth binding is fragile, the pages exhibit light foxing, yet the book retains the wonderful smell of musty ink and worn pages reminiscent of old bookstores. The intense black-and-white title page is a court scene illustrating a monkey as judge presiding over the division of cheese between two foxes. Twenty three fables then follow with vivid illustrations. Used in Ash and Higton’s work, the two best illustrations are the Leopard and the Fox (28) and the Monkey and Dolphin (36). Johnston dresses his animals with flair. The vain leopardess is seen wearing a pearl necklace as she gazes into a mirror upheld by a monkey adorned in a turban; the fox, in a wig and suit, gazes mockingly at the leopardess as he reprimands her for vanity. Beneath each fable, there are many small black-and-white designs; that of the Monkey and Dolphin is particularly well integrated with the colour illustration.
As I became a more mature collector, I gravitated toward older, collectible editions of Aesop’s books from historical time periods. Text-only versions found a welcome home in my collection. I also wanted to expand my reach into fable books by La Fontaine, Avianus and John Gay who popularized Aesop in their own distinct ways. Unique editions written in other languages – Latin, French or Japanese for instance – sparked my curiosity and were refreshing additions. The earliest book I have is a 1784 leatherbound edition entitled Aesopi Phrygis Fabulae published by H.S Woodfall in London. It is a smallish 192- page text-only pocketbook measuring 4 by 6½ inches, written in Latin starting with 18 pages of Aesop’s Fables, approximately three per page. We then find other fables written by 14 “interpreters” including two prominent 15th century Italian fabulists: Laurentius Abstemius and Rimicius. The book is muchused, exhibits plenty of foxing, and requires a gentle hand: The spine cracks as I open it and the small print is deteriorating. It also has a lengthy title: “Nunc demum ex Collatioe Optimorum Exemplarium ab infinitis pene Mendis repurgatae, una cum nonnullis Variorum Auctorum Fabulis adjectis. Et Indice Correctiori praefixo.” In translation, the book is declared error-free, includes bonus fables from various authors, and has an exact index.
As I became aware of prominent authors, illustrators, and interpreters who heavily influenced the way we read Aesop today, I made a concerted effort to seek original editions, or at the very least, facsimile reproductions. For example, I discovered that prior to the 18th century, Aesop was not written for children. Sir Roger L’Estrange’s 1692 Fables of Aesop and other Eminent Mythologists was the first edition written expressly for children. My mid-18th century facsimile, a third edition, is far from perfect. Water damage is perceptible on many pages, especially early in the book. Pages are missing, internally the book has childlike pencil markings, and the bottom of the outer spine is worn. Yet, it has character. Until the day I am lucky enough to be holding in my hands L’Estrange’s first edition and marvel at the original copper plated frontispiece, this version will suffice.
Another reproduction that adorns my bookshelf is a 1976 facsimile of William Caxton’s The History and Fables of Aesop, reproduced from the 1484 original in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. I acquired the publisher’s copy of the book, which had no case and was initially just a bind-up of sheets. Limited to only 500 copies, the book contains 186 woodcuts, many which use traditional motifs to capture key situations, beginning with a full page frontispiece of Aesop surrounded by symbols from his fables. His right index finger presses against the ball of his left thumb, indicating a man of scholarly wisdom making a point. There is also the device of showing two different moments in one scene. For example in The Frogs Who Asked for a King, Jupiter gives the frogs a block of wood, and right next to that we see the stork devouring the frogs (Book 2, page 2). In addition, Caxton praises the fox in The Fox and the Grapes as being “wise” to “not desire the things which he may not have” (Book 4, page 3) compared to the modern moral “sour grapes” implying disdain. Though the cuts are unsophisticated, they preserve the primitive simplicity of the fable and have been the chief source of inspiration for centuries. The cuts are even replicated in a 1976 Dover Publications colouring book for children entitled Aesop’s Fables Coloring Book and a 1984 children’s edition entitled Aesop’s Fables by Bamber and Christina Gascoigne.It was not until I started my first full-time job that I started adding illustrated and signed first editions of Aesop, books that I never thought I would have in my collection for I feared they would always be beyond my means. A distinct example is this: A first edition of Edward Detmold’s 1909 Fables of Aesop, number 229 of 750 copies signed by the artist himself. The book is in nearly perfect condition. The original white buckram cloth with gilted lettering and illustration is intact, the top and bottom edges are gilted, and 25 tipped-in colour plates, one for each fable, are protected by slip sheets. At times, animals of the illustrations are too big for the plates and thus the plates even expand to allow them to stretch their wings! The book is protected in a 12-inch tall ivory slipcase, which is worn but sturdy. Not only was Edward Detmold one of the 29 artists featured in Ash and Higton’s edition, but now, I had become the proud owner of a first edition, signed by Detmold himself!
As I conclude this essay, I would like to discuss my passion for book collecting. Although I am a more knowledgeable collector today than I was at the age of eight, I still retain many of the same characteristics. I love Aesop’s Fables just as much, if not more, because they are great stories that continue to stimulate my imagination and make me more aware of myself. I still ask book dealers the question, “Do you have any Aesop’s Fables books?” and upon getting the answer “No,” will still rummage through the shelves in case the dealer “missed anything.”
As for my motivation to carry on collecting, I see my role as that of a preservationist. I refuse to collect e-books and none of my books are ever for sale. In an age wherein digital technology is transforming our lives through social media, the internet and e-readers, the digitization of the book world has rendered books an evanescence of electron flows, limitless and searchable in seconds. Yet, an e-book can never capture the physical embodiment of a book, its smell, look, feel, and flaws - its beauty. As discussed in my introduction, the beauty of one book alone sparked my inner drive to become a book collector for life; an e-book, on the other hand, would simply be a compilation of two-dimensional pixelated data. Finally, my collection has value beyond its monetary worth; to me, it represents 18 years of personal growth as a collector, and the evolution of my long-held assumptions about what makes a “good book.” I do not fear having to memorize my books anytime soon and join the underground movement in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. On the contrary, I am hopeful that when e-books display in holographic 3D, my collection will serve as a reminder of the physical remnants of literary history; and that others, like me, will want to cherish those relics, hold them in their hands, as much as I wanted to hold my very first Aesop’s Fables book by Ash and Higton.