Category Archives: Books
I used to work for a company, Eagle Star Insurance, which claimed to have been founded in 1807. It was useful for an insurance company to have been around for a long time. It gave you more confidence that it might still be around when you came to make a claim, or when your 30 year pension policy finally matured.
The claim was nonsense, really. Eagle Star had actually been founded by Edward Mountain as the British Dominions Marine Insurance Company in 1904. It later bought up older companies, including the Eagle Insurance Company (founded in 1807) and the Star, before renaming itself as the Eagle, Star and British Dominions in 1917. Twenty years later it dropped the British Dominions bit to become just Eagle Star, and adopted the history of the Eagle company, as well as its name. In my time there, Eagle Star employed an archivist and had a small museum with such treasures as an insurance policy issued to Charles Dickens.
But when Eagle Star in turn was bought up by Zurich Insurance Company, that history was no longer wanted. Zurich had a little earlier celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in Zurich in 1872 and had its own museum. It had no interest in tracing new roots back to London 65 years earlier. The Eagle Star museum was closed and a new home was sought for the archive. It ended up in the City of London’s Guildhall Library, where it still is, including that Dickens policy.
Publishing is another industry, like insurance, where large numbers of companies have been amalgamated into a small number of modern conglomerates. So when HarperCollins, a business that has been around for less than 30 years, announces that it is celebrating its 200th anniversary, it’s a reasonable question to ask exactly what it is that goes back 200 years. For example, Thomas Nelson, one of the many publishing companies belonging to HarperCollins, was founded in Edinburgh in 1798. It could have celebrated its 200th anniversary almost 20 years ago. ‘William Collins, Sons’ was founded in Glasgow in 1819, so still has two years to wait.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the company that dates back 200 years is the American firm of J & J Harper. I suppose they’re regarded as the company that came out on top in the various mergers, and it’s the winners who get to write the history. So the history of HarperCollins starts in 1817. And it has to be said that it’s an impressive history, showcased in their wonderful anniversary website at http://200.hc.com/
The business has combined so many publishing companies over the years that the list of books first published by its various subsidiaries is long and includes many titles that have become part of the culture. William Collins was Agatha Christie‘s publisher for most of her books, J. B. Lippincott was the publisher of ‘To kill a mockingbird’ and Lippincott’s Magazine saw the first publication of the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The sign of (the) four’. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was first published by George Allen and Unwin, C.S. Lewis’s early Narnia books were published by Geoffrey Bles, and Harper Brothers published American classics such as ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and later ‘The Exorcist’. All of these are now part of HarperCollins. It has collected history as if it were collecting stamps.
So Happy Birthday, HarperCollins, and congratulations on your first 200 years … or so.
If you spend some time looking for, or looking at, Tauchnitz Editions, it won’t be long before you come across one or two that are bound in vellum, with old albumen tourist photos of Italy bound in at various places throughout the text. They’re often attractively decorated on the front cover, sometimes very elaborately, and often still in relatively good condition for books that are well over 100 years old. Booksellers seem to have very little idea of how to value them, and I’ve seen them for sale at prices varying from two or three pounds to many hundreds of pounds.
From a book collector’s point of view they’re a nuisance. The same titles are found over and over again, almost all Italian-themed novels or travel books, almost always reprints and usually with the half-title page missing. Or anyway from my point of view, as someone who collects Tauchnitz first printings, they’re a nuisance. I guess there may be some book collectors who find them more interesting than the standard unadorned Tauchnitz editions. I assume most of the copies priced in the hundreds of pounds go unsold, but there may be some buyers out there to justify the high prices.
The most famous Tauchnitz collectors of all, William Todd and Ann Bowden, who compiled the Tauchnitz bibliography, did have some time for them, if only as a curiosity. Alongside their main Tauchnitz collection, which ended up at the British Museum, they put together a separate collection of the extra-illustrated editions, which is now at the Princeton University Library.
The books seem to have been produced and sold as travel souvenirs, to some extent almost as guide books, with tourists visiting the sites mentioned in the stories. Although produced in huge numbers, each book seems to be almost a one-off, with no two copies identical. The cover designs all seem to be slightly different, and the choice of photographs is always different too, as is the number of photographs, which can range up to almost 100. Did customers design their own book in some way, making their own choice of photographs and of design, possibly pasting photographs onto blank leaves inserted into the binding?
The choice of books though seems to be much more limited than the choice of designs. The most common title by far is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Transformation’, which has an alternative title of ‘The romance of Monte Beni’ on the title page but is often referred to as ‘The marble faun’ on the covers, the title by which the book is known in America. This book alone accounts for 37 of the 53 books in the Todd collection at Princeton, and there are around another 30 copies of it currently offered for sale on ABE, at prices ranging from £10 to £450.
The story of ‘The Marble Faun’ is set in Rome and it’s usually found illustrated with postcards of Rome. The next most common title, ‘Romola’ by George Eliot, is set in Florence and usually found illustrated by postcards of Florence. Other titles include ‘Pictures of old Rome’ by Frances Elliot, ‘The last days of Pompeii’ and ‘Rienzi’ both by Edward Bulwer Lytton, and ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ by Macaulay.
For Tauchnitz, the trade must have been a blessing, massively increasing sales of titles that might otherwise have sold relatively few copies. ‘Romola’ had been one of George Eliot’s least successful novels, when first issued in 1863, but probably ended up as one of Tauchnitz’s best selling titles after being taken up by the Italian tourist trade some 20 years later.
Not all of the Italian vellum bindings have postcards bound in. Some like the copy of ‘The divine comedy’ illustrated above, look similar externally, but have no photos. There is also another range of elaborate custom bindings, almost all on Italian themed books, that I’ll come back to another time.
One of the most intriguing titles to have been given the Italian travel souvenir treatment is ‘Childe Harold’s pilgrimage’ by Byron, which was issued in 1862 as the first book in the short series of Tauchnitz ‘Cabinet Editions’. These were, for Tauchnitz, ‘de-luxe’ editions in a smaller format than usual, nicely bound with gilt edges, and selling at a premium price. They were not a success. The series ran to only four titles, and most are now very difficult to find. Like ‘Romola’ and ‘Transformation’ though, ‘Childe Harold’ seems to have enjoyed a second opportunity when it was discovered by the Italian binders. Too small to have postcards inserted, it was nevertheless given a wide variety of vellum bindings and is now signficantly easier to find than the other volumes in the series.
Books have a history that can sometimes be very strange. It’s bound up with the history of their owners, their authors and their publishers and of course with the history of their times. But they don’t always give it up easily. This is part of the story of one book that lived through some of the most turbulent times of recent history – a time when books were banned and burned, but also a time when books were part of a great war of ideas.
At first sight the book is rather drab and uninspiring – a two volume edition of ‘Dreamers of the ghetto’ by Israel Zangwill, bound in a dark cloth binding with plain boards and just the title in gilt on the spine. It’s an edition from 1898 published by Bernhard Tauchnitz in Leipzig, over 100 years old but showing little sign of its age. The volumes would originally have been sold as paperbacks and then privately bound. Tauchnitz editions, in both paperback and bound copies were a common sight in continental Europe over a period of 100 years, roughly from 1840 to 1940.
Israel Zangwill, a British Jew, had made his name as an author a few years earlier with the publication of ‘Children of the ghetto’ in 1892. That had been an instant success in Britain and in the US, although unusually it didn’t appear in a Tauchnitz Edition. So ‘Dreamers of the ghetto’ was the first of Zangwill’s works to be published by Tauchnitz, followed later by ‘Ghetto comedies’ in 1907 and ‘Ghetto tragedies’ in 1908.
Zangwill was a political activist and initially an advocate of Zionism, although he later became one of the main supporters of territorialism, the movement that called for a Jewish territory that was not necessarily in Palestine. He was also a supporter of cultural integration and popularised, if not invented, the phrase ‘The melting pot’, when he wrote a play with that name about the absorption of immigrants into American culture. According to his entry on the Jewish Virtual Library, he was ‘probably the best known Jew in the English-speaking world at the start of the twentieth century’.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the Tauchnitz Edition of ‘Dreamers of the ghetto’ should have been bought by Dr. Georg Landauer (1863 – 1943), who came from a wealthy Jewish banking family in Vienna. It has his bookplate on the front pastedown, with a rather cute picture of a cat and the motto ‘Ganz oder gar nicht’, which roughly translates as ‘All, or nothing at all’.
Vienna at this time was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, under the Emperor Franz Josef. Dr. Landauer appears in a list of the 929 richest people in Vienna in 1910, published in a recent book, ‘Traumzeit für Millionäre’. But the good times were not to last. The first world war led to the break-up of the empire and there were other clouds on the horizon for Jewish families. Dr. Landauer converted to Catholicism in 1920, but it was not enough to save him. After the Anschluss in 1938 he was arrested and his property confiscated under the Aryanisation programme. He was held for two days before being allowed to emigrate to Britain, but he had to leave his books and other property behind.
The next evidence of ownership is a stamp on the reverse of the title page in each volume for the Studienbibliothek Linz, showing the eagle emblem used by the Nazi party. After the Anschluss, the National Socialist Walter Luegmayer was appointed as Director of the Linz Library and it’s known that many collections of books were forcibly acquired.
Perhaps more puzzling is why a book like this, essentially celebrating Jewish culture, should have been preserved in a library under Nazi control. This was the era of banned lists, banned authors and book burnings. Did it survive simply because the library didn’t realise what it was about, perhaps because they couldn’t read English and had never heard of Israel Zangwill (‘probably the best known Jew in the English-speaking world at the start of the twentieth century’ – see above!). Or was it perhaps saved by a subversive librarian, whose respect for books was greater than for his or her political masters?
After the war the Annual Report of the library refers to the gradual return of many foreign book collections that had been acquired by confiscation. Was this book returned, and if so to whom? Landuaer had died in 1943 in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Was it returned to someone else in the family or did it remain in the library? There is no cancellation stamp to show it was sold from the library’s collection, so it may well have been returned.
One way or another it eventually ended up in the care of a British bookdealer, from whom I bought it a few years ago. What happened to it in the meantime we can probably never know, although if any member of the Landauer family feels they may still have a claim to it, I’d be happy to hear from them.
The heading for this post is the sub-title of ‘Do no Harm’ by Henry Marsh, which I chose as the first of my holiday books this year. It’s a fair description for the book – a memoir from a senior neurosurgeon, now close to retirement, but coincidentally it just about sums up all my summer reading. I hadn’t appreciated when I was packing, that one of my other choices – ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan, was also about a brain surgeon, although this time of course a fictional one. And the other books certainly covered plenty of life and death, if no more brain surgery.
I’d heard Henry Marsh talking on the radio before reading his book, and heard the book described more than once as remarkably honest. It is, in the sense that he talks openly about his failures as well as his successes. That means not only the occasional death on the operating table, but coming across others, years later, who had been left in a permanent vegetative state as a result of his failures. And he’s open, although perhaps not to his patients, that mistakes, even with terrible consequences, are almost a necessary part of the learning process, if we’re to end up with experienced consultants.
He’s also candid about the arrogance and feelings of being a Master of the Universe, that the job can tend to cultivate. That may apply, with less cause, even beyond brain surgery, to other surgeons who can hold our lives in their hands. At least in his case though, the arrogance doesn’t entirely prevent the feelings of self-doubt or the necessary humanity and understanding of what patients must be feeling. He recognises that he’d much prefer to be carrying out a difficult operation than having a difficult conversation with patients – a failing he suggests is common amongst surgeons, to the extent that many unnecessary or even damaging operations are performed. Consultants prefer to offer patients the hope that an operation may succeed, rather than be honest with them that at best the result is likely to be a painfully extended death rather than a swifter less painful one.
The book’s a great read, although quite an emotional one and a fascinating insight into a little known world, at least to me, as someone who’s spent little time in hospital and even less watching medical dramas. I always imagined that brain surgeons were cutting into the brain and attempting to influence in some way the way it worked. It seems instead that their bread and butter is the more humdrum business of cutting out tumours, while trying to avoid as much as possible of the brain itself.
Fortunately there are few glaring inconsistencies between the fictional neurosurgeon in ‘Saturday’ and the real one in ‘Do no harm’. Ian McEwan has done his background research well (I went straight to the acknowledgements to check whether Henry Marsh had been consulted, but it’s another of his colleagues who provided the advice). The arrogance and self-satisfaction is still there, and although it starts to unravel in a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ style moment, McEwan spares us the full descent into Hell and is satisfied with a brief look over the edge into the abyss. It builds up to an action-packed and gripping finale, but the real strength of the book is in its slower, more descriptive sections, with extended riffs on a game of squash or the preparation of a fish stew. I’ve enjoyed all of the McEwan books I’ve read and will be searching out more.
I also enjoyed ‘Elizabeth is missing’, a first novel by Emma Healey, an unusual combination of murder mystery and literary exploration of dementia, another theme that I’ve seen tackled elsewhere recently. The action shifts constantly between past and present, as our heroine Maud, who can hardly remember what happened a minute ago, solves a 70 year-old mystery. It’s in some ways a similar structure to the one that A.S. Byatt used so well in ‘Possession’ and then Tom Stoppard in ‘Arcadia’, and it’s well suited to the subject of dementia. On the whole, the episodes of flashback to her youth work better than the passages in the present, which are a bit predictable and repetitive, but it’s a great read.
As of course is Agatha Christie. I’ve worked my way through quite a few of her classic mysteries in recent years, several of them from the Albatross Crime Club editions. ‘The ABC mysteries’ definitely feels rather dated now, but so carefully plotted that it still keeps you on the edge of your seat, pitting your wits against the great Hercule Poirot.