Laurent Ferri, CornellWe recently had the opportunity to speak with Laurent Ferri, Curator of the pre-1800 Collections Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, at Cornell University.

RBD: Within the scope of your definition of a book [“a closed/bound container of ideas and symbols which reflects and supports the intentions and worldview of its “author(s)”], what are some of the “rarest” books that you had the opportunity to examine?

FERRI: The distinction that most of us are making between “rare books” and “ordinary books” did not make sense during centuries: all medieval books were “rare” and, to a certain extent, “unique”. I like to tell the (certainly apocryphal) story of Saint Francis of Assisi who found a discarded or lost piece of parchment detached from a volume of sermons, lying in the mud, near a scriptorium: the saint took the time to stop, pick it up, and clean it up slowly and lovingly; he then told his companions that every book containing the word of God (the only Author) should be respected and preserved. By contrast, because people have quick access to millions of printed books, images of books, and e-books today, they become snooty or blasé.

In addition to the market value (supply, demand, and mimetic desire), there is obviously the number of existing copies; the condition; the provenance (I am just coming back from our vault, where I saw the sublime “Piranesi albums” given to the brother of the King of England by Pope Clement XIV.: you cannot beat that!); there’s also the difficulty to access and/or read the book; finally, there is the sentimental and/or religious value of the item.

Ernst Gombrich wrote, in the introduction of his “History of Art”, that there is no “good” or “bad” reason to like or dislike a cultural artifact: in that sense, it is difficult to say what “the rarest book” is, using only objective or universal standards. A lovely book that was given to me when I was a child, Gédéon en Afrique, is arguably “the rarest thing for me” — but not for anyone else!

But seriously – I may soon have a chance to examine “Les Très-Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” and, as you can imagine, I am very excited: the most beautiful book of hours in the world is also notoriously inaccessible! Another rare book I would like very much to see in Chantilly is the copy of Caesar annotated by Montaigne, with the manuscript note indicating that he read it “from February 25 to July 21, 1578″.

I could also mention the magnificent Dutch atlases of the 16th and 17th centuries; Chinese “jade books”; or the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), which I saw at the Beinecke, which is like Ali Baba’s cave.

Let’s try and say something more original: at Cornell, we have this unique bound manuscript called the Paidikion, which is probably “the rarest book on a high-risk subject” I’ve ever seen. It is made up of homoerotic stories, and contains a detailed listing of all the sexual encounters of a famous English linguist (1883-1957) who had a secret, scandalous life: he was attracted by very young men, and did more than just collecting the conventional erotic photographs of Wilhelm von Gloeden (some of which are inserted in the volume). There is a disturbing and awkward sense of voyeurism when you examine this diary, long thought to be lost, and which achieved a “mythical status” in some circles. If my memory doesn’t betray me, Gide mentions it in his correspondence. Anyway, passages of the Paidikion were eventually published in The International Journal of Greek Love [sic] in 1966. Today, it is made available in an academic library, “by appointment only”.

RBD: Excluding Cornell, which other institution has made a huge advancement in rare book special collections in recent years?

FERRI: Generally speaking, there is increasing global competition for “the best (rarest) stuff”, because institutions need to differentiate themselves from other “brands”. National libraries like the BnF or the British Library have this advantage over private universities or collectors that they can use preemption policies to block the export of “national treasures” and expand their century-old collections.

Philanthropy in the US remains spectacular: in February 2015, Princeton received a $300 million (!) gift of rare books from William Scheide, including the first six printed editions of the Bible, the four folios of Shakespeare, etc. Also, it is impressive to see new institutions building world-class collections of rare books and manuscripts “from scratch”: for example, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, which opened in 2014, can already boast the earliest surviving manuscript copy of Avicenna’s medical Canon, as well as marvelous Persian illuminated books, which even an institution like Cornell would never be able to acquire.

I must admit I am not aware of all the “advancements” made everywhere. Public shows are eye-openers. The most spectacular exhibitions of rare books are probably at the Morgan Library and Museum: I particularly enjoyed “Drawing Babar” (2008) and “Illuminating Fashion” (2011), both the physical exhibition and the web sites. Recently, “Aldo Manuzio: Il Rinascimento di Venezia” (2016) at the Accademia was a tour-de-force.

RBD: The acute insider’s view is that most of the rare books of the world had moved into the libraries of institutions during the second half of the last century. How did institutions adjust their focus since then?

FERRI: There is a certain fascination with big numbers (especially big $$), which I find annoying. Important acquisitions are not just about resources and logistics. It is about preserving and transmitting our cultural heritage in an intelligent, creative, stimulating, and inclusive manner.

RBD: Apart from the content of rare books there is no more intriguing question in the rare book world than “What is it worth?” Is this question relevant in the context of the institutional collection?

FERRI: You are right: the “price tag question” is usually irrelevant when we consider books at the collection-level. An important library collection is like a major/designated historic monument, it is “priceless”. The French politician who wanted to “sell Versailles” to fund Social Security was being silly.

RBD: What are the areas of present-day interest that institutions are lacking behind private collectors?

FERRI: What I can tell you is that we will always need very passionate, focused, obsessive collectors. They are not event-driven (it is sometimes difficult to plan anything on the long term when you work in a museum), and they are nor hampered by bureaucracy or political correctness. We share similar enemies: inflation, speculation, ignorance, and conformism.

Ghérasim Luca et Jacques Hérold, Le Sorcier NoirRBD:  What is Laurent’s trophy book?

FERRI: It was fun to acquire a copy of Le Sorcier Noir by Jean Hérold and Gherasim Luca (1962), for our “Surrealism and Magic” exhibition at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, a few years ago. This trove manifests the Surrealist belief in the “magic potential” of the found object. It seems to have begun when Luca sent Hérold a playful collage of scientific images of different minerals. The result was a limited edition of fifty boxes, comprising fanciful texts by Luca; two states of an etching by Hérold; and a unique haberdasher’s sample card on which buttons found in a flea-market were affixed like specimens of rare gems, lending the whole an aura of mystery and arcane learning.

By definition, however, “the book of my dreams” I don’t have yet. So, let’s make a wish: it would be fantastic to acquire at least one volume from the Pillone Library, with a splendid fore-edge painted by Cesare Vecellio (1530-1601), a cousin and pupil of Titian: the volume showing Erasmus at his desk, maybe? Erasmus of Rotterdam is one of my heroes. I just finished reading his Epigrammata, in a 1518 edition, as well as his biography by Stefan Zweig, in the Kindle edition.

Pillone Library fore-edge by Vacello




Post image for The First Dystopian Novel

The First Dystopian Novel

by AndreChevalier on February 27, 2017

We by Eugene Zamiatin

Before Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”, George Orwell’s “Ninteen Eighty-Four” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, there was Yevgeni Zamyatin’s “We”, the first dystopian novel ever written. The book is a satire on life in a collectivist futuristic state, “One State”, located in the middle of a wild jungle.  It is surrounded by a wall of glass and occupied by humans who live in buildings built of glass, have numeric names and wear identical uniforms.  In Zamyatin’s plot, the ruler, the “Benefactor” with the assistance of the police force, the “Guardians”, directs the citizens of “One State”  to undergo the “Great Operation”, which destroys the part of the brain controlling the imagination and passion.

Despite the fact that the book’s content is fictional, it had the potential to be interpreted as having a hostile attitude towards the Marxist-Leninist world view, and therefore distribution was banned in Russia. The first English translation and true first edition of the novel was published in New York by E. P. Dutton in 1924. It wasn’t until 1927, that Russian editions began circulating outside Russia in Eastern Europe, having been translated back from the English, suffering severe alterations in the process 1. One particular edition that appeared in the Russian émigré journal “Volia Rossii,” caused an open political campaign against Zamyatin in the Soviet Union that led to his emigration to France in 1931.  The book was not to be published in Russia until the glasnost era of 1988. Some of the 1927 Russian editions of the book are asking for $500 in on-line marketplaces.

Copies of the 1924, E.P. Dutton American edition with a dust jacket are extremely scarce, commanding five figures. E.P Dutton reprinted the Gregory Zilboorg translated edition in paperback format in 1959 (paperback D39). Another collectible English edition is the 1970, Jonathan Cape London hardcover, which trades for about £250 in a nice dust-wrapper.


"We" Jonathan Cape

"We" by Eugene Zamiatin

"My Roman" by E. Zamjatin











In June 1949, three years before George Orwell published his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, he reviewed “We” for the London Tribune readers. At that time, Orwell suggested that Zamyatin’s book was influential to the writing of  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and recommended it to readers as “in effect a study of the Machine.” It is also quite clear that Orwell borrowed some key components and characters from Zamyatin’s earlier book himself. Perhaps “We” deserves more recognition than it has had, but collectors are currently more excited about Orwell’s masterpiece. Fenwick2 records two variant states of the first edition dust-jacket, published in London by Secker & Warburg, one printed in green, the other in red. Complete copies carry the original wrap-around band, printed in black and are traded for more than $5,000. Orwell, who died the year after the release of his novel, had only signed a very limited number of copies, which are now extremely rare and highly sought-after.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

One may argue that through a mix of creativity, plagiarism, and transmission of knowledge, works are almost never truly original. Robert Merton, in his book, On the Shoulders of Giants, digresses into the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Merton writes that Newton was already standing on the shoulders of George Herbert, who in 1651 wrote, “A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees farther of the two.”  A generation before Herbert, Robert Burton, in 1621 wrote, “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.” Before him, with a similar aphorism, stood Spanish theologian, Diego de Estella, who got it from John of Salisbury in 1159, who copied Bernard of Chartres in 1130: “We are like dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients.”3

The theme of one man, living in a totalitarian society, constantly being watched by the dehumanizing forces of an omnipotent, omniscient, Big Brother, Benefactor, Mustapha Mond, The Capitol, etc., have political implications of official distortions. It is a warning against totalitarianism under any disguise, whether it parallels the activities of Cheka or those of America’s surveillance apparatus or the presentation of “alternative facts” by government officials. It is the theme that does not fall out of fashion; a major hit indeed. Editions of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” still occupy top spots in Amazon’s “movers & shakers” thanks to National Security activities.  Outside the United States, in Britain and Australia, sales have risen by 20% so far this year compared to last year, according to Penguin Books. In the meantime, back in Russia, second-hand bookshops and science fiction in general are vanishing. Moscow is left with just six used bookshops compared to approximately 7,000 in Paris and detective stories are at the top of Russian bestseller lists.


1 Olshanskaya, Natalia (2011). “Russian dystopia in exile: translating Zamiatin and Voinovich”. In Baer, Brian. Contexts, subtexts and pretexts: literary translation in Eastern Europe and Russia. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 266. ISBN 9027287333.

2 Gillian Fenwick  (June 1998). “George Orwell: A Bibliography”  London: St. Pauls Bibliographies. A.12a. ISBN 978-1884718465.

3 Merton, Robert K. (1965) “On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript.” The Free Press, New York .




Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2016

January 27, 2017
Thumbnail image for Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 4th Quarter, 2016

  Last quarter’s coverage of the big rare book auctions, focused almost entirely on the new price record set by a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which has become the most expensive printed scientific book ever sold at auction after a winning bid of $3.7m (£3m), nearly two and a half times […]

Read the full article →

Pleased to Meet you, Hope you Guess my Name

January 10, 2017
Thumbnail image for Pleased to Meet you, Hope you Guess my Name

I was born in Mainz, Germany. I lived for the first month of my life in a printing plant before being brought to a merchant. I can remember very little about that time, for as soon as I left the plant I was securely stored away in a bookcase outside of town.  I was very […]

Read the full article →

The Ingredients of the Rarest Christmas Book

December 15, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Ingredients of the Rarest Christmas Book

At a local book trade show not more than three months ago, I had the opportunity to meet up with a few old friends and exchange some provocative conversations relating to my favorite topic – books.  The antiquarian book dealer in this particular conversation was delighted to bring up some quite interesting points on the […]

Read the full article →

Tarantula by Bob Dylan

November 25, 2016
Thumbnail image for Tarantula by Bob Dylan

What do T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Pearl Buck, Elias Canetti, Gunter Grass, John Steinbeck, Harold Pinter, Ernest Hemingway and Bob Dylan have in common? They have all been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the world’s most prestigious and coveted award. The 2016 winner, Bob Dylan, […]

Read the full article →

Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2016

October 22, 2016
Thumbnail image for Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 3rd Quarter, 2016

In terms of total dollars, global auction sales of rare books in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2016 were slightly down from the same period in 2015; this year’s $87 million figure, for the period, represents a 6% decrease compared to last year. But a closer look at the top three markets – the […]

Read the full article →

The Rarest Milestone in the Science Fiction Genre

October 2, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Rarest Milestone in the Science Fiction Genre

Do Jules Verne’s works categorize as science fiction? The French author who has been called the “Father of Science Fiction”, along with authors such as H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Lucian of Samosata and Mary Shelley, often argued against classifying his novels as scientific. In fact, he has often been labeled a writer of genre […]

Read the full article →

From the Hinman Collator to Machine Intelligence

September 16, 2016
Thumbnail image for From the Hinman Collator to Machine Intelligence

Past Technology: Lights and Mirrors The students at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, receive, as part of a course in Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, a demonstration of the 450 pound Hinman Collator. The purpose of the machine, which was developed during the 1940s by Charlton Hinman, was to help detect typographical variations in the […]

Read the full article →

The Factor of Color in Early Centenary Printing

September 2, 2016
Thumbnail image for The Factor of Color in Early Centenary Printing

17th century German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher, published around 40 works, exploring a variety of topics, ranging from a universal language scheme, to pneumatic, hydraulic, catoptric and magnetic science. His books are lavishly illustrated, written in Latin, and were in wide circulation during the 17th century. Collectors historically have sought some of his most notable […]

Read the full article →