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For the Love of Words

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

I have never been a book collector. Bibliophile, yes: I love to read. But I’ve never understood the attraction of the book as an object in and of itself. So a paperback version of Oliver Twist always held the same allure as a first edition to me, until now. My friend Arthur Fournier has gotten me to see that loving a book as an object, especially when it is rare, increases the pleasure of reading it. I suppose it helps that Arthur is a bit of an Indiana Jones figure in the rare book world (my phrase, not his; a well-brought up midwestern boy, Arthur is far too modest to own up to such a swashbuckling moniker). He’s never happier than when he’s helping to create a library devoted to experimental German fixed-wing aircraft of the Second World War or chatting to a rare book dealer in Kabul who has a secret cache of Afghan rebel literature.

To listen to his tales of how he finds these books is nearly as fascinating as reading the stories themselves, which is why I was so excited to grab a drink with him.

At Sel Rrose on Delancey, Arthur started off with a Negroni and I had a pisco sour, my favorite Chilean cocktail. The drinks arrived reasonably quickly; mine had a hint of menthol taste to it, which, although unexpected, was not unpleasant. It was sort of like drinking a frothy alcoholic mouthwash. Arthur declared his Negroni more than acceptable.

We started by chatting about “the New Rare” in a phrase Arthur picked up from English academic Lucy Moore, which signals a new approach in book collecting. It refers to the fact that instead of accumulating the usual staid categories of sporting books, literary first editions, books on decor and architecture, there is a whole new group of work being collected: “Radical politics, the 1960s, Beat literature, the punk movement and counterculture have all become quite collectible.” Titles that would never find their way onto your grandmother’s bookshelf are suddenly flying out of auction houses for some fairly astonishing sums of money.

As to why there is this sudden fascination with collecting counterculture, Arthur thinks it’s because it speaks to the way we live now.

“Counterculture is our culture moving forward, with the contradictions that are embodied within our culture expressing themselves. It’s really just the forward progress of our modern society.”

Sipping away at his drink, Arthur is becomes more passionate on his subject: he proclaims that the new rare is also about letting books be sexy. “Books can be sexy as hell. So the new rare, as a category, includes books that express a longing to be modern; a longing to free ourselves from the restrictions and taboos of previous eras.”

Arthur goes on to talk about books in the age of the Internet and tell me that one of his personal collecting obsessions is the intersection between the ’60s counterculture drug movement and the early history of computers. “One person who used hallucinogenic drugs was Steve Jobs. There is a good argument to be made that the culture of the Internet as we know it today, cyberculture or web culture, has hidden roots in the 1960s countercultures of California. When the commune era of the late 1960s was over, a lot of the hippies who returned to mainstream civilization took jobs in the emerging computer industry. So you can see their influence in the first great era of personal computing and networked communication, from 1974 to 1994, before venture capital showed up and changed the dynamic.”

“Oh, I have something to show you, it’s not from the ’60s, but . . .” And at that moment he pulls out an anthology called The Beau Book, which was edited by the famous pornographer and copyright pirate Samuel Roth. I grab it hungrily. Published in 1926, even a cursory glance at the text reveals a saucy literary mix: there are suppressed stories by Ben Franklin; an astonishingly modern piece on how to be a successful mistress; pictures of good-looking flappers; and an entire page dedicated to men’s dressing gowns. I feel a stab of sadness while looking at it, as it makes you realize how spineless and boring magazines are now, compared with the sensual urbanity leaping out at me from those pages.

I’m so busy delving into a story titled “The Immorality of Women at Bridge” that I’ve completely stopped listening to what Arthur is saying. When I pay attention again, he’s talking about how for 500 years books have been a necessity, and now they are a luxury. “We’re talking about new categories of material that suit our interests, but we’re also talking about a whole new experience of the printed page because the book has a new position in the world.”

Reluctantly closing the work, I turn back to my drinking partner and ask a question: I’m curious to know if he thinks books have become luxury items in the same way they were when the printing press was invented. Arthur reflects on that moment and finishes his Negroni: “If you go to the Frick or the Met and look at portraits, the people in the 16th century are often holding a book. It was a symbol of power or luxury. In a certain way, we’ve cycled back around, now, books have become—for some—status objects.”

And how, I wondered does book collecting compare with the overinflated art market in terms of price.

“It’s a lower price point. If you go to an art fair and you have $5 million to spend, you’ll hit your ceiling. If you go to a rare book fair and have $5 million to spend, you’re the king.”

We’re into our second drinks now (a beer for Arthur and a glass of white wine for me), and I’m curious to find out more about Arthur’s adventures abroad. He tells me about a great trip he took to Afghanistan a few years ago—on a hunch—to buy a collection of magazines produced by and about the mujahideen fighters during the Afghan civil war of the 1980s.

Arthur hoped that these materials would end up in a university collection for the reason that the United States has been involved with wars in Central Asia since the 1970s, yet it still don’t understand that part of the world. “We will never understand Afghanistan until we have access to books and magazines written by Afghans in their own language where they’re talking about their hopes, concerns and understandings.”

There is nothing in Arthur’s upbringing to indicate that he’d jump on a plane on a hot tip to a war zone, except, like most of us bibliophiles, he spent a lot of time in his local library. “It was a small suburban library, a redbrick building at the edge of the field where I could leave my bike in the front and just disappear for the better part of a hot summer day to travel through space and time. I don’t think I’m unique in that: kids who grew up in the 20th century before computers were everywhere, before iPads, that was your passport—going to the library.”

Arthur is fully aware that he couldn’t work without the Web, but if there is a divide, he’s on the other side. “I’m still that kid in the library. I’m always going to be turning that page, hungrily looking for that new piece of information to transform my understanding of the world. I think the book, for better or worse, is intertwined with what it means to be human.”

As we finish up our drinks, Arthur and I make one more stop. This time to a cash machine, for me to get out the money to buy the Beau book. If that rare find is going to be my gateway drug into the world of collecting, I know I’m going to be hooked.

For more information, please go to Arthur’s website: 

Photo of Arthur Fournier by Janette Beckman



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