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Fast Forward 50 Years

by The bookworm on December 31, 2018

Philip Dock's UbikAnother year is upon us with the usual hoopla about the abnormalities of current times. As 2019 makes its debut, many of the values and beliefs we hold dear are being questioned throughout the world. Truthful facts, science, humanity, diversity and equality are a few on the top of the list. In the US, denying climate science or hating on immigrants, threaten to change what was once viewed as the land of opportunity to people from all corners of the globe.

A mere 50 years, ago American Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon, the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France, and  the American Boeing 747 jumbo jet was introduced. The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, the epitome of the American muscle car, reigned the freeways, while Woodstock attracted more than 350,000 rock-n-roll fans for what became the most important concert in the history of music. It was during that same “Summer of Love’, 1969, that members of a cult led by Charles Manson murdered five people at the Benedict Canyon Estate of Roman Polanski.

The year 1969, is also the year that science fiction fans first immersed themselves into the mesmerizing, unexplainable, drugged-up delusion, that Philip K. Dick titled “Ubik”. The author’s description of the book’s theme is as enigmatic and broad as the untamed limits of the human imagination:

“Salvific information penetrating through the ‘walls’ of our world by an entity with personality representing a life – and reality supporting quasi-living force.”

Ubik, juggles notions of reality and expands the limits of imagination, morality and immortality, divine intervention and structural integrity, with consummate skill. It is all about the realization that things are not as they seem – that everything you thought you knew, is wrong. In Ubik, there is not really a wrong that can be counterbalanced by an equal and opposite right: the author substitutes the duality between right and wrong altogether with a single structure that is, for lack of a better word, fuzzy.

While the novel blends a vast spectrum of science fiction concepts, an assessment of the futurological accuracy against present-day reality, is interesting to contemplate. Some of the details in the novel, such as protagonist, Joe Chip, using a machine with which he can “set the dial for low gossip,” resembles our present Social Media concerns and Facebook’s troubles with privacy. Who wouldn’t also think of the internet when reading how easily  technology can track Joe Chip and how much it knows about his personal habits? And how weird is the tenant in the apartment who is forced into an argument with the refrigerator doors?  Alexa, close the refrigerator door and keep temperature at 10ºF. Hmmm.

Apparently, however, the pharmaceutical industry has some catching up to do. Ubik, the substance that, true to its derivation from the Latin “ubique”, is found everywhere in the book, is yet to be produced in our day, in a biotech lab. Ubik appears most often in the form of an aerosol spray; it seems to counter time-regression and save the lives of those to whom it is applied. It could be taken as a divine symbol. It could be more straightforward, since the spray can is after all a phallic symbol, or, some kind of anti-psychedelic: just the thing that will bring Joe back to sobriety and reality. At least the “thing”, that will bring partiers back to sobriety and provide hangover relief this January 1st, 2019, is available at the local drugstore, in liquid or solid form, and may even be delivered through a high pressure propellant as a spray. Philip K. Dick’s use of aerosol spray prophetically disqualified the misconception that aerosol cans damage the Earth’s ozone layer long before the use of chlorofluorocarbons was banned as an ozone damaging substance. Happy New Year, sci-fi buffs.



Rossum's Universal RobotsHow fortunate native English-speaking booksellers are to have English as their mother tongue! English is the lingua franca of global business. Not surprisingly, the official language of ILAB, (The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), is English. However, the organization maintains that this stature is shared equally with French; hence the old ILAB motto “Amor librorum nos unit,” translated “The love of books unites us.” British members volunteered a one letter adjustment to the term: “Amor librarum nos unit,” translated “The love of sterling pounds unites us!” A rather comical adjustment, since the European Monetary Union, and the Euro, or even the US dollar, are more appropriate currencies to unify ILAB.

Modern first editions in modern foreign languages are not in as high demand as some of their corresponding English text translations. Abebooks, the premier on-line marketplace for rare books with operations around the world and six international websites, in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, occasionally scores 20th century, foreign-language editions in its top sellers. In fact, a number of foreign language written novels, become more appealing to collectors once translated into English. Why is that? The world has a well-balanced distribution of important authors and volumes across boundaries and nationalities, of course!

It is more difficult to comprehend ideas and concepts if there are no words for them in one’s language. English, unlike Arabic or French, has no official language police to monitor the development of newly invented words added in the vocabulary. The problem is that the actions of the official language bodies tend to lag, as new scientific discoveries are made and new technologies and concepts developed, so that writers in these languages are seemingly put into linguistic straitjackets and time warps. A language that originally disallowed use of words not found in the Koran, does not offer the vernacular vocabulary or the repulsive language to express the “blast-furnace” images that made a novel such as Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, a masterpiece in modern literature.

A rare book is worth what a buyer is willing to pay to own it. Naturally, what a buyer is willing to spend on the first edition of a book depends on her wealth. Even though English is only the primary language for about 5 percent (approximately 350 million of the world’s people),  the top 20 wealthiest countries on a per capita income basis are almost all English-speaking or use some other Germanic language, with the exception of France, Japan, and Finland. Franz Kafka, a nonperson in Czechoslovakia during much of the Communist period, wrote in German (considered a ”world” language), and so his work was spared the fate of his Czech-speaking countrymen. Karel Capek, who wrote in Czech, had his work effectively banned during four decades of Communist rule. He received fame when his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which coined the word “Robot” (deriving it from the Czech “robota”, forced labor), was translated into English in 1923.

Another argument is that collectors of fine and rare books consider dust-jackets an indispensable part of the book. More specifically, collectors of first editions would scarcely consider purchasing a volume that had lost its dust-jacket as issued. In Europe during the last century, book covers were published with simple images and plain type, often jacketless, because literary fiction is an easier sell in mainland Europe than in the UK or the US. Publishers there can be less overt in their attempts to grab the attention of customers, while cutting costs at the same time.  Black-and-white German editions or plain wraps in French editions were very common, while the UK and US publishers employed designers to create striking dust covers. The UK book market is more competitive; all the covers in shops have to shout: ‘Buy me!’ In the US, meanwhile, publishers tend to signpost literary fiction more than the UK, because of even stiffer competition.

Still, texts in ancient foreign languages remain in demand. Classics, which are often studied in the original Latin and Greek, with horrific complexities of grammar such as gender, verb-endings, adjectival agreement, subjectives, and so forth, are very scarce in original editions. After all, the most expensive book ever traded is a 72 page journal, The Codex Leicester, with the scientific writings of Leonardo Da Vinci, in Italian.



Rare Book Sale Monitor update – Auctions

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When an auction generates astonishing excitement in view of both the quality and quantity of books being offered, the excitement is also reflected in the prices realized. Even if the prices are often unrealistic, for many buyers, the auction remains a remarkable event that is worth the extra expense. High emotions are exactly the ingredients […]

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Factor #1: Scarcity in supply. The year was 1965; the war in Vietnam was escalating, the space race was in full swing, and the Rolling Stones were on a world tour. America’s counter-culture movements were embracing drug use, liberal sexuality and obscenity in their writings and works. It was during this year that a novelist […]

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  In 1977-78 Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., held 3 auction events with the titles Important Modern First Editions and Fine Modern First Editions.  They included the rare book collection of Jonathan Goodwin, one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century. The 865 lot sale was broken in Part One Sale, (March 29, 1977), Part […]

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During the golden age of detective fiction, when classic murder mystery novels were at the peak of popularity, Sir Godfrey Collins, started the Collins Crime Club (1930–94), as an imprint of British book publishers William Collins & Sons.  Until then, the Scottish printing and publishing company found success as a printer of Bibles and other […]

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Provenance through Bookplates or Book Labels

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Bookplates or Book Labels1 are nearly as old as printed books themselves. Going as far back as 500 years ago, bookplates, tell us interesting stories that provenance marks in historical books about books and their owners.  The earliest known examples of printed bookplates are German, and date from the 15th century.  Hand-colored woodcuts, pasted into […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2017

January 31, 2018
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Historically, the 4th quarter of the year is undoubtedly the strongest in sales of rare books. 2017 was no exception. We have come to realize through the years, that there are some aspects of the rare book trade that have been unlikely to drastically change. Thank human nature for that! On average, the October-December period has treated book […]

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Apollinaire’s Poetry is Art

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November 2018, will mark the Centennial Anniversary of the end of the Great War. In April, 1918, French poet, writer, critic and theoretician of art, Guillaume Apollinaire, published his work subtitled “Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916” under the title Calligrammes. This collection of poems is very special and unique for a number of reasons: […]

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Toys for the collector

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More than 100 years before the invention of educational gaming software, there were “novel and game,” educational board games which came complete with game pieces and instruction booklets, and were often accompanied by the novels which provided the basis of such creations.  Educational resources that combine gaming and education into one can be very effective […]

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