"Listen Deckle, you are hearing it from me right now! I say to you forget grading. Toss it out the window. Leave it behind - it is yesteryear's buggywhip - a rickety, groaning mechanism which lumbers on, a shambling, vague, misty-edged dinosaur of a system which has seen its day pass without even recognizing that fact, the fact that it doesn't work in the new world of book selling - and possibly never did, accept by consensus amongst book people that they would all ignore the inconsistencies."
"But I worked so hard on this ... and it is a new system, and yet you are calling it a dinosaur. Not fair!"
"Nature doesn't look backwards, my good friend."
"Look, William, some number of years ago I began giving serious thought to giving up any sort of grading scale when judging the condition of books. You remember I mentioned this to you. I realized that in order for any grading scale to be usable in a non-subjective way, the grading scale behind the judgment would by its very nature be too unwieldy and complex to be workable. And we see that played out and proven in this juggernaut of a flowchart you have spread out here. Just think, to be easily useable it would have to be reduced in size to easily fit in one's hands - the print would be microscopic, unreadable."
Deckle protested, "I've thought that out. It can be put into booklet format with an index and instructions for its use."
"One shouldn't need instructions for such a tool. One could be through describing the book in the time it would take to negotiate your index; it would be an awkward, fumbly thing, your Bookman's Universal Condition Alkahest. I have seen too many ostensibly good reference works ruined by the very idiosyncratic nature of their arrangement."
"You are too cruel, Professor."
"It's not cruelty, my friend, it is mere observation ... and the results of years of thinking on this very matter."
I continued, warming up to the subject, "Personally, I would find it practically impossible - and somewhat onerous - to keep such spread sheets and alpha-numeric schemata straight in my head. Point judgments, etc. All this is, in my mind, a further unnecessary complexification of a process that, while having certain inherent complications due to the very richness of the subject at hand, is, at the very core, a simple process of observation and reportage."
"You don't think this helps the reportage at all?" asked Deckle.
"No. Let me be bluntly honest. Not at all."
I continued, "One looks at the book and assesses its condition by observing whatever imperfections have accrued through the years or, even, through faulty construction - there has certainly been enough of that. But basically it is a matter of observation. It is not a matter for spread sheets, which 'actuarial' tool is superb when faced with real statistical complications. One does not need a map to find one's way around a book. There are no statistical complexities to judging the condition of a book."
"But this is not a map," said Deckle.
"No, it's not. It's worse: It's a confounded, idiosyncratic flow chart. Listen up now, my friend."
William sighed and sat down. He let go the end of the paper and it flopped back together across the room in a loose, sloppy roll.
I stood up, and assumed my lectionary stance.
"One, one of the basic things necessary to assessing the condition of a book is a thorough knowledge of the parts of a book and the proper terminology needed for identifying those parts. Of course you have long had this information under your belt and well-digested.
"Two, taking into consideration the way terminology may differ in import between describing leather-bound books, cloth books, paperbacks, pamphlets, etc., one needs to know when looking at the book, exactly how the various parts should look, and, also, how they should look in relation to the other parts. This may seem a basic ABC, but one thing I have learned through many years of selling books is that all too many people do not know at what they are looking; or they do not know how to interpret the information before their eyes. Books can be easily altered and it behooves us, as sellers, to be able to look at a book and see that its integral parts are original and intact, original but mended, or altered.
"Three, of course it is necessary to have a solid and unchanging vocabulary for describing faults. So a thorough understanding is necessary in order to know exactly what is meant and encompassed by such vague terms such as weathering, bumped, rubbed, damp stain, cracked, shaken, etc. For example, one must realize that there are, indeed, differences between water-damaged and damp stained - what a dealer means by tide-line ... and in fact there are degrees of effect behind all conditions derived from agents acting on books such as water, insects, sun, fingers, smoke, etc. It is important to be able to know, at least to some degree, how such-and-such a defect came into existence."
"But grading, Professor? What about grading?"
"That's four - grading. Harrumph. What did I say? Out. Over. Done with. Kaput. Out the window! As said above, I have given up assigning a grade (although admittedly I find myself using the language of grading to some extent, such language, baggage as it is, does not 'grade'). Mostly this is because, no matter how extended the minutiae within the factors behind a potential grade, the fact remains that the assigning of any grade is ultimately subjective. One assigns a very good, and your customer may disagree. You will never be able to second guess the judgmental processes of buyers. Or even other dealers. Even though there has been in place for centuries an understood sense of what was meant by grading terminology, that common understanding was, in fact, merely one of convention and politic agreement rather than a rock-solid tablet with laws engraved thereon. No amount of spread-sheeting will erase the basic subjectiveness behind grading. And let's not get into how personal preferences in book titles or subject matter enters into the picture. This book you love - that book you hate ..."
"I don't hate any books," interjected Deckle.
"Tut. Pay attention. Now, five. How do we get beyond subjectivity when assessing condition? I refer you to the previous points enumerated above - and the following. When looking at a book, forget grading. Forget it. You have already purchased it, or are attracted to the book. If you purchased it, there must have been some basic thing that caused the purchase. You bought the book because you thought it beautiful, you knew it was one of the key texts on a subject, you had customers waiting for the book, you knew you could make a profit on the book or ... or ... you just flat out liked the book. But, in judging the condition of the book, forget all that; forget why you bought it. That is irrelevant. Ir-re-le- vent!"
"But my reasons for buying books are hardly irrelevant, Professor ..."
"And I say irrelevant. Look at the book as a mere physical object. Just a physical object, divorced from content and purpose - and concentrate solely on the parts of the book. There it is - a mere physical object, a specimen to describe. It is an object of whose parts one is comfortably familiar with, and for which one knows, without thinking, all the proper terminology. The book - there it is. It will never be perfect. Be methodical, that is something one should endeavor to have as second nature - a methodical approach to examination - me-tho-di-cal. This sounds complex but it isn't. It takes longer to talk about this task, than to perform it."
"Start on the outside and work inward. Boards (surface, materials, corners or tips, edges, title & decorative embellishments if there); spine (surface, title and decorative embellishments, if there); extremities: head and foot; binding solidity: exterior joints and interior hinges, signature attachments; page edges: top, bottom, fore-edge; end-papers; preliminary leaves - post-lim leaves; text block ... You know the parts of a book as well as anyone, William. So look at them and report what you see."
I could see Deckle was growing restless, squirming uncomfortably in the chair. He never could sit through an entire lecture, more's the shame.
"See here, William, do all this and then leave it to your customer to judge the condition. To decide to buy or not. You will either have described the faults of the book fully or you will not have. But there will be no disagreement as to a condition grade. You will certainly still be allowed to say it's a very nice book."
"A nice book! What sort of descriptive word is that? Nice. I should be saying harrumph here."
"My good friend, you came bouncing in here the other day with a nice leather volume you had found. I said it was a very nice book, and you said, yes, isn't it. Was there any confusion as to what we meant?"
"Now you are being deliberately obtuse. Circumspect even!"
"It was a nice book!"
Deckle despondently shook his head. "I don't know, Professor. I don't know. It seems that people need a good grading system. They need to know what is 'good' and what is 'very good.' How will they determine this without guidelines? You can't just throw everything out into the dustbin."
"You were not listening. There is no 'good' and there is no 'very good.' Those are mental templates that people have all agreed to say exist, that have served well enough through the years, but no one really agrees as to what is the definition of 'very good' or 'good.' They say it is all defined. They say it was laid down by the AB when it came down from the mountain. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, everybody has their own idea of what 'good' and 'very good' mean. And as to judgment ... haw! ... whenever grading is in the air, it is all done on the slippery slope of a curve. There is no 'very good' - there is only the book sitting there with all its faults for everybody to see. We all can look at the book and see the spot on the cover. There can be no disagreement about the spot's existence. But as soon as one starts to formulate a grading system around that spot there will be as many opinions as there are observers."
"People won't like this, Professor," said Deckle.
"Harrumph! I have had enough with well enough, and it is little concern of mine the predilections of others." I countered.
"Anyway, people will still do just exactly as they please. Especially book dealers."
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