Bookcase Wars


One aspect of the current situation is that television viewers have been treated to a rather limited version of Through the Keyhole. The original programme had sauce impresario Lloyd Grossman touring the well-appointed interior of someone’s dwelling, inviting viewers to guess the occupant. The modern version is the inadvertent consequence of people having to appear on television while also practising self-isolation. Rather than being filmed in a television studio or on location, they are using computer video cameras and speak from their homes. Behind the talking head, we are able to see a sliver of their home’s interiors. There is a general consensus that the best backdrop to such a television appearance is the bookcase. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it prevents style gurus from commenting on the interior design tastes of the person appearing. The second is that owning a large collection of books confers a certain high status on the owner.

It also allows the viewer to delve into the intellectual hinterland of the person appearing for good or ill. Owen Jones made quite a song and dance on Twitter recently over Michael Gove owning several books on dictators, including one of the two volumes of Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler, when the obvious question should have been where was the second?  John Rentoul and Iain Dale took to Twitter to conduct a guided tour of their shelves showing an extensive collection of political biographies.

The construction of the shelves themselves are also worthy of comment. Stand-alone bookcases from the likes of Ikea or MFI do not show as much commitment as fitted bookshelves. Black veneer is quite passée.

Possessing a varied and colourful collection of books merely shows that the committed book-owner could have run up a large tab at Amazon or spends much time of an evening or weekend at Waterstones or Foyles to fill their fitted shelves. Meanwhile, the real alpha-bookist has Uniform Volumes.

Uniform Volumes (UV) were the domestic status symbol from the 19th and early 20th century of the aspirant middle classes.  Lacking gaudy dust-covers, in sober colours, sometimes gold-blocked and leather-bound, with gilt lettering on their spines, they demonstrated to house-visitors that their host was articulate and well-read. Periodicals could be collected and then bound in UV form. I have a two-volume history of the Franco-Prussian war published as a limited-run periodical by Cassell while the fighting was actually going on, where the Ems Telegram features as a sensational revelation after the fighting had abated. On one of the pages is the faded imprint of a long-discarded inside front cover of the magazine. The Black and White Budget came into existence to cover the Second Boer War and was resurrected for the Russo-Japanese War, but also featured other stories as well as racy (for the time) bare-shouldered photographs of West End actresses. Amalgamated, Hutchinsons, and Newnes all produced periodicals covering the Second World War that could be collected and bound, following on from identical-themed products produced by various publishers including newspaper houses during the Great War. Issues of Punch could be bound featuring Mr Punch and his be-hatted dog himself on the spine. There was also a 20-volume Punch Library with articles collected thematically under the editorship of Amalgamated Press’s periodical king Sir John Hammerton. For British youth, Chums, Boy’s Own Paper, and Young England were collected in annuals. Households could obtain the complete works of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.

The fashion for UV was not restricted to culture and current events. Numerous sets of UV dedicated to self-education abounded, such as The Modern Home University, Everyman’s Library, and Practical Knowledge for All. A person whose UVs came from the Left Book Club showed they were fashionably radical, and the Left Book Club seemed to be making a statement by actually not having a standard size or gilt lettering for their tomes. A collection of paperback Penguin Specials showed that the owner was earnest rather than aspirational.

The ultimate UV status symbol has to be a set of encyclopaedias, and the ultimate and best-known work was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These are no longer printed but are still available on the second-hand for the serious bookist.  Started in 1768, Britannica ran to fifteen editions before the Internet rendered the print version finally obsolete, despite a policy of continuous revision that started in 1936 and an annual Book of the Year that started in 1938 (the last edition with any good news about Afghanistan was in 1975, four years before the Soviet invasion). Anyone buying an edition of the Britannica older than the 9th is doing so as an investment rather than out of serious bookism. 

The 9th or ‘Scholar’s’ edition was produced between 1875 and 1888, so subscribers had to wait thirteen years after first reading about Aaron, the first Jewish prophet, to learn about Zecharia, a latter prophet who appeared in the second year of Darius.  While not comprehensive, the 9th earned its soubriquet due to the dissertation-level of some of its articles, plus the great minds employed to author them. It was in these volumes I discovered Millicent Garret Fawcett’s article on communism and Edwin Abbott Abbott’s controversial statistical analysis of the texts of the gospels. The 9th edition was reprinted by The Times in 1899 in a very hard-wearing edition, which is something that cannot be said about the 1902 reprint which included a 10-volume supplement necessary to bring the work up-to-date as part of a ‘fast-buck’ marketing campaign essentially to sell householders information about the modern age that was by then up to a quarter of a century old.

It is generally held that the pinnacle edition of Britannica was the 11th, as this provided a snapshot in both breadth and depth of the world at the peak of its development before the catastrophic wrong-turn of the Great War.  The 29 volumes were reprinted as a 16 double-volume set in 1922 , with a three-volume supplement covering the global conflict to be the 12th edition and reprinted again in 1926 with updated supplement volumes to be the 13th edition.  Both supplements feature a biography of Lenin written by Leon Trotsky, but also co-authored in 1926 by someone only described as ‘X’.  Trotsky can hardly be described as an objective biographer, but this is the charm of the editions prior to the 14th; the authors put themselves into their work.  There is a certain muscular certainty to the writing that is perhaps characteristic of the contemporaneous perception of a universe governed according to Newtonian precision and order, where new mechanical marvels abounded and there was little sense of detriment about progress. The authors did not live in an age where the wrong word would result in social and cultural ostracism to the extent it does now, although certain issues were still off-limits, such as the nature and detail of the crimes that sent Oscar Wilde to prison with hard labour.

The 14th had the misfortune to come out during the 1929 crash but was a shadow of the former editions due to its anodyne nature, perhaps designed to widen appeal, and this sterility continued into the 15th edition and obsolescence with the advent of the Internet.

Charity shops will not accept Britannicas, and the aftermarket seems to be exclusively online. People trying to offload the 14th or 15th editions for anything above £10 are wasting their time as these editions have no value. It is possible to obtain bargains for the 9th-13th editions, but accurate valuation is difficult as the demand is so low.

Why should the dedicated bookist have the Britannica take up their valuable shelf space?  Well there is a cachet of the Uniform Volume, but there is also some intellectual value. We  are living in an age where some quite extreme and mainly hostile interpretations of events, persons and objects are being imposed with little challenge. The encyclopaedias or indeed any set of UVs provide a cultural anchor to allow a person to perceive the change in evaluation of a topic over time; rather than perceive it in three dimensions, it is possible to observe the change in perception over time as the fourth dimension. It would also help the reader to push back their own cultural year zero further back in time. Our material world is not so different from the 19th century, the changes have been in speed and scale, and thus intensity. Telegraphy was the internet of the day and the visual display was on paper rather than a flat screen. Only the bit-rate of transmission has really changed.

Another benefit of the UV is that the titles are impossible to read in a video conference, but the uniformity conveys a solidity absent when various gaudy dust-covers are applied. Yes, they say, I own a lot of books, and I am much more serious about it than you are.

Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.