The thrills of book hunting (1906)

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The thrills of book hunting

One unacquainted with the subject would hardly compare the sport of hunting in the fields with that of delving around musty shelves and storerooms in search of rare and valuable volumes, but one who has engaged in the pastime of book hunting says that it has all the thrills and excitement of tracking a wild animal to its lair in the jungle or chasing it to the death.

A world authority on the subjects of books and parchments is M. Voynich, who describes himself as a book-hunter rather than a book collector. Asked if his business was not rather prosy, and if any romance whatever was ever encountered in his labor of digging out volumes from musty corners and closets, he said with great emphasis and enthusiasm: “Romance! It is full of it, and excitement too, as much as the most ardent hunter can desire. Not a single expedition brings its surprises and unexpected results.

“But you must know I am not merely a book collector and seller in the ordinary way. I am a book-hunter. I scour all Europe, from Southern Spain and Italy to Norway and Sweden, for rare books, documents, missals and the like. In remote villages, in the heart of uncivilized countries, in monasteries never before visited by Englishmen, I search for bibliographical treasures, so that it will not astonish you to hear I have a catalogue containing the name of 170 books of which there are no other known copies in existence. They are all old books. I make a specialty of fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century books.

Buried in the binding of another

“One of the moat exciting things about an old book is that, you never know what you are going to find in it. Of course, I don’t mean in between the leaves, for that is ascertained quite easily. But in the binding of a book the most astonishing things have been concealed. In one instance, the pages of a complete book pasted to gether were used to form the covers of another book. The leaves, in a fine state of preservation, were separated, and where one book stood for merly there are now two.

“Possibly my greatest find was the fragment of a MS map of the world which was discovered in the original binding of a book printed in Italy in 136. It is the earliest known example of a map on what is known as Mercutor’s projection, and was no doubt drawn over forty years before the publication of Mercator’s famoui chart.

“Another unique find in a binding wai a placard issued by Pope Leo X in 1514, together with a large sheet containing the papal arms, hand-painted in black and red. When the proclamation was separated from the other wastepieces, the two holes were visible, showing how it had been nailed to the church door. It was quite an elaborate placard, asking the public for subscriptions towards the building of Michael Angelo’s Basilica of St Peter in Rome. ‘This, of course, is its rarity — it has no duplicate. It was found inside an Italian stamped binding of about 1515.

Continent for rare English books

“I have frequently found documents of great historical interest and value, accounts of plots, secret ciphers, and money. Even today it is not rare to find money secreted in the covers of Russian books. Often this is the only means relatives have of sending money to exiles.”In another book, I found a Hebrew ABC. A single sheet, containing the alphabet and simple prayers for various occasions. No other copy of such a broadside exists. But what will you say when I show you a number of Italian playing-cards, seventy-two, I which were taken from the binding of a book? The cards are extremely rare, containing the arms of the celebrated Medici family.

“I have here a specimen of seventeenth century Danish binding. Now, there is no other known specimen in this country, otherwise I might be tempted to explore it. For you will see by this one frayed corner of the book that the cover consists of Icelandic MSS lightly pasted together — probably a most interesting document.

“It may seem strange, that when I want rare old English books, I go abroad for them, for being in a language foreign to the land they are not read, and consequently more likely to be picked up in spotless condition. England and France are the richest hunting-grounds. The farther east you go, the worst state books are found in, if at all.

“Some time ago, a burgomaster in Corsica told me that a Napoleonic officer left a large collection of books to a town on condition that it be suitably formed into a public library, otherwise it was to go to a private individual. The offer was not accepted by the town, and the books were stowed away in the loft of the legatee, who gradually used up the smaller books as waste-paper. Mice devoured a goodly portion of the scorned bequest, which must have been worth thousands.

Say, Say, Oh Playmate: We traced the story of this old song and hand clapping game, and have the lyrics

“The few volumes that remained when I came across them were almost priceless. For example, one book was a beautiful Bible, now in the possession of the German Emperor. Another book was the first edition of Homer, printed in Greek. What had been destroyed one cannot bear to imagine.

Tracing a Chaucer

“Now I am sure there must be a great number of English books in Poland. During the religious persecutions of Queen Mary’s reign, thousands of English people fled to Poland and established colonies there, and, although numbers of books which the emigrants took with them were destroyed by Russians and Turks, there must be still many in existence.

A little while ago, a lady bought an old English book in Poland. She gave a few cents for it, but finding (as she explained to me) the lettering so black and difficult to read, she took it back to the shop and I asked the man to I exchange it for something ‘more interesting.’ The book was a copy of Caxton’s ‘Chaucer,’ valued at $10,000. I need hardly tell you I am hunting for it. Oh, yes, I have hopes of tracking it down and bringing it back to its native land.

“I think the greatest find I had in an auction-room was a little Wyelif Bible. It was buried in a packet of sermons, for which I gave a shilling. I sold the Bible for $400.

“Yes, there is no doubt thousands of rare books are leaving the country every year. America is the largest buyer, but Australia and Canada are drawing largely on this country’s supply of old books — The public libraries, institutions, universities and: technical colleges are the largest customers. Washington, for instance, has the richest medical library in the world.”


Top image: “A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible,” by Isaiah Thomas Worcester (1788), Courtesy Library of Congress; “A new systeme of the mathematicks,” by John Flamsteed (1681), Courtesy New York Public Library

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