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Author, collector discusses the novelty of rare books

July 23, 2014 | Carley Dangona

Michael Dooling
Reminder Publications submitted photo

AGAWAM – Collectible books are more than just written word on a page. Moments of history are preserved through the cover, binding, paper and typeface that provide subtle clues to the past.

The Agawam Public Library, 750 Cooper St., will host Michael Dooling on July 29 at 6:30 p.m. as he discusses “The World of Rare Books.” The presentation is free and open to the public. To register, visit the “Calendar” section of www.agawamlibrary.org.

Dooling will present an overview of the rare book world and will bring several books and manuscripts as examples of books from various periods, different bindings, illustrators, etc. A typical talk consists of a well-illustrated presentation and lasts about an hour and a half. Topics include the history of printing, first editions and the qualities that make a book collectible will be discussed among others.

“I think the art of the book has been lost by most publishers,” Dooling said. “Books are very efficiently manufactured, but not very beautiful.”

Dooling explained that books used to be created as works of art meant to appeal to all “sensory attributes,” but said that there is “almost nobody” that takes an artistic approach today, an age when books have become a “functional item.” Collecting books is “like collecting art.”

He said, “Traditionally, the binding of the book reflects the content of the book.” Dooling stated that books used to be detailed with imprinting or embossing to reflect the subject matter of a book. A book about birds might have feathers etched onto the spine.

Fore-edge paintings are another lost aspect of book making. An artist would create a watercolor painting that was only visible when the book was closed and all of the pages were stacked together. Dooling said most of the artists that use this technique today could be found in Europe.

Modern publishers use color to signify a book’s topic. “Gardening books are green, books about the sea are blue and wedding books are white,” Dooling commented.

He said e-readers have impacted the prices of the current publishing world more than the rare book world. The Internet, however, has created the greatest threat to collectible book dealers because “it’s a race to the bottom for the low end of the market.” The market is now saturated with rare book dealers that compete for customers, driving the cost of the books down.

Dooling has collected rare books for more than 35 years, starting the hobby by chance. While attending graduate school, he served as a caretaker for a woman who eventually sold her house. Being familiar with her book collection, Dooling purchased the entire library, which included two signed book sets from authors Henry James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He described the acquisition as one of those “turning point moments.”

His most unexpected find was a Medieval manuscript from 1475 that he happened upon in an antique store that was “just sitting on the shelf” since the storeowner didn’t know what it was. Eventually, Dooling sold the piece to a university in the Netherlands, where it originated.

“That was a great find – a win-win for everybody. They got an important piece of their history back,” Dooling said.

“I like to buy things that are different, that had meaning in their field,” he added.

Dooling, also an author, favors collecting diaries, especially ones of “an average person in [significant] historical circumstance.”

This fall, Dooling will publish “A Seaworthy Timber” about Capt. Aaron Wood from Swansea. He picked up the diary 25 years ago and has since acquired letters and other historical documents about Wood. The diary is Dooling’s favorite book in his library, which he estimates numbers a thousand.

“I learned as much as anybody could possible know [about Wood]. With this particular fellow, I felt as if I knew him inside out,” Dooling said, noting he traveled to Swansea as part of his research. “Everywhere I looked, there were remnants of his life.”

Dooling said, “Over the years, I’ve learned a little about a lot of things.”

Dooling encouraged people to attend the lecture “if they have a moderate interest in books; the same appreciation to what makes a book collectible.”

To learn more about Dooling, visit www.michaelcdooling.com.

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