Reading Matter: A Rabid Bibliophile’s Adventures Among Old and Rare Books. By Jack Matthews. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. 189pp. ISBN 1-58456-027-4. $US29.95
I am not sure whether the description of the author as “a rabid bibliophile” is his or the publisher’s, as “rabid” implies some degree of uncontrollable or irrational violence or fury. I prefer Mr Matthews’ own description of himself – “an anecdotalist” – for this is a book of anecdotes, and rather tame ones at that. There are interesting and amusing points made and tales told, but none are really exciting or inspiring.
Matthews, Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University, is a busy bibliomaniac. He has published short stories, poetry, plays, book reviews, and several volumes of essays about his passion for old and rare books, of which Reading Matter is the most recent. It consists of twelve personal essays on aspects of book collecting, inspired by or relating to volumes in his own collection. It is said to be aimed at the aspiring as well as the established collector, but both will feel short-changed.
What is there here, then, for book collectors, of any level? I liked his (brief) discussion of the potential in collecting self-published books, otherwise known as vanity publishing. Hardly anyone collects in this field, probably because most of the books are of second-rate quality, but it could be an interesting area for a collector looking for a focus which will not break the budget. There are others, of course, and they can be tailored more personally – I had a friend who collected anything published in the year he was born, and novels whose titles included the names of his children. Anything can be collected if one wants to.
There is a good and lively discussion of the value of catalogues issued by rare book dealers. There is an interesting, if brief, discussion on whether condition should be the be-all and end-all of collecting. Matthews has researched the history and changing uses of the dust jacket and presents it with lively and apt comments, including a dismissal of exaggerated “blurb” writing on dust jackets. Ironically, his own dust jacket provides a good example of this. He gives us an interesting and sometimes amusing essay on inscriptions written in books by authors and owners – a potential collecting field in itself. There is a mildly amusing essay on bibliomaniacs he has known, but there are more, and more interesting, examples in the literature which Matthews does not mention.
In his opening essay Matthews says “Among all the frivolous types of literature, there is one that is especially, immediately, recognizable as insignificant – books of anecdotes. … A book of anecdotes … promises nothing more than a brief and occasional amusement.”
Neil A Radford