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Updated: October 1, 2011 16:54 IST

Endpaper: Expertly executed

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
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Photo: Courtesy Oak Knoll Press.
Photo: Courtesy Oak Knoll Press.

A story of the transactions between an impassioned collector and a renowned antiquarian dealer against the backdrop of modern book collecting.

Few accounts of antiquarian book selling and collecting are as absorbing as Joel Silver's Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly. Fewer are even as finely focused, narrating a story of the book transactions between one impassioned collector and one renowned antiquarian dealer set against the backdrop of modern book collecting in its golden age. In the 1920s, J.K. Lilly, a pharmaceutical industrialist with a passionate interest in rare books, began buying most of his books from A.S.W. Rosenbach, who had become America's most famous antiquarian book dealer. Both men “sought great examples of great books.”

Thrill and passion

It isn't an emotional or subjective account and yet you can feel, thrumming just underneath, the book collector's thrill and the passion of the bookseller. “Book collecting came naturally to Lilly,” writes Silver. “He possessed an eye for quality and detail, and a taste for the extensive minutiae that mark the highest levels of any collecting field”. He always bought cautiously, studying a dealer catalogue for a long time, comparing it with other copies when he could, and then taking the plunge.

But he was yet to deal with America's most famous antiquarian book dealer, the scholarly Dr. Rosenbach, who seemed always to be able to offer the best copies of the rarest books. Lilly had been reading Rosenbach's well written catalogues with great bibliophilic pleasure but as Silver notes, they couldn't take the place of actually meeting Rosenbach, which Lilly did in January 1929 because catalogues “couldn't carry the same combination of charm, knowledge, anecdote, and uniquely expressed confidence in the importance of the books as could Rosenbach's in-person performance.”

The young book collector couldn't help buying some nice editions before he left, so persuasive was the doctor. Later, Dr. R wrote him asking, “Have you a first Robinson Crusoe? We have just received a superb copy.” Lilly wrote to him asking for more details wanting assurance, and R cabled saying: “No copy like the above has been sold at auction in 75 years. It is the rarest of all the greatest books to find in perfect condition. This is probably the finest copy in existence …I am very glad to quote you the special price of $16,850. If we stocked this it would sell for 18,500, but I am giving you the first offer of it.”

Some of the other expensive and remarkable rarities he went on to purchase from Rosenbach was a Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton, Pride and Prejudice in original boards, a polychrome Grolier binding, Gower's Confessio Amantis and Francis Bacon's Essays from 1598. He turned down the 1611 quarto of Hamlet, and was never able to acquire (in his lifetime) two long desired items, The Bay Psalm Book and Pilgrim's Progress.

Published first in a bewitching looking limited edition of 140 copies by the Bird and Bull Press a year ago, Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly has just been released in a trade edition by Oak Knoll Press that keeps the original typographical design by Henry Morris, the woodcuts and the deluxe illustrations, adding a new preface. As a bibliophile steeped in rare books lore, re-reading the old classics set in the world of antiquarian bookselling (the Rosenbach biography by Wolf and Fleming, Dr. R's own Books and Bidders, David Randall's Dukedom Large Enough and Mondlin's Book Row to name a few) I am constantly surprised, even as I long for more, that there haven't been enough antiquarian book stories.

And so I'm grateful to Mr. Silver for not only thinking of such a lovely idea (others should look to Huntington and his bookseller George Smith, or J.P. Morgan and his book woman, Belle da Costa Greene) and pulling it off so beautifully, but for also surpassing the established classics in the genre. One reason why his book succeeds so brilliantly when most other antiquarian accounts have faltered is for how much the author trims out. Instead of another thickly detailed survey of book collecting practices, or one more definitive biography of either Lilly or Rosenbach, Silver turns in an elegant, precise, carefully detailed and expertly executed tale of antiquarian book collecting, buying and selling.

Why is this book so much fun for the bibliophile? Why does it excite and thrill so much? I think the enjoyment comes from the minutiae of book transactions that Silver knowledgably and engagingly describes in evocative prose: first reading about an individual copy in a catalogue or a bookseller's description, the suspended-waiting while you decide, and then the rush from deciding you definitely want it no matter the cost, making the purchase, and finally getting the book in the mail or having the book dealer hand it to you.

Repeated ritual

The ritual is repeated with each new buy and the bibliographical pleasure derived is not from just the buyer-collector's emotion but the emotion of the bookseller who acquires the hard-to-acquire copy, describes the book, prices it and then offers it to an individual collector who he knows might want it. Seldom have rare book transactions been written about with as much literary flair, controlled style, storyteller's skill and scholarly passion.

Not since 84 Charing Cross Road has there been such an enjoyable book about a bibliophile and a bookseller. While there's really no real comparison to Hanff's book (Britain's antiquarian book trade has long sneered at it), Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly will appeal to the literary reader even as it draws in the initiated bibliophile, just in the way Hanff's incandescent account did. Written from deep inside the world of antiquarian rare books, Dr. Rosenbach and Mr. Lilly is a scholarly, yet literary account of one memorable book collector and one unforgettable bookseller that is destined to become a modern classic in the literature of antiquarian book collecting and dealing.

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