ABC for Book Collectors

This post is part of a series about useful books and online resources for students of book history and material culture, written by current MSc students at the University of Edinburgh.

If asked, I would say that I am equal parts book history student and book collector; not only do these identifications intersect nicely, but I find it difficult to imagine any student escaping a book history degree without one or two volumes that in some way highlight their specific interests within the field. ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker is a delightful illustration of this intersection. It is both an amazing resource for understanding the sometimes nebulous terminology that sometimes seems rife within the field of bibliography as well as a genuinely interesting read.

I remember feeling like I was drowning in terms the first day of my first book history course — coming from an unrelated background, much of it sounded like a frighteningly complicated foreign language. However, I dutifully wrote any confusing terms in my notes, and cracked open my ABC for Book Collectors as soon as I got home. To my delight, looking up the terms in the book was much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle: finding the definitions helped fill in the “edge pieces” of knowledge laid out in my lectures.

The terms in the ABC are organized alphabetically, which makes it fairly straightforward to look up any given term. In addition, the authors have helpfully labeled the anatomy of the book itself, pointing out important structural elements such as the fore-edge, the hinge, and the free endpaper, among other things. The book opens with a list of useful abbreviations, not only because the word “abbreviation” is first in the alphabetical use of terms, but because the authors use them throughout the subsequent definitions. Said definitions are written in an academic tone, but with a bit of spice; reading through the book, one imagines a sort of long-suffering rare books dealer who has a few choice things to say about French-sewn bindings and wormholes.

The book’s organization is both a strength and a fault, depending on how a reader approaches it. If one comes at it, like I did, with a term in mind, it is as easy to use as a dictionary; if, however, you are looking for the word for the discolored, spotty condition of paper but are at a loss as to what letter the term even begins with, you might have a hard time finding the information you want. (The word is “foxing”, by the way). It would be helpful if the book were organized into headings like “binding terms” and “auction terms”, but then its title would no longer make sense.

I would advise a full read through of this book, if time permits. It does get slightly dry when reading it in long stretches, but with the sheer volume of technical material it contains it would be rather strange if it were a walk in the park. As previously mentioned, this book has been useful to my academic work, but the level of technicality within it has also been useful in talking to people about my own book collection. I have found that people take you more seriously if you know your rectos from your versos and your pastedowns from your free endpapers. So, while not a real page-turner, I hold this book as a sort of dictionary of the trade, and indeed a confidence builder for beginners in the field of bibliography. Although it is by no means a comprehensive overview of the history of the book, it is a crucial ingredient to becoming a well-rounded student of book history.

ABC for Book Collectors is by John Carter and Nicholas Barker. ISBN 9781584561125.

Report by Allie Newman, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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