Field Observation & Transcription: An Antiquarian Collection

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Robert McGinty, who I met through a mutual friend, is a collector of classic books pertaining to poetry, literature, the arts and history.  He teaches English at a local high school and has a background in theater and the creative arts, holding a Master’s from Rutgers University in Creative Arts Education.

During one of our conversations about life as a grad student and my topic of creative research, Robert mentioned jokingly that he was in possession of a 99 year-old book and a 140 year-old-book.

Fast-forwarding to my field observation, I could hardly believe that the 140 year-old book was still in one piece, let alone that he would actually bring it out of the house. It’s not every day I come across someone who offers to set up a mobile, antiquarian book shop.

Robert agreed to bring the books out of the house as part of  a special field observation for me to include in my graduate research project.We made plans to meet up together at his son’s baseball game, along with his wife, Lynne.

TRANSCRIPTION Part I:

For Transcription Part II, See Doré Circa 1880

Still somewhat in shock that Robert has agreed to bring his books out of the house and to a baseball game nonetheless, I hurry myself not wanting to be a minute late, but also not wanting to forget any of my field observation essentials–such as my notebook, camera, digital recorder and extra batteries and extra pens.

Stepping outside, the time is about ten minutes to five in the evening. The sky looks grayish-white; the air feels heavy and humid. My palms and fingers feel clammy just from walking from the front door to my car. Jumping into the driver’s seat, a wave of excitement rushes over me, but from the looks of the sky, the thought crosses my mind that it looks like rain.

I quickly glance around inside my car in search of an umbrella, but just as soon decide that it if rains, any chance of meeting a 99 year-old book will be out the window.  No need.

In under ten minutes, I have arrived at Bennett’s Crossing where the baseball field is, and I notice that there are hardly any cars in the lot. This is actually a relief because it means that I am not late, and have not kept anyone waiting. (Not that they would be “waiting” but it just felt better to be early.)

Ah. Off to a good start!

I decide to get a head start on things and proceed over to the bleachers to get myself situated and collected. No sooner have I climbed onto a bench and am unzipping the case for my camera when Robert, Lynne and the kids have arrived. Jon is suited up to play ball. He looks sharp in his blue and white uniform. He’s 13 and going through a growth spurt.

The two younger boys, Sam with strawberry-blonde hair and Michael with dark hair like Lynne, race out of the car and are almost on the jungle gym before Lynne has a chance to tell them to stay in sight.

“Michael and Sam, go play but you better stay in sight!” she yells, with both hands around her mouth like a megaphone.

We are seated to the right of the batter/pitcher/umpire. I am seated on the uppermost bleacher, Lynne sits on the bleacher just below mine, to my left. Robert has gone back to the car to get the books. As he approaches our bench, his rimless glasses glint in the hazy sunlight and he’s wearing his faded-green military jacket. Settling down with the precious cargo he carried over, he ever-so-gently sits the books down on the bleachers right below me.

There are parents and bystanders randomly scattered about, a few within earshot and close enough to see the literary exhibition just about to go on. I don’t mind, but I can’t help but feel rude as I have no intention of watching the game.

The first book the Robert sets center-stage is medium-sized. The cover, spine and pages are gorgeously worn with age. The word Titanic in red, echoing the embellished frame, around a black and white picture of the majestic ship.

At the top, the title reads, The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters and Thrilling Stories Of Survivors With Photographs & Sketches is just below.

The book Robert holds is now 99 years old.

After I shoot the photo, he offers it to me with both hands.

As I touch the front cover, I can literally feel a slight raise of the red paint. It still has a sheen to it after all these years, albeit barely there, but there. (*See detail in the photo below.)

The picture of the Titanic on the front cover also has a slight raise to it; it sits just a hair higher than the stained, golden fibers of the material which stretch across the cover. (*See detail in photo below)

Looking closer, I can see that each letter, each character and embellishment colored black on the cover is impressed into the surface.

I smile slowly and take a breath.

Running my index finger over the letters I can feel the subtle depth of recession–a marvelous feeling!

You see, to me, each sensation of texture on the face of the cover is like savoring a gourmet dessert. I have only read about books this old, I have never met one.

“Is this the kind of old you wanted?” Robert says, laughingly.

Gesturing to the book, he says,”This is a reprint, the Memorial Edition has blue on its cover, I have it at home. It has the same picture of the boat on the front as this one, but silver inlay for the lettering. This copy came out the same year. But because the publisher didn’t have rights to the photographs the people who printed this copy made drawing on the inside. However, the story is the same. It’s a decent edition, a little bit worn on the binding.”

“Where did you find the Memorial copy?” I ask.

“That, I purchased for twenty dollars out of the Nor’easter bookstore in Ocean City–which is long gone. Umm, bought that for twenty dollars, which is good money at the time. It was in decent shape. And that was around 1987.”

I notice that Robert takes his breaks in between words long enough for me to make quick jots, in between looking through the antique book. I am slowly turning the pages with great care, two hands for each page.

I am huddled over the book, guarding it from the elements, protective.

The visible levels of wear are beautiful. I am amazed at the layers of material underneath the topmost layer of fabric upon which the title and illustrations rest. Without peeling anything back, I spy the “under-workings” of the spine. These layers are the strength of the book and they boast a superior quality of workmanship–giving glimpses here and there of the skeleton underneath.

I peer for an even closer look.

Observing  me inspect the book with intense interest, Robert says, “Looking at the spine, on the bottom, and it still has some banding of the cover over it, but down here, you’ll see like in sections the book was put together and then it was threaded together in order to bind it and glue could be used but that wasn’t the major thing at that time. So it was basically kept together by the thread and this as an overlay. These are the best books that possibly could be made. Around the 1900’s books were still relatively expensive even though industrially produced.

I overhear Lynne exclaim, “Who takes twelve hours to get ready for a prom?! That’s ridiculous.”

It must be prom season.

But back to the book.

I look up and nod my head, acknowledging Robert’s commentary on book-binding methods of the early 1900’s.

I am caught between guarding the book, relishing every second viewing it and holding it, trying to make sure that I get photos, and writing down what Robert is sharing on the “tour.”

I don’t want to miss a thing.

I am also aware of the man and woman in their fifties or so, standing about 12 feet away, eavesdropping on our conversation, taking in our dramatics. I feel like we should be in a museum or a classroom, but we are gathered on bleachers at a community ball game for junior-high age boys–the irony of it suddenly strikes me funny.

As I continue to look through the book, trying to take in the fullness of its age, the history for which it stands, the technical processes that created it, Robert says, “It could be reconstructed.”

I look at the layers of materials and bindings that are still going strong, still held together, and I wonder what this would require, if not replacing a great portion of the materials. “wouldn’t that be like taking away from the beauty of an old book?” I think to myself.

“How?” I ask.

“Book specialists. I’m not sure exactly how much could be maintained but it could be done.”

Book specialists.

Robert purchased The Sinking Titanic and Great Sea Disasters many years ago, he is not sure of the exact date, but tells me he discovered it in a bookstore in the Village (NYC).

“It was in a pile underneath a bunch of other books.”

“Why do you think someone else didn’t snatch it up? This is amazing,” I say.

“Oh, probably because they didn’t know what they were looking for. The drawings probably dissuaded people from buying it because they weren’t real, live photographs. That’s my guess. Is that accurate? I don’t know. ”

People clap and cheer the teams and I try to stay focused on the precious information Robert is giving me. It’s difficult because I don’t want to appear as rude or intrusive, as it is obvious that I am disengaged from the games, but I need my full attention on the matter at hand. I also sense people close to us very aware of what we are talking about. They have gotten a couple of feet closer since Robert and I have talking and I’ve been taking photos.

The gnats are bad. I pull my hood on. I can still feel them under my white hoodie itching.

I savor one last look at The Sinking of the Titanic and the Great Sea Disasters, and hand the book back to Robert with both hands, careful to assure a safe passing of the book back to its owner.

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3 responses to “Field Observation & Transcription: An Antiquarian Collection

  1. Hi Christen,
    Out of curiosity, how much is the Titanic book worth now a days? Is it rare to have one?

  2. The awe and wonder at holding an old book. I collect books and I have a few that are 100+ years old. My oldest book is 235 years. Printed in the year of the American Revolution. That book never ceases to amaze. The year it was printed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were alive. The book is the same age as the constitution in a vault in D.C. I do love an old book! Puts time in perspective.

    • Hello Lisa!
      Thanks so much for your comment. It’s always great to hear from someone who is another lover of books–especially the ones that have been around for ages. That is nothing short of amazing about your 235 year old book! Wow! Was your book something that was passed down through the family or how did you come across it? I would love to hear the story behind your book of how you came to own it–talk about a rich history! Again, thanks for sharing, and happy 4th of July to you and your family. 🙂

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