The first rare book I ever bought for myself was the Obelisk Press printing of Black Spring
by Henry Miller. It was a moment of madness; the money was probably needed for food or rent, but the printer's device and Miller's dedication, "To Anais," tugged at my heart and made me weak in the knees.
I knew almost nothing about rare books at the time and the neat square of paper that held the bibliographic description of my copy of Black Spring seemed to have been printed in a foreign language. "8vo."? "Ffep"?
Historically, rare book dealers used to rely almost exclusively on printed catalogues to sell books, giving rise to a specialized, and sometimes confusing, list of terms and abbreviations. Imagine a nineteenth-century dealer crouched over a damp set of printer's proofs, trying to fit in more information about his inventory without adding to the cost of his catalogue. That is the genesis of abbreviations such as T.e.g. and A.L.s. (Top edge gilt and Autograph Letter signed).
While the rare book trade is a bit more relaxed these days, a well-grounded vocabulary is an indispensable tool. Powell's own Book Terms Illustrated is a good place to pick up a bit of the lingo.
If you're interested in learning more, a copy of John Carter's classic ABC for Book Collectors will help you navigate the quirky language used to describe books. Sizes, shapes, types of materials for bindings, physical parts of the book ? all of these have their own words in the world of bibliographic description. (ABC is in the eighth edition, but check out our inventory for used and superseded editions.)
Bibliographic terms are often quite beautiful in themselves: Dentelle, which is French for lace, is used to describe delicate gilt work that frames many inner edges of leather bound books. Rubric is a chapter heading printed in red. Special leathers used in binding have their own terms: morocco, calf, vellum, diced Russia... it's easy to understand why the world of collectible and rare books can appear unapproachable at first.
A word of warning: if you love books you might succumb to the pleasure of reading a well-written bibliographic description. This could be one of the steps on the path to bibliomania, described in Carter's ABC as "Literally, a madness for books. A bibliomaniac is a book collector with a slightly wild look in his eye."
There is no doubt that book collecting is a meeting of mind and heart, with a language all its own.
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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than ten years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out of print and rare material the most. Her blog posts on the world of rare books will appear in bi-weekly rotation, every other Wednesday.