I must start this review by declaring an interest... I am a committed, enthusiastic book collector. At times it is a disease but books are like bread and butter in my life. A book is an essential possession. When it comes to books I am a maximalist not a minimalist. At times they take over and one has to introduce discipline and order.
The classic book on book collecting was John Carter’s The ABC of Book Collecting. Now in its eighth edition, it shows that there is a demand for a solid guide to book collecting. Thus a book on book collecting in South Africa filled a specific niche. This book published some 20 years ago has become a South African classic on book collecting and was a natural successor to Dennis Godfrey’s The Enchanted Door. It is a title I only recently acquired and I rather think it is a book that I should have bought years ago. It is one of those useful smallish handbooks that guides you through the subject and is where one should embark on a journey in book collecting. It was a guide written to share the pleasure of collecting and to sharpen local interest. Terms like “Africana” and “antiquarian books“ can terrify the novice but everyone has to start somewhere. This book is full of practical advice on how to begin a collection and to gather the expertise to be the instant expert.
The book was published before the internet took hold of the book trade, when almost overnight the industry was stood on its head. Today one’s first resource in collecting books is the internet - where would we be without Amazon, Abe, Bid or Buy or Loot? But even with the internet the old adage “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) still holds true.
The book demystifies and takes the potential collector beyond Africana. Christison has a readable style and reveals the basics as to why we collect books, how to start a collection, how to build a specialist collection, how to care for a collection, how to live with books, which are the great bibliographic references and all with a South African slant. Learn about the language of the book trade, and the anatomy of the book and the book trade, how to manage the book dealer and where to find books. It equips you with the skills to negotiate in a gentle general way, with short chapters on famous collectors (in particular Killie Campbell), the history of the book trade in South Africa, specialist collections in South Africa, and how to collect Africana. The advice is as valid today as it was two decades ago.
A corner of a private library in Johannesburg
There is a generous spread of illustrations and a section of coloured plates which suggests why certain illustrators might be collectable. In essence this book is a love affair with books and for this reason still appeals so many years after publication.
I think it is time for a second edition of this book and some reflections on what has changed in the last two decades in book collecting. There is certainly need for a new directory of who is who in the book trade; and surely some guidance on how to use the internet in searching for books. The internet has changed the auctioning of books as well as the classification of books – there are online cataloguing systems and communities of book people.
It is often said that the internet has destroyed the book trade; on the contrary the internet has simply widened the world of books, makes them so much more obtainable and at the same time brings a whole new approach to pricing. The one constant is that despite all the hype, “e” books have not replaced the book as a physical object.
A glass fronted bookcase fronting a Folio society book collection
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.