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2010-12, 367, 368, Biography, Jurgen Wegner

George Mackaness: ‘The choice of books’

MY INTEREST in buying books started at the end of high school and continued on into university and beyond. I‘d missed even the tail end of the Mackaness sale and so also best items in the catalogues.¹ My subject has always been history — at the time, especially 19th century Australian history — and so I still managed to find some books of interest to me. There remained on offer by then at Swain‘s, two sets of Mackaness‘s Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh²: one in mint condition with dust wrappers; the other in lesser condition but with some enhancing features. Luckily, before leaving the bookshop I had checked the packet and found that I‘d been given the mint set ‘by mistake’ — the assumption being that I‘d naturally wanted the best available copy . . . or were they wanting to hang onto the best copy themselves? It is interesting to look back at one‘s purchases and to think that even back then, at university and with very little money indeed, I was already more interested in the book itself than the book as text.

Both volumes were inscribed in Mackaness‘s characteristic bold penmanship: ‘G. Mackaness, 6/10/33’, with the first volume bearing the added inscription: ‘For Francis Clune, Author of “Try Anything Once” ‘. Each book bears the bookplate done for Clune by the Australian artist Adrian Feint, has minor annotations throughout possibly by Clune, though not by Mackaness, and a fair number of related cuttings, both tipped-in and loose, dated between 1933 and 1968. Inserted was also a copy of the original prospectus ‘Just out’, with a note that only 500 sets had been printed and were being sold for the, in 1931, not inconsiderable sum of 50 shillings ($5). I paid $35 for mine in 1971! The website of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers had at the time of writing a good copy for sale — but with new endpapers — for $200. Books as investments are mostly an illusion. I was a student at the time and so paid for it out of my own ‗hard earned‘ pocket money. Comparing my probable salary then with that of today you would need to factor the $35 by 20 (or more conservatively by about 15). Almost anything would have been a better investment! But then I‘ve never been that kind of collector and today a large part of my collection can best be described as comprising the widows and orphans of the book world.

George Mackaness

(from George Mackaness Bibliomania: An Australian book collector’s essay, Angus & Robertson, 1965. Photo: Quinton F Davis)

George Mackaness (1882-1968) was born in Sydney.³ His father, George Mackaness senior, was a printer and lithographer. George junior was educated at various schools and started a career in teaching at Fort Street in 1903. He married Alice Symons in 1906. In 1911 he graduated MA with first class honours from the University of Sydney. A teacher and educator throughout his life, Mackaness continued as lecturer in charge of the Department of English at Sydney Teachers College located in the grounds of the University, 1924-46.

An interest in literature led him to become a lifelong promoter of Australian literature through his teaching and also his professional associations. This interest in things Australian naturally led to an interest in Australian history and Mackaness wrote several substantial biographies (including Bligh and Phillip), published a long series of limited edition historical monographs from 1935 promoting early Australian history — the Australian historical monographs series — which are now collectors items, as well as penning countless contributions to journals and newspapers.

He is perhaps best known to us as the author of seminal works on Australian book collecting such as The art of book-collecting in Australia, Bibliomania and The books of the ‘Bulletin’, 1880-1952 all of which are now also collectors items. His various papers — letters, manuscripts and newspaper clippings — are divided mostly between the State Library of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia.

George and Alice Mackaness‘s interest in Australian history and literature led them to assemble an extensive and fine collection of books which were sold by Angus & Robertson between 1967 and 1969. However, not all their collection it would seem. Some years ago I picked up a copy of Frederic Harrison‘s The choice of books and other literary pieces published in 1886 as part of the Macmillan’s colonial library series.

The book is in what I would regard as a much used condition. It has Mackaness‘s characteristic signature on the front free end paper — here in black and not the purple ink he so favoured later on — and is heavily annotated especially in the two chapters: The choice of books and A few words about the eighteenth century. Although the ownership inscription is undated, the book seems to come from the earlier rather than the later period of Mackaness‘s life. Annotations in books can tell us a lot about the influences, ideas and prejudices of the person concerned. Particularly, the underlined passages from the former chapter can give us a valuable insight into the formative years of Mackaness the man, the educationist and the collector:

‘A habit of reading idly debilitates and corrupts the mind for all wholesome reading’ (p. 6)

In a paragraph quoting Milton, the well known: ‘As good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book’ (p. 7)

‘Every book that we take up without purpose is an opportunity lost in taking up a book with a purpose’ (p. 15)

‘It is plain that to organise our knowledge, even to systematise our reading, to make a working selection of books for general study, really implies a complete scheme of education’ (p. 19)

‘. . . let us avoid the extravagance of expecting too much from books, the pedant‘s habit of extolling books as synonymous with education. Books are no more education than laws are virtue . . . A man may be, as the poet saith, “deep vers‘d in books, and shallow in himself” ‘ (p. 20)

The ‘choice of books’ — and how much of our education and culture still today — remains predicated upon that grand Victorian mythology of education as a moral, spiritual and economic redeemer and of the perfectibility (or at least the improvement) of Man through (self) education and the study of books — i.e. books as texts. Too early here to expect twentieth century history to have made a dent in humanity‘s innate optimism about itself. Books are utilitarian objects for self-improvement: a younger man‘s belief that the study of their content is the means of making your way in the world? Yet somewhere along the journey the book as text and the utilitarian object gives way to the book as thing, the book as something of value and interest and beauty in its own right.

This is an interesting journey to trace in those of us who are by nature collectors: the understanding that a book is far more than its

text. We now live in an age where libraries consider one copy of a book held nationally to be sufficient for the nation’s needs, yet on examination how many different copies are there really of what is regarded as the same book! The choice of books . . . can tell us so much more about the choice of books in one man‘s life. Yet how few collectors still — individual and institutional — collect multiple copies of the same ordinary, not necessarily rare, book with a view to such things as provenance, bindings, annotations and other commonly regarded imperfections?

1. George Mackaness and Alice Mackaness, The George and Alice Mackaness collection of Australiana, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1967-69, 3 v.

2. George Mackaness, The life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1931, 2 v.

3. Information based on: Bruce Mitchell and Martha Rutledge, Mackaness, George (1882-1968), Australian dictionary of biography, online ed., Canberra, Australian National University, 2006. See: http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100283b.htm .

4. George Mackaness, The art of book-collecting in Australia, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956; George Mackaness, Bibliomania: an Australian book collector’s essays, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956; George Mackaness and Walter W. Stone, The books of the Bulletin, 1880-1952: an annotated bibliography, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1955.

5. Frederic Harrison, The choice of books and other literary pieces, London: Macmillan and Co., 1886 (Macmillan’s colonial library). The book is not listed in the Mackaness‘s sale catalogue.



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