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A Book Is Not Just A Book


My compatriot and old friend Bruce Whiteman in his gentle and perceptive review of my memoir in The Book Collector properly pointed out two clear errors I committed, referring to two important Canadian professors of literature as librarians. One was Reginald Watters, who started off the whole field of Canadian bibliography as in adjunct to teaching and research by compiling his A Checklist of Canadian Literature, which every bookseller and scholar of anything Canadian uses incessantly. For many years it has been referred by everyone as “Watters,” the reason I never knew his true profession. The history of the printing of books in England, America and Canada from the mid-19th century is a fascinating and very complicated subject. Because there were no copyright laws considerable book piracy occurred until laws were enacted. This has fascinated me for many years and I have studied and dealt in Canadian piracies. I always intended to do a book on this, but I never will now.

I never, to my regret, met either man – most regrettably Gordon Roper a professor at Trent University who did a project on Mark Twain piracies in Canada – for I long had intended to contact him and suggest a revised and expanded version of his extremely important study of Mark Twain's career with the Canadian pirates, which I would then publish. In the traditional manner of booksellers I kept putting it off till tomorrow and Roper spoiled my plan by dying. Roper's study located at least 50% more Canadian piracies than even the Bibliography of American Literature pioneer effort and he enhanced his findings with a learned essay and the circumstances, which is essential for any collection of Twain's Canadian editions. Roper's essay was published in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada and I personally put it out-of-print, buying every copy until they were gone, giving them to deserving collectors. I've located and seen a fair number of Canadian Twain piracies, more even than Roper located. And every year or so, some new ones appear. A major project now lacks the needed scholar. It will, I believe, be one of the most exciting and important Canadian publishing projects ever, for its international implications alone. I envy the first smart young scholar who comes along. I only regret I'm too old, for in spite of Roper's and BAL's pioneer efforts there's still much missing from the record.

Bruce was being properly scholarly in chiding me, but in some of his comments in the review he stated a couple of things which I will here take issue with. After all, he didn't make any errors in his review so what else can I do?

Whiteman calls it mystifying – given my bluntness about some people – why I neglected to name others when they were well known to many. I'd love to be thought mystifying but the truth is actually mundane. In every case where I left out names (such as Michel Brisebois's) it was simply because I was making a point which I felt to be important and I thought it was the point that was important not the people involved. If we had done an index (as we should have, our single greatest lapse) I would have named everyone in the Canadian book world, for then, checking the index for their names in the back and finding themselves, they would have had to buy my book. Everyone claims they don't check themselves in the index but they do.

I just wish he had referred to me as mystifying thirty years ago when it might have proved useful for me with women.

So the mystery isn't even mystifying.

But his other gentle jibe I seriously dispute, even though I believe Bruce was just having some fun with me, gently mocking my constant assertion that the book is the centre of everything that is important in civilization.
Bruce makes his point by saying, that in my enthusiasm for the book I leave out, ignore almost, the text. He then makes the case that the text is the point of the book and I have put the cart before the horse, or, maybe better said, I have forgotten the cart by worshipping the horse. I concede only a tiny nod to his point.

For he is wrong here – seriously so I believe, and he should know better, since he is not just a scholar but a poet and more important to this point a real librarian, a rarer species than is generally known. But this lowly scavenger of junk heaps, the used bookseller, will dare to arm-wrestle the scholar.

The book as a whole is so extremely important precisely because the text depends on the book. By its very nature the book protects the text. Because short of burning books the text cannot be tampered with. This, of course, is why tyrants and the barbarians always start by burning the books. It is the book that guarantees that the text is the text and with our current plethora of electronic means of communication the text, it seems to me, has never been so important. Nor so endangered.

The Samizdat, typed on flimsy onion skin in six or seven copies to foil the authorities in totalitarian states, and the fuzzy, cheaply produced porn paperback, full of typos, both convey the very lowest and cheapest form of printing, even though both were produced so ephemerally for very different reasons. Both of those cheap imitation productions tell us different stories, very different from each other in spite of their seeming similarity of production. But, more important, they can be easily (and to many authorities, properly) destroyed. But even they can't be altered. The University of Toronto has a pretty good collection of Czech samizdats smuggled out by scholars and diplomats demonstrating the long and important history of Czech dissidents who escaped and then came to Canada.

We should never forget what Winston Smith's job was in 1984. He rewrote history to suit his masters. While we have actual books we retain our history. Bruce forgets that his sacred text must have the book to survive. I do, of course, concede that the text is sacred to us, the very basic justification for the book. But the book is the protection without which the text is at the mercy of anyone who cares to destroy or alter it.

No one seems to comment much, as far as I can see, on that aspect of the computer, the ebook, and their many variants, and what they portend for the Winston Smiths of the future. Or for the masters of the future Winstons.
It will be very easy in the future to revise history to the liking of those who command things, as anyone who uses these modern means to convey ideas knows. And no one knows this better than amateurs like myself who can begin with near-illiterate scribbles and then revise constantly and press a button which replaces my ill-thought-out ideas with reasoned thought, in decent prose. And obliterate what it replaces at the same press of the button.
But the book… how can it be tampered with?

Booksellers in my time, seeing the ever more frequent accounts of forgery and fraud in the art and antiques markets congratulate ourselves on the relative safety books provide us. Precisely because it's simply too expensive to duplicate a book. It's true that there are many more frequent cases of autograph forgery and even printed broadsides have become susceptible and therefore dangerous. There are a couple of cases of modern forgery which shocked and scandalized the trade and the book world in general, but books themselves defy such fraud.

So, Bruce can have his fun with me and I expect he and I will have much future pleasure disputing this point over food and wine for some time to come.

No book, anybody's text, Bruce.


-David Mason

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