#129, 3 November 2008

The Dinosaur We All Ride

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It had been a difficult couple of months and now, what with a sales slump ended, and various inconveniences of life put behind, I was able to return to writing. I scanned what I had written some weeks ago, and read aloud to myself, just to hear how the words sounded ... ahem and harrumph:

"I have to agree that a prodigious amount of good work has been done by various book sellers in attempting to establish a universal book grading system that improves on the traditional AB system. It is very good that people are devoting time to determining the description of imperfections found in books and the subsequent grading of those books. I am going to speak out with a friendly opposite view."

Harrumph, indeed. That was going to be the gist of what I had to say. A few well done pats on the back and a jolly attaboy, attagirl, Way to go! etc., etc. Until my friend and colleague William Deckle barged into my sanctum privatum, flourishing a large roll of paper that he immediately, without fanfare, flicked open to its fullest extent. It unrolled - I say - went sailing through the air, unfurling like some awkward untethered jib. It reached from wall to wall. It covered tables, seats and stacks of books. I could see that it was covered - end to end, side to side - in some sort of chart with boxes and lines of connection and lots of finely penned words in the boxes and along the lines. It looked like an infernal flow chart.

"Before you say anything, old boy, before you explode," said Deckle, before I had a chance to even let forth a harrumph, "let me show you my latest triumph! Look! Here is the answer to all booksellers' dreams."

"You mean you have found a map to the antiquarian warehouse?" I asked.

"No! No, even better! I have solved the problem of grading!"

I groaned inwardly.

"See," said Deckle, "grading books is all so complex and complicated and so full of inconsistencies and subjectivities. So many dealers are floundering around trying to grade properly. There are so many traps for the unwary."

"I agree," said I, "although not about the floundering around part."

"Well, they are floundering. I was floundering and I'm not really a dealer. Oh, well I mean I do sell occasionally, but that is just to support my collecting habit."

"I've hardly thought your collecting habit has been hindered in any manner," I commented. William Deckle sometimes made a show of having to pinch the occasional penny, but he was actually rich as Croesus. But he did love a bargain when it came to books; however, a bargain to him might be a half-year's income to another person.

"Look here, Booknoodle, I've solved the hydra's-head problem. Through the use of this flowchart anyone can devise an exact condition grade for any book. See here - let's say a book is in pretty good condition..."

"What do you mean by pretty good condition?" I interrupted.

"Oh, you know what I mean."

"No, I don't."

"Yes, you do, Professor. Don't be difficult."

"Haw! Difficult is my middle name. I pretty well know the meaning of pretty, but it is a word that has subjective connotations. I also have a pretty good ken as to the meaning of good, which also has subjective connotations. And we all pretty well know, that when speaking of books good is not good."

Deckle threw his hands up in mock despair.

"I don't know why I even try, some days. Won't you even look at my chart? See - here I deal with the minutiae of surface rub and in this box with corner bumping ..."

"There's the rub, Deckle. It's the old bump and grind ... haw!"

"See, Professor, one looks at a book - say - this one," and he pulled a book off a nearby shelf. "This book has been well-used and displays many points of condition that I cover in my chart. See here, there is a good deal of rub in the center of the front board, and here is the box dealing with the front board, and a sub-box dealing with rub-to-the-board, and I have given each box and sub-line within a box an alpha-numeric designation, and thus by locating the box here - ahhh ... Box C-3 ... see that is Boards and 3 is rub, and over here we see the sub box connected to C-3 which is labeled C-3a, which indicates (the sub-a) a marginally moderate degree of rub, and then if we follow this green line to this box over here, C-3aa, we see that there is assigned a particular grade to that point of description which contributes to the book's overall grade ..."

"Stop!" I said.

He blithely continued, "... and s one takes each subsequent condition point and follows through the chart until one has accumulated a series of alpha-numeric sub-sets and alternate sub-sets, and then one takes these sub-sets and compares ..."

"STOP!!" I fairly shouted the word. Deckle looked up startled, the beginnings of a hurt lurking in the corners of his eyes.

"William, I appreciate what you are trying to do. But one would have to be magician to conjure a condition description from this. Now hold on," I held my hand up as he started to say something. "Look how complicated you have made this chart. One needs a map just to negotiate all the twists and turns. You've got several subsets just under rubbed covers. And I see a further complexifying in cracked hinges, if I am not reading it wrong. And what is that big box there at the end with all that microscopic printing and smudging? "

"Oh ... well ... that is everything else ..." William shrugged, "I thought you could help me organize that section - create a few more lines of diversion for things that have a certain vagueness about them, such as weathering, and paper fragility and ... well, you know - you're so good with vague things ..."

Again I said, "Stop. William, I am not going to help you with this. I want you to listen to me. This may sound harsh in your ears after all the work you've put in on this, but just to sort out your system one would need some sort of statistical handbook, or a sky chart for pie-in-the-sky. This subject is not so complex as you have managed to make it. I appreciate that you feel you have found some sort of Bookman's Universal Condition Alkahest, but I assure you one could assess 100 books in short order before you had figured out if you were going from Box A-2 to Box C-4 or to Box F-1aa, Sub-set 2c. It's all too much."

"Universal Alkahest?" said Deckle, "Really Professor, I can't believe you're referencing Alchemy! That's not fair. You are going too far with such comparisons."

"Listen, Deckle, here is how it stands with me. This has, in fact, been my approach for some time. I admit to checking in every once in a while to the various Condition Grading Projects, but each time I come away more convinced than ever before that an absolute condition grading system cannot be devised. All such systems still rely on a subjective approach. One says I shall be specific. One says I shall be objective. I shall describe what I see, and then, using this or that system, assign an objective condition grade. And hope everyone agrees."

"But on the other end - on the other end is the buyer who, thinking just as subjectively, is looking at the same book and, saying to himself, I am being objective, and objectively that is a very good book not a fine book. Who knows wherein will lie his disagreement with the seller, but in some subjective way he will find a reason to object to the assigned grade. This will not always happen, but it is guaranteed that it will happen at some point in time. You grade fine. Wham! they grade ... a mere good even. There can be that much subjective difference."

"But a universally agreed upon grading system ..." Deckle tried to interject

"Will never be agreed upon. Anyway, all dealers grade books on a curve, depending on whether they are buying or selling."

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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