David, when did you start being a book collector? Was it a particular book or subject that got you started?
At some point in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s I decided that I wanted to express my artistic side by learning and doing photography. As was my habit, I learned by reading…lots and lots of how-to books on the technical and artistic aspects of photography. My specialty, motivated by my then hobby of growing flowering plants, especially lilies and day lilies, was close-up (macro) photography of…flowers.
As has been the case with almost everything I’ve been interested in, I eventually became more interested in the history of the subject than in the doing…in this case, helped by the fact that I proved to have little or no artistic talent. I started reading contemporary books on photographic history, and eventually started haunting used bookstores to find older ones.
Aside: As a kid, starting at about age 10, I began taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan to visit museums and libraries. At the main branch of the NYPL, I spent days reading issues of the NY Times from the period of the Civil War, a special interest at that time. On a few occasions I wandered past the used bookstores on Fourth Avenue, but didn’t know what a treasure I’d found, and didn’t have the money to take serious advantage of it.
At about that time, I wandered into an antiques show at the armory just south of Grand Central Station on Park Avenue. I was fascinated by the stereoviews, especially those of nineteenth century NY, another interest. I bought a few for what was very little money at the time, but wasn’t able to collect seriously as even the small amount I paid per slide was a real splurge for a young kid. Much later, in the late 1960’s, while I was in graduate school in Philadelphia, I bought a Civil-War era cabinet stereo viewer for, again, very little money to a true collector, but too much for a student. (I still have all the stereo cards and the viewer…as well as two Edison gramophones that I also bought — in Lahaska, Pennsylvania, when it was still a great antiques town — during my grad school years.)
Back to the late 70’s-early 80’s. As time went on, I developed an interest in the history of color photography, but found very little any older than the 1920s or 1930s. As I became more interested in the history of photography, I also noticed photography books, including at least one early book on color photography advertised in Shutterbug, the tabloid weekly in which photographic equipment is sold and traded. Shutterbug introduced me to mail order (catalogue) booksellers. I sought them out, including ones in England and France, and bought lots of good older books. I became obsessed with hunting books, received catalogues almost every day, and visited bookstores on trips to professional conferences. I began to become familiar with the open shop booksellers of Chicago, Washington, and a few other cities…like Traverse City Michigan, cherry capital of the U.S., where one conference was held every August and where, I noticed a few months ago, this year’s cherry crop was a total failure.
As a result of my interest in early color photography, I became very interested in our understanding of the physics of color and of color perception, and started buying books on those subjects. Since Sir Isaac Newton was the first to understand color the way it’s now understood, I started buying every book I found in stores and catalogues about Newton…at least those that I was able to afford. I read all the Newton biographies and can still hold my own with historians of science who don’t specialize in that period.
On a visit, probably about 1982 or 1983, to the one used bookstore in Westfield, NJ, near where I now live, I was searching for Newton material and picked up a book by, not Sir Ike but, rather, A. Edward Newton. At that time, when I got a new catalogue in the mail I quickly turned to the N’s. More than once I was excited by a “Newton” listing, only to be very disappointed when I discovered that it was an “A. Edward” Newton book rather than an “Isaac Newton” book. Who was this A. Edward character who dared to compete with one of the founders of modern science?
This time, though, I picked up the A. Edward book, started reading it, and didn’t stop until I’d finished at about 4:00 AM. The book was A Magnificent Farce — refers to Warren Hastings’ trial for treason when he’d never committed anything like treason. Newton was addicted to English literature, and was able to afford it in first editions, often with strong association value. He was interested in Hastings, not as a writer but rather as an eighteenth century British Governor of India, because Hastings had named his estate “Daylesford,” and Newton lived, in Berwyn, PA, along the Main Line just west of Philadelphia, across the street from a PRR station with the name “Daylesford.” One of the illustrations in the book was a ticket, from Newton’s collection, to Hastings’ trial. Other chapters of the book dealt with famous and not so famous English writers, Newton’s association copies of their books, their letters or their manuscripts, and with Newton’s hunt for literary rarities. I later found out that Christopher Morley referred to Newton’s essays as “printed personality.” The personality was appealing, and Morley was right. (By the way, I was ripped off for that first Newton book. It didn’t have a dust jacket, wasn’t a first issue, and was way overpriced at twenty 1982-83 dollars.)
How you go about searching for books on the internet? Do you still use methods of searching other than the internet?
I loved Bibliocity and Bibliofind because they allowed a full-text search of a book’s description; a specialist needs that. I love ABE because it allows the user to store wants and emails matches as new books are uploaded. At the moment I use ABE, passively, by reading matches. (I’ve perfected my many wants to the point where I rarely go to the ABE site to look for books or to add or modify wants.) I regularly use the ABAA web site because it allows full-text search…but doesn’t allow the user to store wants.
I rarely go to open shops any longer because there’s so much good material on the net. There are a few stores I do go to, mainly in L.A., currently the best open shop city in the U.S., because they don’t list all their stock in my fields of interest, which now include the history of book collecting and antiquarian bookselling in America and Britain.
If you are especially eager to obtain a copy of a particular book, do you buy one in lesser condition if that is all that’s available?
Yes, I recently realized that I’d never even seen a copy of the English edition of Newton’s Dr. Johnson, a Play, and bought a fairly ratty copy with no dust jacket. Nothing better has shown up on the internet, but I’ll buy it when one does. I care about the condition of books I buy “just” to read, but will buy a copy in bad condition if that’s the only copy available.
Do you upgrade to a better copy when one becomes available?
I’m always doing that with Newton books, but “better copy” can mean “better condition” or “has a good association value and the earlier copy had none.” Having learned about association copies from Newton, I buy any good association copy I can find of any Newton item — except in a few cases when the seller gets too greedy and sets a price two or three times the going market price. I have as many as ten or twelve really good association copies of some Newton books, and as many as 20-25 of a few of the Xmas issues. My goal is to have at least one good association copy, in dust jacket, of every issue of every Newton book printed during Newton’s lifetime. I’m not too far from that. I also own lots of letters and galley/page proofs, and some of the little extant manuscript material.
Have the book-related lists proven to be a good resource for finding books you’re looking for, or alerting you to books you didn’t know existed?
Unfortunately not. I’ve bought a very few really good items through the lists, but very, very few and not for quite some time.
Do you use search engines like Google to find new venues either notifying you of books you didn’t know existed…
I never have. Various online library catalogues have alerted me to the existence of previously unrecorded items, like a recent edition of This Book Collecting Game in Chinese. (My Chinese teaching assistant eventually got me a copy through friends who were visiting the U.S.)
…or for looking up facts that lead to variations on a theme of your interests?
I use Google for just about everything but finding books to buy…including identifying inscribees whose names I don’t recognize.
Are the descriptions by online booksellers usually adequate for your purposes in deciding whether a book is one you want or in the condition you want?
I can usually tell if a seller is knowledgeable;if s/he isn’t, I simply ask questions.
Anything in particular that “turns you off” in sellers’ listings?
“Very good for its age.” I’ve handled a Gutenberg Bible and have concluded that age and condition have little necessary relationship.
Do you only buy 1st printings of books in your interests?
As I’ve said, I buy every issue of every edition of anything Newton. When it comes to books about collectors, libraries, booksellers, etc., I used to do the same, but there’s not enough space and not enough money to do everything I’d like.
Are you interested in ephemera relating to your interests?
Finding ephemera is usually far more exciting than finding another issue of another edition, or even another title translated into Braille — have one — or Chinese…because they’re usually far scarcer…and many are not recorded in any bibliography. I have an extensive collection of prospectuses of Newton books and books to which he contributed an introduction or a chapter. I also have lots of announcements of talks by Newton and lots of invitations to get-togethers at his home, Oak Knoll; some of the most fun ones are invitations to marionette parties that Mrs. Newton gave for kids and their grandmothers. I also have lots of original Newton-related newspaper clippings.
I also collect material about book collectors’ organizations. I have lots of Grolier Club, Book Club of California, Zamorano Club, and Roxburghe Club ephemera; just had an auction lot of about two hundred pieces of California ephemera arrive yesterday.
What is the particular thing about Newton that keeps you so interested?
Newton had so many interesting close friends that an interest in Newton leads to all sorts of things, like most of the important collectors of his period, the Golden Age of Book Collecting in America, to the formation of great library collections, to the history of the teaching of English literature in American universities and those who pioneered it, many of whom were Newton’s friends, to Dr. Johnson’s literary circle, etc., etc. Even to the development of Philadelphia’s western suburbs, by railroad barons, in the late nineteenth century.
Can you give us a list of what you do collect?
Everything mentioned above except the history of photography; am still interested but don’t have enough space or money.
Are you a reader, as well as a collector (of things other than what you collect, that is)?
If so, what types of kinds do you like to read on a more casual basis, just for enjoyment?
Technical material in my field — software engineering — and, to a lesser extent, the history of computers and computing. I enjoy my work, so technical and historical reading is enjoyable. I’d love to have time to read fiction, but am so busy that I don’t.
What other hobbies, interests, or recreation or arts, etc., do you enjoy?
I wish that visiting museums was an aerobic activity; I might be in better shape if it was. I’m interested in urban history — especially NYC, Chicago, and L.A., the three American cities which compete with London and Paris on cultural grounds — and in architectural history, mostly American. (Yes, I said “L.A.” Beyond the Hollywood glitz it has more cultural activity than any American city other than NYC. I love San Francisco; have lived in the Bay Area a few summers, but it doesn’t compare on density of cultural activity.) My wife and I both love crawling around red rock in the southwest and visiting historical sites. We’ve covered just about every square inch of CA, UT, and AZ, and quite a bit of NM, WY, OR, CO, and WA. We plan to see the rest of all these states as well as lots of western MT. We’ve also started spending time outside the U.S. again after a long period of traveling solely in the U.S. (We travel about six times a year, usually in connection with a professional meeting that I have to go to. There are trips to Japan and Spain coming up in the next few months.)
What would you like to tell us, business or personal, about yourself?
I’ve been a professor of computer science for about twenty-eight years; used to do technology research and currently do process research and pedagogy research. I love it and never want to retire. I have one wife, three grown daughters and the two cutest, smartest granddaughters in the world — all more important than work or books, as much as I love work and books.