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Professor Booknoodle's Scrapbook

#129, 3 November 2008

The Dinosaur We All Ride

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."

"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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