My Favorite Flaws

by Tom Congalton

Thursday, Dec 07, 2006

"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things"

And so begins the well-beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein song "My Favorite Things" from the musical The Sound of Music. The rest of the song continues a-pace, essentially a laundry list of objects that if come upon individually, might be considered mildly pleasant, but which if encountered en masse would be likely to cause one to become quickly and violently reacquainted with one's most recent meal.

I had a similar reaction when I received by post a certain bookseller's catalogue at the height of the hyper-modern first edition boom, that is, in the mid 1990s, before the vast preponderance of books listed on the Internet scraped away the last illusion that the first editions of certain newly published novels were rare and were not soon to be re-encountered. Here I hasten to add that I am not gloating about the demise of that era, as I rather enjoyed the benefits of that illusion, gleefully watching the weekly increase in the value of my newer inventory.

This particular catalogue was from a dealer whom I had first become aware of only a month or two previously when we were both exhibiting at a California book fair, and where he had on display, in a setting more appropriate to the exhibition of the Hope Diamond, and with a large handwritten admonishment not to touch, linger near, or gaze too longingly upon, a copy of John Grisham's first book, the hyper-modern high spot A Time to Kill, published in 1989, then, and still, to a lesser degree, a much sought after volume.

I'm sure that I still have that catalogue nestled amongst the mountain of catalogues that clogs the catacombs underneath Between the Covers, but cannot now, or at least will not, make the effort to unearth it. Though I can no longer quote it verbatim, I can give a reasonable recitation of this pronouncement from its introduction: "We handle only superior copies of books in very fine condition. None of our books have owner's names, bookplates, or remainder marks; none of the dust jackets have chips, tears, or price-clipping."

Very high standards indeed!

But I have to admit that I was a little taken aback by this declaration of superiority, as I am by all such declarations of superiority, unless they are made by me. I even took the unusual step of analyzing the catalogue and found that of the more than 600 items listed only a few more than a dozen of the books on offer had been published before 1980. In effect, if his books had been children, only a few of them would have been old enough to attend secondary school. This alone made the declaration of superiority ring a little hollow. I am a first edition dealer, and obviously, because of the relative youth of the product that I both buy and sell, the search for perfection is part and parcel of my DNA. However something else about this declaration was bothering me.

It took me a while before I could verbalize what it was that so disturbed me about this declaration. The list of flaws that had been declared prohibited from this dealer's offerings was, for the most part (I don't much like remainder marks), a list of my favorite flaws! Just like the "favorite things" of the song, if they were found altogether in a single copy they might be intolerable, but found individually, most of these things could be coped with.

I guess that I originally subscribed to the theory that each of these things was a grievous flaw, but I have come around to realizing that one drastically and perhaps illogically eliminates many wonderful books from consideration for one's inventory or collection if one adheres too closely to this sort of orthodoxy.

Having scouted books for so many years in the wild - in used bookstores, junk shops, flea markets, library sales, and on house calls, usually long before the books had settled into their final captivity, and before their jackets have been carefully confined in their prophylactic Mylar housings, one became a little inured to the occasional small flaw.

It always seemed to me that a scouting trip wasn't complete until I had returned home and discovered the mistakes that I had made, and the flaws that I had overlooked - a book club edition here, a price-clipped jacket there. One book leaps to mind in which I had neglected to note the long and flowery 1950s vintage inscription from a doting Grandma to her beloved grandson "Space Buck."

I did know a husband and wife dealer team that had systematically insulated themselves against such mistakes. I came upon them at a book sale one time, the husband carefully scrutinizing a book in rhythm to his wife's questions, read from a prepared list: "Front board? Rear board? Spine? Bottom edge? Remainder mark? Top edge? Remainder mark? Foredge? Front endpaper? Name? Rear endpaper? Front flap? Price? Rear flap? Spine? Chips? Tears?" And so forth. I'm pretty sure that they didn't often make the kinds of mistakes that I made. I'm also pretty sure that they didn't actually own any books.

I have gradually found that I am not particularly bothered by bookplates, or owner names in modern books, assuming that they are tasteful in the first case, or neat and of modest size in the second. I recognize that many collectors do object to them, and always note their presence in my book descriptions, but frankly, I find it pretty hard to get exercised about them.

And now, with the full breadth of the Internet available to us, these things can even be a boon to one's efforts to sell one's copy of a book. I admit that I seldom miss the opportunity to utilize the Internet search Google to see if anything can be found out about a book's previous owner.

I think in the book trade (and probably elsewhere) this has turned the activity of "Googling" into a vaguely disreputable verb - rather like a leisurely diversion that might be engaged in by a dissolute and jaded roué: "I spent a satisfying hour Googling Miss Smedley, the pleasure no less diminished by the discovery that she was heiress to the Smedley Pig's Foot fortune!" or perhaps like the pastimes of a randy or abusive schoolboy, "While Googling Beecher within an inch of his young life, my efforts revealed his unfortunate involvement in the notorious Oxford finger knitting Affair!"

When one reads a description of a book that makes tenuous attributions to the previous owner being the third cousin of a famous person, it's a pretty sure sign that the dealer in question should have his laptop confiscated.

I also have a hard time working myself into a satisfying lather over price-clipped dustjackets, except in those few instances when the presence or amount of the price on the jacket is the sole means of identifying the edition or state of the jacket. Dr. Seuss books, or copies of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling or Sojourner, and a few others better have prices on the jackets. Otherwise I don't see too much reason to get excited.

Many booksellers, as well as the gift-giving public, used to make a practice of clipping prices. Some publishers, ever helpful, even provided a printed dotted-line near the price to facilitate just such an exercise. The American branch of one publisher, Macmillan and Company, for many years made a practice of printing four different prices on the corners of the front flap of the jacket, in order to give them the option of determining the appropriate price for the book right up to the moment of publication, machine-clipping away the three rejected prices. That is why so many books published by Macmillan in the 1940s and 1950s often have a price, but still seem like they have been price-clipped - they have been.

Early in my career, after having sold a large batch of middling first editions to a well-known first edition dealer who operated an open shop, I blanched as I watched him happily snipping the prices off of the jackets. When questioned he said:

"I'd never clip the jacket of a valuable first edition, but for lesser books, it only confuses my customers who are just looking to read the book to see that my price is higher than the price was when the book was published."

Needless to say, some of these books are now valuable first editions. Still, perhaps a third of the books that I encounter in the wild have clipped jackets. Again, I always mention when jackets are clipped, but I wouldn't reject most rare books out of hand because of it.

Now it is my sad duty to reveal a hard truth that many dealers and collectors will find difficult to accept - older dust jackets often have chips and tears. But here is the really shocking part - THEY DON'T NECCESARILY HAVE TO BE REPAIRED OR RESTORED! I know. It is difficult to resist. But except in the most extreme cases, you shouldn't do it. To quote the sage advice of Nancy Reagan in her anti-drug campaign, "Just say No."

At the ABAA's San Francisco Book Fair a number of years ago, I was out-scouted by one of my colleagues who nipped into a booth just before me in order to secure a pretty nearly perfect copy of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He grudgingly let me examine it. It was completely, gloriously unfaded, the single defect was a tiny, nearly invisible tear on the front panel of the dustjacket, probably a bit shorter than a centimeter. I asked for first refusal on the book, suggesting that in exchange for this privilege, I would not expect my usual dealer discount. After much cajoling, he agreed, but asked that he have the night to think about it. He would offer me the book the next morning before the show opened. Oh yes, it would be mine!

The next morning I was duly shown the book, and what did I discover? The aforementioned tiny tear had been backed with rice paper, and the razor thin white line resulting from the tear had been carefully colored to match the green of the jacket! I was quoted a price, which I would have happily paid, but for this new repair. I passed.

Perhaps the song should be altered:

"Owner's inscriptions and flaps that are price-clipped
Armorial bookplates and dustjackets spine-chipped
Jagged dust jacket tears mended with gauze
These are a few on my favorite flaws"

Okay, so I'm not Rodgers and Hammerstein. As hard as it is to believe, I have more than a few small flaws.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2006 issue of Rare Book Review.