“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.” ―
This year for Christmas, a dear friend surprised me with a book; that was no surprise. But it was a book unlike any other he’d given me; most were architecture-related. This year’s gift was Mr Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock”, the text of a talk J.A.M. Whistler had given in London in 1885. There have been several editions of this text, one of them available for less than ten dollars. If you’re strapped for cash, the text is also on-line and printable for free.
There have also been at least three limited editions of “Ten O’Clock” in letterpress and various bindings. And those range in price from $10 to $2,500, depending on age, condition, and in some cases the prestige of the press. This new addition to my library is a 1907 edition from the Alderbrink Press in Chicago. You’ve probably never heard of that small press; it produced very few books, many by obscure authors or writers of only local repute.
Those familiar with the Chicago Literary Renaissance, which flourished from 1910 to the mid-1920s, and touched a number of characters connected with the city’s larger Progressive infrastructure, will recognize names like Floyd Dell, Harriet Monroe, Francis Fisher Browne, Theodore Dreiser, and Hamlin Garland. Ben Hecht published 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, Monroe began publishing Poetry magazine. Dell published Moon Calf. Many of them hung out in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. I’m not particularly well-read, so my knowledge is pretty shallow.
A few of these names also happen to be connected with architects of that generation, especially Lawrence Buck and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, for example, created three interiors in Fine Arts for the Mori Art Studio, the Thurber Gallery, and Browne’s Bookstore. None of them survive outside of a few photographs and some expensive pieces of furniture that show up in auction sales. Another occupant of Fine Arts was Ralph Fletcher Seymour, owner, operator, and sole employee of the Alderbrink Press. Seymour published the first American edition of the writings of Swedish feminist Ellen Key (pronounced “kigh”, rhymes with “high”), translated into English by Mamah Bouton Borthwick Cheney, mistress of Wright who eloped to Europe with him in 1909.
Among the qualities which add to the value of an old book are, beyond condition, things like the presence of its original dust jacket; whether the pages have been cut; autographs or other provenance. My copy of the Whistler meets two of those. Imagine a flimsy glassine wrapper that has survived one hundred and fourteen years. Not only am I thrilled to add this to my shelves. But more than that, I’m committed to preserving this volume in the condition I received it and to pass it along to someone else who will care for it when I’m gone.
I mention this for two reasons: First to share with you my happiness at receiving a thoughtful gift from a dear friend. But also, and more importantly, because that book is just one year younger than the M. E. Beebe Architectural Office, an F-M architectural treasure that was also in my care, a job I totally fucked and am now in the midst of a very expensive and humiliating process of its restoration. Mea Culpa. Why should I assume that the Whistler book will fare any better in my care than the Beebe Office. A good question for which I have no good answer.