A Letter from America XXI: ABR Becomes Rare Book Review (February)

From the Rare Book Review

Well, we are no longer antiquarian around here. For some reason the word makes a lot of people nervous, suggesting pointless accumulation for the sake of making a pile, old men going on endlessly about their ancestors, ladies garden club lectures, and other forms of enforced boredom. It used to be an honorable and reasonable word that described a certain form of historical and archeological endeavor, but these are modern times and we cannot be sentimental. Now we’re just "rare." Since many books being sold in the modern literature world – an important component of the book trade formerly known as antiquarian – are by no measure "rare" in the "highly scarce" sense of the word, I take it that what we really mean by "rare" is "expensive." But I am sure all will agree that Expensive Book Review would not have been a felicitous title. Rare will have to do.

The book trade formerly known as antiquarian is highly sensitive to its stereotype, a horrid mix of 84 Charing Cross Road and the dusty, musty, fusty, qualifier so often applied to bookshops by otherwise respectable journalists. I have been in a lot of dusty bookshops, but I stay well away from mildew when I can help it. What is it about us that makes the world in general want to imagine a bunch of kindly old folks, stinking of knowledge and tobacco (I guess the pipe-smoking has to go, too) sitting in our dirty stores waiting to correspond? Was it the word antiquarian? Will they now see that we are well-groomed, computer-savvy folks with well-vacuumed premises full of expensive books? That we are up-to-date in every way? That any profession which has Mr. Simon Finch among its members could not be anything but cutting edge?

Unfortunately for those of us who try to run modern businesses, some customers like the stereotype more than the books. A colleague of mine had a conversation with a very wealthy couple that came by his store but bought nothing. They revealed that they did most of their business with another, particularly hirsute, member of the trade because, as the wife put it, "he looks like a rare book dealer ought to look." I have no personal desire to grow a beard, but I have been standing in front of a mirror trying desperately to develop a kindly twinkle.

To be serious (for a moment) the name change of this magazine really does suggest to me the concerns of the future the book world faces. Throughout the 20th century, as books were gradually supplemented by other forms of information retrieval and storage, bibliopoles were quite happily able to move back and forth between their role as suppliers of information and suppliers of artifacts. We can all see that, more and more, raw information will be available in electronic formats, and that the fascination with and desire for books will revolve increasingly around their status as artifacts. This is nothing new, but the changes of the last five years or so have brought it very much to the fore. The anti-….I mean rare book business has always been part of the antiques trade, and some genres have long been collected as objects, not as text. But, increasingly, many are uncomfortable with a word that suggests to some that we are lacking relevance just when we need it the most.

The American Antiquarian Society, one of the most up-to-date research institutions in the United States, has from time to time wrung its hands over the implications of its name. There is no question that it has added to the difficulty of selling the use of its stellar library to scholars who only know its name, and fear they will find themselves in a nest of genealogists. But everyone who does get themselves to AAS quickly realizes that the institution is at the forefront, not in the wake, of modern scholarship. It was named almost two hundred years ago, and the thought of altering its name has seemed like a betrayal of its founders. So far, AAS has resisted changing its initials just to seem hip.

I don’t suggest this magazine has the same concerns, nor do rare book dealers. We are merchants, and if part of our vocabulary is offensive to the market, then we should learn a new language, within limits. As long as we don’t start calling ourselves "luxury goods purveyors," I guess I can go along with the Newspeak.

– William S. Reese