Before we begin, I confess. I am more likely to read the appendix to a history book than its introduction. You will see me returning to the end-notes of a biography rather than its text. And I love books of lists. Old AA and RAC books, old trade directories, bus timetables from bygone days all amuse me because of their window on the world of folk who have passed this way before. Record and book catalogues. Shopping lists scribbled in recipe books. And, of course, bibliographies.
Checklists of an author’s books can be fun, descriptive checklists can be useful, but if I want to bury myself in my book room for a couple of hours, I can’t do better than a full blown bibliography.
There’s fun for some enthusiasts in arguing with the compiler. Complaints about what has been excluded, what cuckoo has found its way in and, most pernickety of all, why a particular book has been listed in the wrong place. Wrong, that is, for the grumpy reader. I join in those debates but my chunter is rather muted because the compiler’s approach to a bibliography often presents an author’s work in a way that I haven’t considered before.
Then, especially for the bookdealer, there is always the challenge of stocking something that isn’t in the bibliography. On the face of it, this can seem quite easy for few ‘complete’ bibliographies are really complete. (To be fair, most compilers do acknowledge that any list can only be work in progress. Would we want them to forever hold back from publication for fear that something else might turn up? Of course not.) But the better the bibliography, the more tempting the challenge. Some members of the Betjeman society use my book shop and I’ve been trying to beat their bibliographer for a couple of years. Twice, I thought I was ahead of them. One was a poem reprinted in a parish magazine while the other was a leaflet written for a civil war society. But no, these items were already known and I have yet to beat their bibliographer.
For me, the real joy of the bibliography is the connection it provides with the books as real, physical, ephemeral products. Let’s say: the second edition has blue cloth, although a less common (bibliographers don’t like the word rare) variant has orange. So what happened there? Was it towards the end of a Friday afternoon when the foreman, realising a the last of the blue cloth was required for a more important order, went to his “flat pack” office, made a hurried phone call (the noise of the bindery going on about him) and was told: “Of course, of course, whatever you think, but make sure they are here for Monday morning.” Elsewhere, a packager shouts, “Don’t use the new dustwrappers while we’ve twenty of the previous edition left.” Did he realise just how sought after those twenty reprints in first edition wrappers would become?
For people who cannot catch the romance of this – yes, there will be one of two, I’m sure – I want to point you to DH Lawrence’s essay ‘Apropos Lady Chatterley’. In the early life of his masterpiece, Lawrence’s battle with the pirates caused him to produce different small run editions of his self published book, leaving behind a tangle of different states laid over the many bootleg ventures. Obligingly, he also describes these different pirate copies in the essay. All in all, a confusion that cannot fail to attract the book collector with an obsession for order. Now, go to the standard two volume bibliography of Lawrence’s work. Compare notes. Put your own case for filing the bibliographical information in a different form or order and, slowly, a true picture emerges of the life of this book. How it grew. What was happening to Lawrence’s other books at the time. How it recovered from the blind alleys. How it caught the imagination of readers. And, in the end, how the world took ownership of it.
I cannot see a good bibliography as a dry and soulless document. Surely, these are the footprints left behind when a book has delivered from the author’s cradle. Some chapters may end up in school textbooks while other publishers present the novel to the world on cheap paper between noisy covers. In later editions, words might be changed while some confusions remain. The bibliographer plots that path for us and, like all good research, she leaves with us with as many questions as answers. And as many opportunities speculate on the why of it all.