I intend to be posting a lot of new content about books here. It's an exciting time!
On that note, in my research these past few weeks, I encountered Honey & Wax Booksellers, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. In five weeks of work, they are the only rare book shop I've encountered so far run by women. I'm not exaggerating.
I'm uneasy about the lack of higher-up women collectors, and the shop proprietors seem to share my concern. They have even taken early steps to help correct it! Every year, Honey and Wax offers a prize to fund "the next generation" of women booksellers and book collectors. No sponsorship or experience beyond one's own collecting mettle is required.
I hope that next year I'll be able to apply in earnest. In the meantime, I had vague intimations of applying this year anyway. I recognize that I wouldn't have won, I couldn't put together all the application materials required yet.
Also, I see now that I've missed the deadline! Honey and Wax is on east coast time. I'm 40+ minutes late.
Just for the marker of it, mostly for my own warm fuzzies, I'll be sending the booksellers a link. Hello there, if you choose to read!
In any case, I got excited about the kind of collection I wanted to build and wrote it up. The raw text I typed up on my iPhone in ten minutes, with a few small edits, is below.
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Book Collection: Flattery & Imitation (when it's good enough & when it's not).
After reading a blog post on a young female collector and how she started, I ran out to a used bookstore to, hopefully, encounter in my blazing good luck an original copy of the famous-marble-paged Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy. Startlingly, in my first attempt, I was not able to find this rare volume.
Instead, I bought a (much) later, but still early for most modern readers, edition from 1940. It cost just over $6.
I love it!
Thumbing through it at home, I began to ponder: where exactly do we draw our shades of difference in the importance of a book? More personally, I wondered: what makes a book valuable to me?
The source of joy and value in book collecting, I thought, must be something like the source of joy and value inspired by my other collections. Over the years I've accrued necklaces, stickers, diaries, blankets, matchsticks and candles, plants and bookmarks. I'm not a hoarder. My apartment isn't crowding every corner with junk. Yet I've dragged these silly collections with me through thirteen separate moves over fifteen years, not because I love hauling more stuff than necessary, but because each of the items in my carefully-selected collections has a story.
I love those stories!
I thought a similar principle should guide my upcoming book collection.
Although I've yet to build my collection beyond the first volume, and I don't expect I'm eligible yet this year, I am thrilled that this prize exists and overjoyed at getting to start my collection!
If the three things necessary for book collecting are resources, education and freedom, I've always been blessed with the latter two, and lacking the former. Historically, women rarely gained the full set. But as you say, the times they are a-changing. As of five weeks ago, I've begun an apprenticeship to a Rare Books and Manuscripts Dealer, and I finally have the freedom and resources to invest my time in what has always been my passion: the stories behind Stories.
My collection revolves around those subtle signals, hard to grasp conceptually, that by speech/action indicate one is not in the "in" group. Those small cues that, inextricable to the imitator, present a sharp and moral outrage to one in the know. They indicate, like a slap in the face from one who would have been a brother, that the imposter does not belong.
People give themselves away by small differences in their use of terms, the actions they take, the processes they adhere to, and a million other ways every day and every second. These small foibles are the invisible strings that keep human societal strata in line.
Think of how often, noted silently by only one participant, a line of you-not-me is drawn. Does that coworker use one or two spaces after a period? Do they call it a "machine" or a "computer?" How do they pronouncing Musk's first name -- "Eh-lon" or "Ee-lon?" When they talk, are they simple or complex, crude slang-slingers or anti-hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobists? Ho long do they spend on each task? Each step of each task? Do they whack the back of the bag at the end, or would doing so decrease the life-value of the material? How many centimeters under the bud do they cut? Will they kill the plant? Can I trust them, or is it clear they don't know what they're doing?
Reader, let me ask you: If someone told you, "show me your skill, show my how you do your trade," and you picked up your instruments and went about it, what would you do? In what order? At what pace? How would your colleagues do it? How would those in your role across the world work? By how much would all of your methods and manners differ? And what are the acceptable bounds of difference?
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I hope to come at the root of these questions for literature by examining the literary greats. My collection will focus on matched sets, with one volume of each being absent, one present: the original, and the imitator.
Confused? Allow me to elaborate.
In each case, first there is the preeminent work. The title that spawned innervating, explosive thought, often globally, which is widely regarded as profound. Whether by prose or novelty or insight or sheer labor, each opus marks a turning point in history and, as a culture, we regard it with esteem.
However, I cannot afford the true historical loci of our culture in their earliest, first editions. Many novice collectors, in the same financial straits as I, would settle for later editions of those revered prints. The power of the book, they would argue, is its message, not its wrappings.
The experienced antiquarian bookseller will say to that,
A second edition consistently costs less than the first. A third edition drops even more dramatically, especially for the rarer stuff. The fourth edition's not on the shelf. If it's in the room at all, it's on the floor, holding the door open.
Instead, I aim to find the fakers. The imitators. The writers who, though "talentless," recognize the appeal of a work and try with all their might to copy it for profit. Or glory. Or, possibly, in dangerous disavowal of the influence of others upon one's own fragile psyche, thinking that the ideas of that preeminent volume are a brilliant invention of his or her very own.
I will collect volumes that share this gnat-like, insubstantial similarity with their respective works. The books on my shelf will be the pale imitations or outrageous fakes of renowned great works. I'm excited by the idea of this collection because I'll learn so much more about why these original works are great. Nothing shines light on a champion quite like watching her imitator fail.
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I have a lot of research to do before I can decide on a preliminary list of books to collect. First I must review what "great" works I want to include as the empty half of the matches, or at the least which I'd consider.
Then I get to learn about the historical and social events, trends, and opinions at the time of those works' original authors. I may impose a time limit, restricting myself to copies that come out 2-5 years after the original. I may leave the timing open ended. I may look for unusual motivations of the imitator, or for the first imitation that came out in record time, or for an imitation that claimed to be greater than the original, or for the imitation with the most thinly veiled word-for-word matched scenes.
There are a lot of possibilities to explore, and in so doing, I intend to learn a great deal about the reasons why people imitate literature, what the effect of these imitations are on culture/art/science, how prevalent literary imitation is and in what great range of difference or similarities imitations appear, and whether imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, or largely just a mess.
Thank you for hosting this wonderful competition. I hope next year to be able to submit the progress of my collection.
Lindsey A. Davis, age 28