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  • John Carter: The Taste & Technique of a Bookman
  • Michael Levine-Clark
John Carter: The Taste & Technique of a Bookman. By Donald C. Dickinson. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2004. xxi, 416 pp. $49.95. ISBN 1-58456-137-8.

From the time that he and Graham Pollard wrote An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets in 1934 to his death in 1975, John Carter was a central figure in the Anglo-American antiquarian book world. As the author or editor of several important books, most notably ABC for Book Collectors, now in an eighth edition, Taste & Technique of Book Collecting, and Printing and the Mind of Man, as well as a vast number of articles and reviews, and through his positions with Scribner's and Sotheby's, Carter influenced the shaping of many important private and institutional collections. It is thus quite surprising that until now there has been no book-length biography of the man. Donald C. Dickinson's John Carter: The Taste & Technique of a Bookman ably fills this void in the literature.

From 1927 until 1953 Carter worked in the rare book department of Scribner's London office, heading it from 1940 on. In this role he identified and purchased books for the American market, in the process developing deep and lasting relationships with the major British booksellers of the time. The catalogs that he and David Randall, his counterpart in the New York office, created were thoughtfully produced and are still of interest today. Beginning in 1955, Carter worked for Sotheby's, which at that time was trying to develop an American clientele and was instrumental in identifying collections and courting collectors in order to convince them to sell their books (and other items) in London rather than New York. In both of these roles Carter exerted an enormous influence on the formation of many collections, including those of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Josiah K. Lilly and the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and Wilmarth S. Lewis, whose books were later donated to Yale University.

Equally influential were Carter's efforts as a writer. In 1934 the Enquiry exposed Thomas J. Wise, one of the foremost collectors and bibliographers of the time, as the forger of numerous supposedly nineteenth-century pamphlets, many of which Wise had authenticated in his role as bibliographer. New Paths in Book Collecting and Taste & Technique, along with countless reviews and articles, succeeded in broadening the definitions of collectible books. Carter also compiled several bibliographies, many of which are still useful today. Of all of his works, though, ABC for Book Collectors stands out as the most important. Going through five editions in his lifetime and three (revised by Nicolas Barker) since, ABC's humorous but comprehensive treatment of book terminology makes it an essential work in any reference collection.

Dickinson's enjoyable biography traces Carter's life from his days at Eton to his death in 1975. Because Carter was so intimately connected, personally and professionally, with Stanley Morison, Percy Muir, A. N. L. Munby, Graham Pollard, David Randall, Michael Sadleir, and other important bibliophiles of the time, the story of his life is really the story of the book trade in the middle of the twentieth century. Though the reader gets a very good sense of Carter's life and bookish interests, there is much less detail about Carter's personality and interests unrelated to books. Perhaps Carter had no other strong interests; a chapter entitled "Causes and Opinions" is only about book-related interests, not the political or social interests that one might expect. It is unclear if this lack is because of a decision on Dickinson's part or because the subject demanded it. In any case, the book is weaker for it, though still quite enjoyable.

Of much more serious concern is the sloppy editing. Though most books have a few typographical errors, this one has enough to warrant comment. In [End Page 198] the final two chapters alone I counted eight errors, mostly typographical: "Pariament" for "Parliament," "Madona" for "Madonna," "not" for "nor," "in" for "on," a couple of sentences lacking...


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