A Student of Catalogues

Let’s pull something off the shelves at random and see what fun we can have.

Ah, here’s a slim, undistinguished looking volume that too often is overlooked.

What book is this?  The cover tells you nothing of the treasure that lies inside.

To judge this book by its cover shows a volume that wishes to remain anonymous. Like vanilla ice cream at Baskin Robbins, there is little here to arrest the eye.

The cover is tan, with a lighter tan binding. Even the size is undistinguished: a mere 6X9.5 inches, with only 24 numbered pages. A mere 250 copies were published.

The only external lettering is on the spine, but even that is simple and direct: A Student of Catalogues.

No author’s name.

No publisher’s mark.

Unless you know what you’re looking for, you would likely overlook it on a book seller’s shelf. That would be a mistake.


The spine.

Crack it gently open and there immediately is the sense that this is something special. The paper has a particular texture to it. Nearly a century after it was printed, that texture remains. Draw your finger gently across the page and it’s clear the paper is fine quality, possibly made by hand.

The handsome watermark in each page of A Student of Catalogues.

Hold the page up to the light and secret writing makes itself apparent.

Just as Sherlock Holmes identified the King of Bohemia’s letter by its watermark, so there is a special clue here. There, in all caps and in a size that takes up most of the page, is the watermark: THE IOWAY CLUB. 

A quick online search leads us to the University of Iowa Library’s special collection, and its page devoted to the history of one of this nation’s great small publishing houses, The Torch Press.

In the early decades of the 20th century, several small books were printed at The Torch Press for The Ioway Club. The club produced several early works of Iowa history, each published in Cedar Rapids the Torch Press and its founder, Luther Albertus Brewer.

Brewer was a rarity of his day: a man who cherished fine printing at a time when Iowa had few printers, let alone ones who commissioned high quality paper be produced by hand for special projects.

Starting in 1912, Brewer and his wife, Elinor Taylor Brewer, would produce a small book for distribution to friends at the holidays.

A Student of Catalogues was actually the second booklet Starrett contributed to the series. The first, which I have yet to acquire, was The Escape of Alice: A Christmas Fantasy, published for Christmas 1917.


It is clear from the foreword, written by the Brewers, that they were grateful for Starrett’s essay.

“Again in an hour of distress and perplexity a good fairy drops on our desk a bookish manuscript, with the welcome suggestion that it may be helpful to us in our desire to convey to our friends at this Christmas time our message of good will.
Vincent Starrett, Chicago poet, essayist, critic, all around good fellow and good friend, has a keen appreciation of the way in which to render service. He has caught the spirit of the day, for is it now a fact that what we give we have?
His subject, that of book catalogues, is one that long has made its appeal to us. Simply to read a catalogue of old books, as some one has said fo the backs of books as they stand on the library shelves, is a liberal education. Then the innocent temptation of those impediments of the book collector’s world! Is it not all delightful?”

A catalogue with notes by Starrett. See the first item below in The More You Know. You really should click on the image to make it readable.

Starrett immediately takes to his subject with a delightful anecdote about a postcard he sent to an eastern book dealer, requesting “the favor of a certain catalogue that he had advertised for distribution.” Starrett had no plans to buy anything from the catalogue, which involved Quakerism, “in which, at the moment, I happened to be interested.”

In reply, the dealer sent not the catalogue but another postcard. “I sent you a number of catalogues some months ago, but to date have received no order from you. Are you a prospective purchaser, or merely a student of catalogues.”

Rather than being insulted, Starrett said the bookseller’s repost was “delightful. The genteel reproach and the ingeniously-phrased accusation amused me, and gave me a high opinion of the antiquarian who was blessed with sardonic humor and was not too servile. Incidentally, the catalogue never arrived, and, as it happens, this particular bookseller never yet has seen a penny of my money…”


Click me.

“Every bookman worthy the name is a student of catalogues,” Starrett states.

“From many of the hundreds that pour in upon him, he may not order a single volume over a decade; yet will he read each with the devotion of an enthusiast, and will rise from his curious studies richer by a wealth of information that he could have obtained in no other way.”

How much did Starrett love book catalogues?

“It is only the exceptional novel that is more entertaining, more fascinating, than a well filled, well annotated catalogue of books or autographs.”


A last page from Thorp's catalogue.

Starrett also pays tribute to the thoughtful book dealer who puts time into detailing his treasures for sale. “Few critics are as delicately discriminating as the really cultured bookseller and those rare spirits, called collectors, who are his friends and customers.

You get a real sense of the pleasure Starrett takes from flipping through a catalogue. He recalls the words of Leigh Hunt, a friend of Keats and Shelley, who took such great pleasure in ticking off the books that he would want in a catalogue.

“For that glamorous evening, at least, the books were his; perhaps for longer—until the day of their sale to another.” The feeling is like the one experienced by unnamed poetess who treasures a much too expensive but highly desired book on a dealer’s shelf. “Yet so long as her wistful gaze found the loved book in the accustomed place, all was well… ‘Unbought, unsold the book is mine!’ “

(I think of this type of reasoning as Schrodinger's Book. As long as it's on the shelf, the book is both yours, and not yours.)


Starrett spends the remainder of the essay paging through a catalogue and commenting on the glories to be found there. In summing up the experience, he announces, “And the beauty of it all is, this entertainment is free for the asking.”

A lot has changed since Starrett’s time, and I fear he would not be happy with the modern age. Used and rare bookshops are now themselves rare, the victim of online bookselling. Well-done catalogues are, alas, also a fading memory.

Such is progress.


The More You Know

  • These few pages from a book catalogue by Thomas Thorpe were tucked into a Starrett book on Ben Johnson that I picked up several years.  The few notes give you a sense of what Starrett’s process was like while going through a catalogue. The cover shows the numbers of the items he was interested in. And the notations, in pencil and ink, show his fascination for books related to Ben Johnson.
  • This essay had a longer life when it showed up in Starrett’s first book expounding the glories of book collecting, gloriously titled Penny Wise and Book Foolish, published in 1929.