February 14-20, 2007

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'Jack the Giant Killer'

Photograph by Pat Kirk
Old Jack City: A child's chapbook from the early 19th century is especially valuable because few copies survived in mint condition.

Page Turners

Rare book dealers show off the pleasures of the book as object

By Michael S. Gant

MANY YEARS AGO, before the Internet exploded, I was idling away a few hours at a rare-book dealer's store in L.A. when a slightly crazed clerk engaged me in a one-sided discussion about his dream that someday there would be a universal library in which every word of every book every created would be freely and instantly available to everyone. I don't know if he survived to see the new digitizing projects being undertaken by Google and others (the store, unfortunately, seems to have gone out of business, or at least has no presence on the web, which generally means nonexistence these days). I hope so; his faith in the future was downright messianic.

Google's digitized online library (check out books.google.com) works quite well for those titles that have been made available in so-called full-view mode, and the ability to do word searches on the entire text of volumes is revelatory. The "snippet" view that Google provides for all those titles caught in the wide net of copyright law is, however, annoying to the point of uselessness. Some other digitizing efforts that can be seen at www.archive.org under the heading "Texts" produce better-quality images (especially for illustrations and bindings), and the small Turning the Pages initiative (www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/ttpbooks.html) at the British Library reproduces books in a way that is probably as close to the experience of actually handling the physical object as the Internet is likely to get.

There is more to books, however, than just the words. Nothing can replace the tactile sensation, the sheer sensual joy of gently pulling a book from a shelf and feeling the thickness of the cloth, the grain of the paper, sometimes even the bite of the type itself. Libraries are a great place to enjoy that abundance built up over 500 years of printing history, but sometimes the urge to possess the book far exceeds the need to borrow it. Which is where the California International Antiquarian Book Fair comes in handy.

The fair, now in its 40th year, assembles some 200 dealers in rare and unusual books, maps, manuscripts and ephemera under one roof at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. The booksellers, who come from the United States, Europe, Australia and Canada, give even the modestly bankrolled collector the chance to view and handle volumes of such age and scarcity that even public libraries might restrict their access. The selections range from incunabula (books printed before 1501) to sumptuous leather-bound volumes to modern fine-press limited editions and autographed first editions. A few of the treasures touted for this year's fair include Che Guevara's original tourist visa for his second ramble through South America, three early editions of Joyce's Ulysses and a souvenir card signed by James Marshall, the man who started the California Gold Rush.

The main attraction is high-end browsing, but the fair also schedules some special events: a panel on the state of fine-art calligraphy in the Bay Area (Saturday 1-2pm), a booksigning by Nick Basbanes, author of Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, a book-valuation workshop (Sunday 1-3pm) and an exhibit on calligraphy mounted by the San Francisco Public Library. Don't forget to bring cash or a couple of credit cards; there's no point in pretending that you can walk through this bibliophiles candy store and not want to indulge. Someone once quipped that cocaine was God's way of telling people that they had too much money. They same is true of rare books, which at least can be passed down to your heirs.

The California International Antiquarian Book Fair takes place Feb. 16-18, Friday 3-9pm, Saturday 11am-7pm and Sunday, 11am-5pm at the Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15 for three days or $10 for Saturday or Sunday. (415.962.2500)

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