The eyes of the bibliographer, the curator and the researcher all start to shine a little when you speak of ‘sole survivors’, that is, printed books that survive in only one copy worldwide. Nothing beats the feeling of discovering an edition or a text that has been lost or forgotten for centuries. The Fagel Collection at Trinity College Library in Dublin holds several of these bibliographical rarities, or does it? How certain can we be that a specific copy really is the last surviving one? Does it matter that more copies turn up? And if there really is just one copy left, what does that tell us about the importance of the book?
One of the extremely rare publications that turned up this week is the booklet Verhaal of brief aan de ingezetenen van de colonie van Suriname from 1749. In 64 pages it deals with a conflict between plantation owners and the gouverneur in the former Dutch colony of Surinam. There are no other copies of this publication in the Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands, which means that it is not present in any of the libraries that the bibliographers of the national bibliography of the Netherlands have visited since 1982. It is, however, not unique. A collector has a copy in his private library Buku-Bibliotheca Surinamica and, in describing its rarity, he mentions another copy at Harvard.
With the addition of the Fagel copy to the list, there are now three known copies of this rare publication. Further research shows that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is the proud owner of copy number four. The French copy is part of a large collection of documents concerning ‘Guyane néerlandaise’, or Surinam. I would not be surprised if this blog post results in the location and identification of even more copies. There are still so many libraries and archives that are not found online, that it would be highly implausible that counting stops at four. At what point does a rare book lose its rarity?
Two book historical laws
The nature of printing is duplication and this implies that there were always multiple copies of a printed book at a certain point. Sure, some editions were extremely rare right from the day of publication. The first edition of Hugo Grotius’ magnum opus De jure belli ac pacis was published in just 25 copies in 1625. The explanation for this marginal print run was that the edition had to be finished in time for the Frankfurter Buchmesse. It was printed in great haste on two or three presses and turned out to be full of mistakes. The second and third printing in the same year are significantly different. Still, two copies of the original first edition survive (Oxford, Bodleian Library; The Hague, Peace Palace Library).
The first edition of the most important work by the ‘father of international law’ is arguably a bad example in a discussion about sole survivors. Books that made the headlines at a certain stage in history are always likely to survive. This not only applies to the famous, beautiful and expensive books, but also to publications that were contested, forbidden, confiscated and sometimes even publicly burned – isn’t that exactly what makes them more desirable? The true rarities are the unsold, unwanted and unnoticed, the cheap, the ugly and the ephemeral publications, the ones that no-one ever cared to collect.
This is usually were the old book historical law ‘The more there were, the less there are’ comes into function. It is hard to argue with such a canonical wisdom, and nobody will contest that countless schoolbooks, catechisms, pre-printed forms, advertisement leaflets and lottery tickets have indeed vanished in the depths of history. However, we sometimes underestimate how much has survived. And as the example of Verhaal of brief aan de ingezetenen van de colonie van Suriname above shows, another law seems to apply: if one copy survives, a second copy is bound to turn up sooner or later. Books are resilient and – apart from true ephemera – rarely vanish from history altogether. No matter how hard we sometimes try.
Prophecy of the Red Apple
Probably the rarest book I have come across in the Fagel collection so far is Prophetie van den rooden appel. It is a rather poor attempt to interpret the sixteenth century chronicles De Turcarum moribus epitope of Bartholomaeus Georgievitz (1505/1510-1560). This edition was published by Isaac Du Mee in The Hague in 1770. No other copy is known. The only reference I can find is a review in the periodical Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen of the same year. The reviewer states that the ‘words are impossible to understand, nothing is clarified and the reader is left clueless’. Fagel decided to hold on to his copy, but it is not hard to understand why most other copies will have been used as paper waste or fire starter.
The importance of recording such a publication depends on perspective. Finding a third copy of the first edition of Grotius’ De jure belli ac pacis would obviously generate more excitement. I only have to refer to the media attention following the rediscovery of a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations last year. In contrast, nobody has cared about the prophecy of the red apple since the day it was published, why should we care about it now?
Basically because it is not up to the bibliographer to make a judgement about the importance of books. There are so many books that should never have been printed in the first place, but from a bibliographical perspective it is simply one more title in the basket. From a historical perspective, it is the material evidence that matches the review in the periodicalVaderlandsche letteroefeningen. Moreover, it arguably helps to understand a small part of printing history, and there might just be a cultural historian who likes to know that Bartholomaeus Georgievitz was translated and interpreted in a far corner of Europe, two centuries after his death.
For Trinity College Library it means that they can take some pride in possessing a truly unique book, a sole survivor. That is, until the second law of book history comes into action and a second copy turns up in another library.