A five-vol­ume ac­count of Aus­tralian book col­lec­tors is a na­tional his­tory of the most heart­warm­ing kind, writes Ge­of­frey Blainey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The col­lec­tor of books is a de­tec­tive, prospec­tor, hunter, hoarder and even­tu­ally a phi­lan­thropist, all in one. Usu­ally pri­vate people, and un­known to the wider pub­lic, most of the sig­nif­i­cant Aus­tralian col­lec­tors since 1788 ap­pear in this fas­ci­nat­ing set of five vol­umes.

Through es­says and mis­cel­la­nies, edited by and of­ten writ­ten by Charles Stitz, a re­tired lawyer turned au­thor and book­seller liv­ing in Al­bury, NSW, we peer into home li­braries and book­shops and see the men and women who turned the pages.

A few col­lec­tors ex­pe­ri­enced a day of blind­ing light: there can be in­tel­lec­tual as well as re­li­gious con­ver­sions. Bernard Smith, in some eyes the most bril­liant of our art his­to­ri­ans, was, as Stitz puts it, ‘‘born in a small work­man’s cot­tage’’ in Syd­ney in 1911. As a stu­dent Smith called at Green­wood’s sec­ond­hand shop in Syd­ney’s Castlereagh Street and found, cheaply no doubt, a copy of the 1891 edi­tion of Charles Dar­win’s On the Ori­gin of Species. Those pages that launched Smith on his ‘‘in­tel­lec­tual jour­ney’’ were among the 5000 books that, in his 95th year, he gave to the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria.

That book car­ries his home ad­dress at the time he bought it and signs he had read it with in­ten­sity. In those days it was a parental rule to make no per­ma­nent mark in a book, as if to em­pha­sise that the au­thor was more im­por­tant than the reader. How fash­ions have changed!

Joyce Ni­chol­son ex­pe­ri­enced her con­ver­sion after reading Ger­maine Greer in 1971: “I could not sleep for three nights.’’ She had got mar­ried (‘‘the hap­pi­est day of my life’’) in the Scotch Col­lege chapel just be­fore her hus­band went north to fight the Ja­panese in New Guinea, and in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne in due course she reared four chil­dren.

In her early 50s, fol­low­ing her sleep­less con­ver­sion, she be­gan a se­cond ex­is­tence, liv­ing on her own and im­mers­ing her­self in fem­i­nist or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing Sis­ters Pub­lish­ing, which she helped cre­ate. In buy­ing Aus­tralian women’s books she was guided by her favourite book­seller, ‘‘the won­der­fully hon­est Peter Arnold’’. She did not like male book­sell­ers, with a cou­ple of ex­cep­tions.

When Ni­chol­son, ad­vanced in years, pre­sented her im­pres­sive li­brary to Mel­bourne Univer­sity, she re­solved that each book should carry a hand­some book­plate, de­scrib­ing her as ‘‘Fem­i­nist, au­thor and mother’’ — in that or­der. At one time distinc­tive book­plates, pasted on the in­side cover, were nor­mal in a col­lec­tor’s li­brary. Many such plates de­picted in Stitz’s five vol­umes re­sem­ble a coat of arms

Others sim­ply signed all the books in their pri­vate li­brary. One signer was AD Hope, al­most a neon sign in Aus­tralian po­etry. “He seems to have been a com­pul­sive marker of ter- ri­tory’’, we are told. In that more book­ish era, when own­ers of books freely lent them to stu­dents, a sig­na­ture was a sen­si­ble pre­cau­tion.

One plea­sure in reading or scan­ning these five vol­umes, which are es­sen­tially self-pub­lished and avail­able in lim­ited re­lease, comes from the asides. ‘‘No­body,’’ writes Clive James, ‘‘can know just how good AD Hope was who doesn’t re­gret that his full great­ness never quite ar­rived’’. James sounds dis­mis­sive but on se­cond glance he is of­fer­ing high praise, and the Na­tional Li­brary in Can­berra ea­gerly ac­quired Hope’s pri­vate pa­pers.

It is heart­warm­ing to read about people who did not have much money but cre­ated slowly, room by room, spe­cial­ist li­braries that will nour­ish Aus­tralian re­searchers for decades, even cen­turies, to come.

But the big uni­ver­si­ties were not sure how to pro­tect such ac­qui­si­tions. Sev­eral in­sisted books should be on the open shelves so that un­der­grad­u­ates could read them freely. Some rare books fell apart. A few un­scrupu­lous visi­tors neatly cut out valu­able il­lus­tra­tions and sold them pri­vately for hand­some sums.

John Orde Poyn­ton — he owned per­haps the world’s third-best col­lec­tion of the works of Wal­ter Scott — gave many of his valu­able books to Mel­bourne Univer­sity but was ap­palled, after he ar­rived from Adelaide in 1963 to pre­side for­mally over the rare book sec­tion, to see how many were ‘‘dam­aged or di­lap­i­dated’’. Aus­tralian Book Col­lec­tors: Some Noted Aus­tralian Book Col­lec­tors & Col­lec­tions of the Nine­teenth and Twen­ti­eth Cen­turies Edited by Charles Stitz Books of Kells, five vol­umes (all HB), 1750pp in to­tal, $375 for the set Vol­ume I, $95 Vol­umes II and III pur­chased to­gether, $150 Vol­umes IV and V pur­chased to­gether, $140 He called out aloud but the high of­fi­cials of the univer­sity did not hear him.

Like other bene­fac­tors who felt they were side­lined, Poyn­ton be­gan to di­vert else­where other rare books and prints. The Na­tional Gallery in Can­berra was a lucky gainer from his disil­lu­sion­ment. Mel­bourne in turn gained from the mis­be­haviour of others across the bor­der.

Mary Lug­ton, a ded­i­cated and in­fin­itely cour­te­ous li­brar­ian at Mel­bourne Univer­sity, helped Poyn­ton in his bat­tles with those on high. She pri­vately said of him, “In my view, he seemed an in­tel­lec­tual, rather than an aca­demic.’’ A shrewd com­ment, it al­most de­served a PhD. In old age Poyn­ton lived on his own and ex­pected no thanks for his gifts, but was seen to re­joice when he re­ceived a spe­cial cake for Christ­mas. He died in his sleep in 2001.

Even aboard the early ships came cramped pri­vate li­braries. Baudin the French­man had 1125 vol­umes in his cabin — it must have re­sem­bled an op­por­tu­nity shop. Sur­geon Ge­orge Bass, the dis­cov­erer of the Strait, had mi­grated with at least 70 books, quite a col­lec­tion. Many of his were neatly listed in 1800 by a Syd­neysider not skilled in spell­ing: one book he called ‘‘Wist­min­ster Gram­mer’’.

Book col­lect­ing is like min­eral dis­cov­ery, and the joy of a rare find emerges again and again in Stitz’s black-bound vol­umes. Cap­ti­vat­ing are the tiny de­tails about the ob­sessed ones.

Guy Reynolds was born in a Vic­to­rian heat­wave, though it was only late Novem­ber. ‘‘To keep the in­fant cool a large pit was dug in the gar­den and he was put down there un­til the weather was more tem­per­ate.’’ A psy­chi­a­trist, son of a mayor of Coburg, he died in 1965 with the un­usual distinc­tion of not once trav­el­ling out­side his home state, ‘‘though he roamed the world from his li­brary”, his daugh­ter re­calls. His li­brary was his ship and it took him ev­ery­where. He owned per­haps 10,000 books, many of them bought on Satur­day morn­ings from Mrs Bird’s nar­row shop at the top of Bourke Street.

They spe­cialised in­tensely, many of these col­lec­tors. Some liked to buy lim­ited-edi­tion nov­els, of which a tiny num­ber were in print, and others col­lected chil­dren’s books or po­etry or bi­ogra­phies. John Cum­mins, whose book­shop was in Quean­beyan, NSW, favoured ‘‘an­gling books’’. He ad­mired the north shore Syd­ney poet Dou­glas Ste­wart and his books on

Charles Stitz, book­seller and au­thor, at his shop in Al­bury, NSW

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