Saturday, July 22, 2006


In Praise of Maggs & His Many Brothers

Yes, I'm back after a month away of moving house + a research trip to London. I was over there for the Sotheby's Folio auction -- my usual misadventures at which, naturally, I will recount in my next book. Until then, the two newspaper accounts that get the closest to what it was like being there is this one in the Guardian, and today's Times of London eyewitness account. A week late and buried under an obscure headline, the latter's all too easy to miss -- but it's a valuable insider's view by Ed Maggs, of the grand old London bookselling family of Maggs Brothers.

Old Maggs Bros. catalogues, incidentally, are catnip for any serious bibliophile. I can't tell you how gutted I was when, stopping by Maggs after the auction, it turned out they didn't have any of their own old catalogues for sale. Old antiquarian catalogues are one of those brilliant resources that they never tell you about in grad school. There is an egregious disconnect between the knowledge of academic scholars and the knowledge of booksellers; scholars are in the habit of "rediscovering" works that are old news to anyone who actually works the floor.

Catalogues are not an obvious source, granted: why read old listings from seventy and eighty years ago, for books that are no longer for sale -- indeed, for copies that might have been destroyed in floods and fires years ago? Yet their descriptions are brilliantly practical guides to literature, written by people who live and breathe old books -- and whose very livelihood depends on their ability to describe them.

I've often thought that grad programs in literature should set up some internships in antiquarian shops, or in the books department of an auction house. (For that matter, those studying modern lit would do well to spend a month or two in a publishing house, the better to understand the means of production.) Had I only known to try it, a semester in Maggs or Quaritch would have been an eye-opener to me as a student.

And yet I've never heard of program doing this. Someone really should.

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