A defining moment in 20th Century book collecting came in 1934, when John Carter’s New Paths in Book Collecting appeared. He suggested to Alexander the Greats of bibliomania that the entire world of collecting had not yet been conquered, that there were subjects—detective fiction was one—that collectors hadn’t latched onto yet.
If you had been around to take his advice, and bought up all the Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christies and Dashiell Hammetts in dust jacket, you could now be donating millions of dollars to the Annual Fund at the Newberry and getting one of the lockers named after you. (Have you made that memorial donation for Davy Jones yet?) But you didn’t, and perhaps you are despondent, thinking that by now all the avenues of collecting have been taken and there is nothing new to track down.
Ah, but isn’t that why you have an Uncle Blogsy? (You knew there was a reason, but you thought it was something awful you did in a previous life? Why don’t you go to some other blog and read poetry?) There are still areas which are not yet collected to death, and which you can find at the Newberry Book Fair at quite reasonable rates.
I realized it this week when I opened a box and found Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. This is a compilation of trivia and odd facts brought together in short chapters for reading during thoughtful moments of repose. We get this and two or three of its sequels every year. I was unaware until I unloaded the box that there are over three dozen titles in the series. Here was the 10th anniversary edition, and there was the 20th anniversary edition, and if I were you, I’d start collecting these now, because the early printings are getting hard to find in good condition. There is, of course, a website, and I note that Uncle John’s compilations are available on Kindle, which I had not realized until just now must be the ultimate bathroom reading (though I’m not sure I’d take it in the tub.)
But you don’t have to stop there. Uncle John is not the only game in town. You can also find the Great American Bathroom Reader, W.C. Privy’s Bathroom Companion, The Mad Bathroom Companion, and two different series called Jokes for the John. Neither of them seems to be related to the Jokes for the John series published in the early 60s by the euphoniously named Kanrom, which was also responsible for Can-O-Rama. These books are noted for having a hole in the upper lefthand corner, with a chain through them for hanging in the bathroom.
In fact, if you don’t want to collect potty books, you could collect books with holes in that corner. There were lots: almanacs were often published in this format, and probably nearly as many cookbooks. Phonebooks, too, at least in small communities, always had that little hole in them, and for the same reason. These books were, at least in the eyes of their publishers, so important in daily life that you couldn’t possibly hide them away on a shelf. You needed them hanging from a hook in the kitchen, by the phone, or next to the counter in the general store. The ones which saw actual use are very rare in good condition, because eventually the hook or the string would tear through the corner of the book.
Another genre hard to find in good condition combines the two: a bathroom book hung up for ready reference. These are the Wards and Sears mail-order catalogs, which found their way to the outhouse once their retail life had ended. This was a LITTLE before my time, pineapple cutlet, but I am informed by those in the know that these, like many works of great literature, have a point you can check to see whether the catalog was actually hung in the little house out back. All the black and white pages will be missing.
(A member of my constituency asked what I would be blogging about today and, on being told, said “Stick to writing about the end of the WORLD.”)