I started teaching guitar when I was 17. This happened for a few reasons but not because I was stellar at my instrument. When you’re 17 and don’t want to work at McDonalds you do a lot to put gas in your car. This can be anything from mowing lawns, helping elderly relatives, or in my case teaching your Aunt’s hairdresser’s daughter guitar.
Up until this point I had never taught anyone anything. My only credentials were that I’d been playing since I was 11 and I wasn’t terrible. So when I sat in my room with a girl who was not much younger than me showing her what written music looked like and how one deciphers it, I figured I was in over my head. That didn’t stop me from faking it, I mean trying. In fact, I still teach today.
What does me teaching music have to do with rare books you might ask? Well, I found myself in a similar situation a few weeks ago. Between the Covers has a new cog in the machine, one Raymond Solowij. And guess who was asked to train him? Correct! Yours truly. Let the panic attack begin.
If you have read my previous blogs you may have picked up that I haven’t been doing this for very long – just slightly over a year now to be exact. That isn’t a lot of time to pick up enough nuances to feel comfortable telling someone, “Yes sir, that’s how we do it here at Between the Covers.” Suddenly I was 17 again and a woman I barely knew was saying, “You play guitar right? So you can teach my daughter?” Oh sure, but why stop there? I’ve also heard people speak French before and I bet I could figure that out too. Want me to prepare someone for space travel? I have seen Apollo 13 a few times. Nevertheless, I forged on and the week before Ray started I tried to come up with a plan to teach basic cataloging that wouldn’t make our newest employee run screaming into the hills.
So, what do you tell someone who doesn’t even really know what book cataloging is all about? I was going to launch into a whole scholarly lecture about how the book surrenders to me all of its secrets and then reveal that I’ve come to a place where, when holding a new, previously uncataloged book, I suddenly become one with it and am able to tell its story simply via the words fine, near fine, very good, good, or fair. The travels, exploits, and journeys of this particular piece of literature meld with my own training and experience, and suddenly I understand what must be done. However, this Zen approach to cataloging only comes after years, er year, of extensive work; Yoda-like conversations with Tom on the future of the rare book trade, books, and the human race; as well as after the consumption of numerous Red Bulls. You can not expect someone to really understand what you’re going on about at such an early stage of the game.
So I took a different approach. At the Colorado Book Seminar the one thing everyone repeats is “Look At The Book.” This may seem silly or obvious but it’s so true. For instance, what edition is it? It says “first” hooray! It’ll be so expensive! I can retire! However, moments later, further investigation reveals that awful blind stamp on the rear board and drat it’s a Book Club edition. My elders have also drilled into my head that when holding a new book it is best to remove the dustwrapper and investigate.
Next comes the reference books. I supplied my new pupil with a trusty Carter’s ABCs, just in case he suffers from insomnia; an Ahearns, which has a small yet especially nice first edition identification chapter; and a McBride’s, for those pesky publishers that are a little obscure. I also made Tom fill in the blanks on a diagram of a book that I had prepared so that I could be sure I was actually using the correct terminology. That was probably the day I went through 3,000 entries of my own creation to double check things, ya know, just to see what a good description really looks like.
Things have actually been going smoothly. I’ve only had to beat Ray once, and exile him to the boiler room a handful of times. Not bad considering how inexperienced he is. Most days we sit together while I berate him saying, “Near fine? Near fine? You REALLY think so! It’s the chokey for you!” My days have been very pleasant as of late. I thrive in positions of authority.