Antique Books, Part 2: Making Meaning from Text

Errata

If you find this page in a book, it means that the publisher made a mistake in the printing, but reprinting the book to fix the mistakes would be too expensive, so instead, a catalog of mistakes is added. Look at how the “errata” page is included in the book. Is it glued in? Is it a full sheet or a partial sheet? These questions can give you insight into just how valuable paper and the printing process were at the time of publication. In my copy of Dombey and Son, the errata were originally printed on a full page added after the introduction. When additional mistakes were found, a partial sheet was added with the later corrections.

Further Reading

This is usually the last section of a book. It serves to direct the reader to books similar to the one he just finished. For example, a copy of Treasure Island may list other books considered appropriate reading for boys at the time of publication. Since “further reading” sections are considered advertisements, first editions usually do not include this section, while later editions of popular works are certain to have them.

Foxing

Foxing refers to brown discoloration or powder that occurs when a book starts to deteriorate. Foxing is mostly a problem on pages, starting with the edges, and on spines that are leather-bound. Foxing is not always helpful for dating a book, but advanced foxing on certain pages will show that those pages were viewed more often than other pages. On some books, illustrations show much more foxing than pages of text, which shows that the plates were printed on an inferior paper before being inserted into the final work. Leather makes much more of a mess than paper when it begins deteriorating, so never place an old book on a light-colored surface.

Publisher

Many antique books do not have dates printed on their title pages. To determine the age of an undated book, the publisher’s name can be helpful. A successful book will likely have gone through several publishing houses. For example, Dickens would move to a new publisher if he was dissatisfied with the old one, and the new publisher would often reprint some of his earlier works.

Repairs

Repairs are often not of scholarly value, but they are interesting. Books with highly damaged spines and covers reveal much about how they were put together. I have some books that have pages torn in half with no attempt at repair. I can tell other books have been much-loved because tiny tears have little slips of paper lovingly glued across them. If the foxing on the page matches the discoloration and foxing on the repair paper, I can tell that the book was fixed early in its life. Sometimes, you may find a book that has had its binding replaced, or even one that has been bound at home by its owner.

Notes

Antique books will usually have previous owners’ names carefully written inside the front cover. Many of them will also bear messages if given as gifts. My copy of Waihoura bears a sticker noting that a child received it as a gift from his teacher for doing excellent work. Others have notes expressing a hope for similar interest, or simply congratulations on a birthday. One even has a sticker bidding teachers and school officials to let the publisher know if the book would be suitable for classroom use. Knowing who received the gift, who gave the gift, and on what occasion the gift was given can tell much about a book’s perception in its own time.

Font and Paper

If you’re really good, you can identify a book’s approximate publication date by the font/typeface being used. I’m not that good. However, I do know one thing to look for: the ſ. In English-speaking countries, ſ (which is an s) fell out of use in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Paper made from wood pulp did not become common until the 1830s–40s. Before then, paper was made from recycled cloth. This paper was much more durable than modern paper, but also more expensive to produce. Vellum was common through the late 17th century. Combining knowledge of paper quality and printing can be one of the best ways to evaluate a book’s age without consulting external sources.

Antique Books, Part 1: Handling
Antique Books, Part 3: Purchasing
Antique Books, Part 4: Storage


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