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2003-03, 337, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘Books in the Blood.’ Anthony Rota.

Pinner, Private Libraries Association; New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2002. 313pp. ISBN 090000296 4 (UK). 1 584 56 076 2 (USA). 20 pounds.

Anthony Rota’s Books in the Blood, is subtitled “Memoirs of a Fourth Generation Book Seller”. Anthony Rota’s great grandfather was the bookseller Bertram Dobell. Anthony’s father Cyril set up his own business in 1923 and Anthony joined him in 1952. Anthony’s son Julian has now succeeded him. At the beginning of these anecdotal memoirs, Anthony Rota ponders the impact of the Dobell-Rota genes which influenced successive generations in spending their lives buying and selling rare books and manuscripts.

The firm put out its first catalogue in 1923. When Anthony joined in 1952, they had reached Catalogue 90. Late 2002 saw the issuing of their three hundredth catalogue, comprising the extremely rich poetry collection of Simon Nowell-Smith. The diversity and depth of the material in this catalogue is stunning from Coleridge to T S Eliot, from Elizabeth Barrett-Browning to Thomas Hardy, from Alfred Lord Tennyson to W.B. Yeats.

Books in the Blood is essentially a potpourri of diverse topics with no particular continuity, nonetheless all are fascinating for their insights into collectors such as George Lazarus and Harry Cahn; to booksellers such as Ben Marks, David Magee, Lew Feldman and the infamous Jake Schwartz. Thematic chapters range from “In Dublin’s Fair City”, “Runners”, “Auctions” to “Brown Paper Packages”.

In this context, Rota’s father had expressed his gratitude to his uncles Percy and Arthur Dobell for teaching him how to pack well. Certainly most booksellers today have continued that tradition although  personal recent experience with a book arriving in Australia from a noted British antiquarian firm shows that expertise in packing is a skill still to be acquired!

Books in the Blood is far from a psychobiography. Rota says in a chapter entitled “Looking Back” that “this is a book of memoirs, not a definitive biography”. Personal insights are limited to anec dotes, for example, in a chapter called “Sources”, in which Rota quotes his father as stating: “Don’t tell me what you’ve sold, tell me what you’ve bought”. Rota does express regret in his chapter “The Ones That Got Away”, which tells of the loss to him of Evelyn Waugh’s library and the Nabokov Archive – “I wanted each of these collections desperately and failing to get them really hurt”.

Both archives went to North American institutions. This reminds the reader that many of the British firms such as Rota, Maggs and Quaritch benefited immensely in the decades after the Second World War from the rich purses of collectors and libraries in North America. The chapter “I discover America” recalls the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s when Harry Ransom, the founder of the Humanities Research Centre in Texas, set the standard for extensive purchasing of libraries and archives.

Rota recalls in the 1950s it was quite usual to sell ninety percent of the catalogues within six to eight weeks. Twenty American University libraries might each of them take 10 to 100 items from each catalogue. He states: “For example the University of Cincinnati would regularly buy any volumes of English poetry that we saw fit to list and that were not already on their shelves … how I yearn for orders such as those today”.

Rota ponders about whether the Web will spell the end of conventional antiquarian bookshops and decides that the answer to this is an emphatic “no”. One could perhaps debate this at the base level, given the rise of such services as ABE, but it is certainly true that above a certain price level direct contact needs to take place.

There is much wisdom collected in Books in the Blood, which is illustrated with 16 black and white photographs. Much now may be of historical rather than contemporary interest but it comprises excellent source material for longer term definitive histories. Readers looking for an absorbing, well priced history of a major British antiquarian firm, will find a lot of bibliophilic life coursing through the literary veins of Books in the Blood

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