Newton's Laws Without Gravitas

It was two years ago, or so, when while touring the Netherlands I happened to drive through Bredevoort, a book village (one of several such places all over Europe, established to enliven sleepy hamlets and promote book-buying and selling under the guise of "reading").

It was two years ago, or so, when while touring the Netherlands I happened to drive through Bredevoort, a book village (one of several such places all over Europe, established to enliven sleepy hamlets and promote book-buying and selling under the guise of "reading"). There, at the English bookshop, I found A. Edward Newton's delightful book "The Amenities of Book-Collecting."

It was a copy of a third edition, printed in 1920 (the first was published in 1918), and in the introduction, Newton, an American book-collector, is beside himself with astonishment and happiness that his book went into second edition at all. He enjoys telling many stories of books bought (and not bought), of their writers, previous owners, of book dealers and prices. Unlike many pedantic and boring collectors, he does not take himself too seriously, and he is brimming over with enthusiasm for books owned by him and by others. His enthusiasm is contagious.

When I wrote about his book, seeing myself as somebody who had just discovered an unknown continent, I was told by others, wiser then me, that Newton published several other volumes. Usually, when I like a book by a writer who was previously unknown to me, I try to find and read all his other books. It is fairly easy when the writer is still with us, or if he is a famous white dead male. It is slightly more complicated when he is long deceased, known only to the relatively few bibliomaniacs, and out of print for many long years.

I could, of course, have surfed the many Web sites which deal with used and rare books, input Newton's name and ordered all his books with a few easy clicks on the mouse. But that looked far too easy to me. Early in life, I was told that there is no pleasure like delayed gratification. I waited, fully confident that if his other books were destined to be mine, they would turn up, sooner or later.

Fleeting existence

Two years later, or so, I was driving again through Bredevoort, in the eastern part of the Netherlands. This time I came there on purpose, not on Sunday the day of the weekly book fair, but on a gloomy weekday. The English bookshop was open, and there, on a shelf labeled "Books about books," I saw it, winking at me. Another book by A. Edward Newton, "A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book-collector."

It was his second book, and he still could not get used to the fact that he is a successful and fairly popular author. Like the first book, this is also a collection of essays printed earlier in journals. "There is a great difference between an essay on a magazine and the same essay in a bound book," he writes. But he hastens to add that "anyone can write and print and bind a certain number of pages; the thing is to get people to read them. A great man can wait for posterity, but for a little man, it is now or never. A book's life is almost as brief as a butterfly's."

The huge quantity of book butterflies (many of them unturned stones in many publishers' warehouses) "should make for modesty in authors," he sums up.

As a young boy, Newton worked in a bookshop, but was soon transferred to the stationery section. He simply could not part with the books and, therefore, did not sell too many. Somehow, by a turn of fate, he became a president of an electrical goods manufacturing company ("without knowing a volt from an ampere, or a kilowatt from either"). In his old age ("if an electrical business will not prematurely age a man, nothing will"), he decided to retire and spent the rest of his years and dollars on his love: books.

Newton's second book was published in 1921, and it looks like nothing has changed in the book business since: "Now, the fact is that many people, most people, have forgotten how to read, if they ever knew; and they have to be taught, and they can be thought, not only to read, but to buy books, by advertising. But it must be done wisely, systematically, and continuously. We are familiar with the proverb `It is the first step that counts.' Well, it is not so with advertising: In advertising it is the last; the effect of advertising is cumulative. It is the last dollar spent that brings results. The first time one sees an advertisement, unless it is very striking, it has no pulling power; only after one has seen it repeatedly, does it begin to work."

That may explain the writer's frustration with the fact that the publisher does not pay for an extensive ad campaign for his latest book. Here is an incentive for publishers to plan long-term advertising campaigns:

"I early formed the habit of buying books, and, thank God, I have never lost it" - he writes, and quotes, to illustrate one of his points, a children's poem by Ralph Berengren:

My Pop is always buying books

So that my Mom says his study looks

Just like an old bookstore.

The bookshelves are so full and tall,

They hide the paper on the wall,

And there are books just everywhere,

On table, window-seat, and chair,

And books right on the floor.

And every little while he buys

More books, and brings them home and tries

To find a place where they will fit,

And has an awful time of it.

Once, when I asked him why he got

So many books, he said "Why not?"

I've puzzled over that a lot.