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2002-06, 333, 334, Book collecting, Jurgen Wegner


When you think about it, a book is very much like a suitcase. Some only buy new ones, use them once, then toss them. Preferably at Vuitton. Others cannot afford new ones but spend forever searching junk shops in the hope of finding one which other people may not think too shabby. The refined few will love mum and dad’s battered old antique as having both character and style. All those old stickers and labels – not to mention the dents and scratches – enhance its value as a suitcase and add to it the aura of Travel. We hope it may someday end up with someone of similar sensibilities. Maybe it will end up at the Suitcase Museum or perhaps survive just long enough to be tossed out for the next council clean-up?

So why is it that a small sector of the book collecting fraternity so dominate the market place that our concept of what constitutes a collector is such that even affixing a bookplate is considered by many an act of defacement? We live in a certain kind of society, a society with very specific values when it comes to property, and no area – book collecting included – is immune. (This, incidentally, would make an excellent topic for a thesis). What collector would ever buy a book without the expectation to be able to on-sell for a profit? Who indeed would ever buy a book if they knew they could realize more by putting together a modest share portfolio! Maybe most aren’t so crass; but how many instinctively think in monetary terms when collecting? Note the key words in Jon Prance’s piece (Biblionews 26 (2001) 331, pp.102-103): property, devalue, value. Now I don’t recommend highlighting your original of Leichhardt’s journal the next time you go bush; but how many of us wouldn’t like to find a copy of some such account at the next church jumble sale with an expedition member’s name scrawled across the title and marginal annotations? Much to the consternation of his family and friends at the time, I imagine.

“Let the signature be neat and legible, the book plate attractive”. Why?! Some of the best bookplates I have seen would hardly be thought of as “attractive”. Is this a personal statement or an act of value-adding we are talking about here? Bookplates are examples of graphic art. When you compare them with other examples of graphic art you will see another reason for this endless discussion of value, price and profit … the ultra-conservatism of those who collect. Of course, there are many, many other collectors of books, assemblers of interesting collections, most of whom would never think of themselves as “book collectors”. Who never belong to societies or subscribe to journals. Perhaps never do much apart from surf the Net. This realm of books and collecting is greater than people generally realize. Maybe this also says something about the state of societies such as ours and their future?

I remember causing Wal Kirsop no end of amusement when I told him of how I was replacing my mint copies of radical pamphlets. Why would anyone replace a perfectly good copy of a pamphlet with one containing underlining, annotations, a signature and date … even with ex-library copies? What finer copy could anyone want of a Marxist treatise than that with the stamp: CC LIBRARY? Or a copy which belonged to a suburban revolutionary who annotated Wage labour and capital with: Marx clearly wrong here. To Jon Prance and others I say: Don’t just mark your passage with a fine pencil line in the margin. What is the point of that? Either make a note in your commonplace book about it or boldly annotate where no man has annotated before!

Just to hand a copy of William Edward Hearn’s Plutology, or, The theory of the efforts to satisfy human wants (Melbourne: G. Robertson, 1863 (F10334)). The Australian dictionary of biography gives him quite extensive coverage and the details in these two paragraphs are based on this entry by J.A. La Nauze. Hearn is described here as a political economist, jurist, politician, and university teacher. Born in Ireland he had a brilliant career before being head-hunted for the University of Melbourne. One of the four original professors, he was the University’s first professor of modern history and literature, political economy and logic, styling himself “Professor of History and Political Economy in the University of Melbourne” in the book.

Ferguson lists about a dozen of his books including Payment by results in primary education (1872) and The Aryan household: its structure and development (1878). He wrote a number of major works while in Melbourne, highly praised at the time but less original than supposed. Plutology was the first. The books brought this young antipodean University to the notice of scholars in both Europe and America, were highly regarded by leading authorities in their fields of the day, and remained in use long after his death in 1888. Ferguson mentions reprints of Plutology in 1878 and the year after his death, 1889. Hearn went on to a distinguished legal and political career, and was also active in the affairs of the Church of England.

Plutology is no revolutionary’s tract. Rather the kind of tome which students today still wade through. A champion of champions, with 475 pages it weighs in at 752 grams! It is full of gems. Chapter 8, for example, is titled Of capital, and it is interesting to speculate on the ideas and influences, the milieu and careers as contrasted with other contemporary writers such as the author of that other Capital (first published in German in 1867). And Chapter 13 Of the assistance rendered to industry by government (tariffs and protection then as now a hot topic in a colonial society) where we are told: The fundamental idea of the family is love; the fundamental idea of the state is justice. How about that for a truism in a book on political economy!

Of greater interest than the content is the fact the book has been extensively annotated in what I take to be a near-contemporary student hand. Marked on virtually every other page by means of underscoring and/or written annotations, the book is really only just an example of a standard text in which some student yob has scribbled … much to the consternation of his betters. But, oh, that the student had left his name and date on the fly! Would you rather have a clean or mint copy in your collection, or this relic of a by-gone education?



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