Monday, July 25, 2011

Another Fine Mess (Considering Its Age): Wacky Rare Book Condition Reports

by Stephen J. Gertz

In the world of rare bookselling, nothing says amateur like a condition report that leaves your head spinning as Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.

Horror stories are routinely spinned into prospective date reports from high school: "doesn't look like much but, wow, what a personality!" Or, as a status update from Kabul or Karachi: "going to hell,  and with warm breezes, tropical temperatures, and sultry nights, the perfect winter vacation spot."

Somehow, the age of a book has become, to many, alas, a mitigating factor in its condition. People new to the passion and naive must be careful. Caveat Neonate Collector: if you read a condition report that contains the phrase, "fine for its age," or "fine, considering its age," run. A rare  book is in either fine condition or not; age has nothing to do with it, though other factors may.

Actual condition reports harvested from the Net:

"All I can say is WOW! This book is in awesome condition. I was half tempted to rate it Very Fine considering its age [1954]. This is the only copy I ever saw of this. When I had a chance to make it part of my collection I jumped on it. [Note to collectors: don't jump on your books]. The book is completely flat [from jumping on it] and has good vertical alignment. It has minimal tangential stress lines near the spine. There are no tears or missing pieces. The only notable flaws on the cover is a bearly noticeable-diagonal pressure line across the "o" and through the "y", and a similar vertical through the "c".  The book looks close to newstand [sic], considering newstand at the time. It looks awesome on the display shelf. It does not appear to be a crease line and it is more like a hairline fissure. T is a minor pressure artifice near the upper right corner which does not break the color. The colors inside are spectacular and the pages are white! The inside of the front cover has some oil transfer from the ink on the adjacent page, which is generally unavoidable over time. The rear cover is white and in substantially the same condition as the front. Don't miss out on this."

Now, once you wade through all the gobbledygook the copy actually sounds like it is, indeed, in fine condition, but the report written by a building-code inspector - "tangential stress lines," "minor pressure artifice," "good vertical alignment," "diagonal pressure line" - and part-time paperboy: "The book looks close to newstand [sic], considering newstand at the time". After considering newsstand at the time I still have no idea what this person means. The book looks like a newsstand? What is meant, I presume, is that the book, a paperback, looks as fresh as when originally displayed at a newsstand in the 1950s. But you'd never know it from this condition report.

Excuses, Excuses:

"It has some very rough edges and the cover has come away from the book, but this is a very vintage childrens book and looks fine considering its age." [Father Tuck's Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, c. 1900].

Good Job Thought:

"New and used Antique Book The History Of Canada - W.h.p.clement 1897 up for sale. Although listing them seems like there are many [issues], it looks fine, considering its age and use over the past 114 years. The top and bottom edges of the spine are worn and there are 2 small holes in the cover on the spine. The corners of the cover are turned down and worn and there are marks on the cover. A previous owner's name (actually mine) has been written on the inside of the cover and blacked out with ink. The fly leaf is missing. On page 184 someone (probably me as a child) colored the beaver with pencils. Did a good job thought!" [sic].

Bound to Displease:

"This is a vintage hard cover book. Book has some wear to it. Pages are starting to come away from cover but are still bound. some dirt on inner cover pages. Book looks fine for its age." [Poems of Wordsworth, 1888].

Minutely Separated From Reality:

"I would consider it near fine for its age but it looks as if someone tried to remove a name written in red ink and left a stain on the upper part of the inside facing page and the inside cover has minutely separated from the next page." [Untold History Stories, 1927].

Finally, two apocryphal examples from the early nineteenth century, rare book catalog descriptions  written, apparently, under the influence of a certain British poet.

That though its radiance which was once
so bright be now forever taken from your sight;
though nothing can bring back its hour
of splendor on the shelf, glory in its flower;

we will grieve not, rather gain strength in what remains behind:
a woe, but wow, what a copy, what a find.

This Copy, while I was yet a Bookseller Careless
of books with one foot in the grave,
thus living on through such a length of years
...distressful tidings...
A sole resource to sell at once portion of  patrimonial fields:
these are things of which I need not speak but must
before this volume crumbles into dust.
And so, a book, once strong and hale,
appears now moldered, as buried in a morbid dale.
Yet death cannot despoil its enchanting charm,
a glorious mess that bought the farm,
another victim of cruel book attrition,
on its tombstone gamely states this first edition:
I'm fine, considering my rotten condition.

That final sentiment, while completely inappropriate as a report on a rare book's fitness, is, however, an entirely appropriate epitaph for a rare book dealer or collector.

If you would like to know more about how to write effective catalog descriptions that sell books please read Always Lead With Bestiality.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! I'm reminded of a recent post at Bookride, which contains this this bookseller's description of James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars: "a clean, solid, unmarked and virginal spine and pages untouched by a reader’s hands".

    Must say, it's tempting to request a scan of that beaver. A good job? I'll be the judge of that.


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