Rare books, rarer context

Ian Kahn is the founder of Portland’s little known Lux Mentis Booksellers, and many would be tempted to call him a rare book dealer, for he does, in fact, deal in rare books. The spines of first editions, second editions, and editions that are otherwise unique or peculiar in one way or another score the length of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that limb the walls of his in-home office, downtown. But the word “rare” ought to give us pause here. For what do we mean by “rare,” exactly? What gives an object or book or some derelict scrap of paper recovered from the dregs of the past its distinction? Of course there are some obvious factors — coveted first editions, for instance, or when something is one of a kind, unique in a numerical sense. But for Ian there is more to “rare” than this. What he is particularly drawn to is the “context and background” of books and objects. “What I find fascinating is … why something exists and how it came to be,” he tells me.

            Ian has shoulder length graying hair and a goatee. He wears a kilt. His presence calls to mind someone like a medieval scholar. The bridge of his eye-glasses are joined together by a magnet — click frames, as they are called — and as he clicks them together to pore over the numerous books stacked upon the table at which we sit, he tells me about a nineteenth-century book on farting called Essay on Wind. “There were originally 50 of them printed,” Kahn says, “done by Charles Fox, who was in the House of Lords. And this was done as a joke. As a thing for other members of Parliament. It is a collection of essays on farting.”

Naturally, I laugh a little. Ian nods, acknowledges that it is, in fact, funny, but then emphasizes that this little book captures what he is drawn to, which aren’t just books on farting. Essay on Wind was printed on vellum — a parchment-like material made from the skin of a calf — which is a very difficult and expensive material to work with. The highbrow context that surrounds this particular book — a book likely circulated among the House of Lords — and its profane content, reveals something intriguing about a particular cultural moment, something subversive and odd and all around, well, interesting. And this is what Khan is drawn to. “I would so much rather find that,” Khan says, referring to Essay on Wind “than any number of first editions or scholarly things in dust jackets.”

            Of course, as a bookseller, Khan doesn’t just deal with these kinds of odd and esoteric texts. “What I do is sort of trifurcated,” he says. “About a third of what I do is collection development … about a third of what I do is representing the world of modern fine press printers, art binders, and book binders. And then about a third of what I do is broadly esoterica: Unusual material from almost any area that tends to challenge, that tends to set some of the flag posts of what defines genres, art, or thought … I am much fonder of objects that you have to find context for.”

             A couple more examples: Consider a first edition of the book Lord of the Flies. “It’s a nice book …” Khan says, “and it’s worth ‘X’. It’s an interesting book. But I wouldn’t actively seek it.” That said, Khan recalls how some time ago he was presented with a first edition of Lord of the Flies. Normally, Khan wouldn’t have been especially interested, but this copy had a stain on the cover. The book “had been owned by a very well-known book collector,” Khan says, and this particular copy had been in the collector’s hands when he was murdered. “The staining on the book was forensic dye … from the investigation of this death scene. … And that copy,” Khan says, “is much more interesting to me than any other copy of Lord of the Flies.”

            Here’s another, far creepier example: As a collector, one of the earlier books Khan bought was a copy of The History of Gastronomy. It was a high school library book and “had been taken out by three students,” Khan says. “On its best day, it’s a $25 book. As a high school ex libris book, with all the marking, it was a $5 book.” But here Khan pauses, and then tells me that the last person to take this particular book out of the library was Jeffery Dahmer. Dahmer had checked this book out shortly after his first killing. He did not kill again for nearly a decade. “The psychiatric community,” Khan explains, “was of one mind that the reason there was nearly a decade between his first killing and second is that he was traumatized.” That Dahmer had checked out this book — a book on the history of eating — shortly after the first killing, for Khan, very much supports the notion that Dahmer was, in fact, traumatized by what he had done. Khan strokes his goatee. “The book is $20. But that copy is an entirely different kettle of fish.”

            A different kettle of fish, no doubt. But this is what’s so interesting about Khan’s work — the way in which it highlights the ephemeral, the storied, the chance encounters with an unusual context that an object or a book holds in its history and yet, these objects or books, without their context are reduced to, well, no more than the objects or books that they are. In a way, it’s the opposite side of the commodity fetish coin we’re all familiar with: it’s the fetishizing not of some collectively agreed upon value, but of idiosyncratic, unique stories. Of course, from a seller’s point of view, what’s difficult about this work is that, absent a collective myth of value, part of Khan’s job is conveying why a story matters. “You have to be able to tell the story,” he says. “You have to be able to say this is why this exists, and this is why it’s important.”

            But, as Khan points out, this has gotten easier with the advent of the Internet. One of the things that he is doing, “particularly at the niche end of the spectrum,” he says, “is figuring out ways to get something you think is valuable into a covetous home, that will appreciate it for what it is.” In other words, it’s figuring out who might be interested in the particular story, or context, of an object or book. With the massive sweep of the Internet, it’s so much easier to get these kinds of books and objects, and the particular story or mythos that surrounds them, out to those who might be interested.  But again, what’s fascinating about this, at least to me, is the way it highlights something about value. What compels our interest in an object is rarely the object itself and more often the mythos that surrounds it, whether it be private and idiosyncratic, or cultural. Or, as Khan puts it, “What makes something valuable is demand, is desire, is the ability to convince somebody who is capable of paying that something is worth what you’re saying it’s worth.”

            And yes, certainly, value understood as such has its vacuous side of empty consumerism, especially when considered on a large scale. But, and especially on the smaller scale of thinking about the story or context of a particular object, there’s also something uniquely human about this. It highlights the ways stories and myth still fascinate us, the way an object, something material, gathers meaning not simply because of what it is, but because of the stories that surround it.

            Shortly before I leave Khan’s office, he shows me a collection of French brothel matches from the 20th century. Essentially, they’re waxed matches that once lit, function as small candles. “There’s a little cup at the end of the box of matches,” Khan says, holding up the matchbox. Once the match is lit it’s placed in the little cup. Prostitutes used these to keep time. “She’d light a match, and that was your time with her.” Khan has a number of these matchboxes, many of them in very good condition and still holding numerous unused matches. But his favorite one is empty, and damaged, the cup at the end of the matchbook charred from repeated use. “I love it more than the rest,” Khan says, “Because it’s empty for a reason. … All of the matches were used. As an object, that to me is so much more interesting, because it sat next to someone’s bed, and was used.” Indeed. One can only imagine what that matchbook has seen. And that’s the whole point.          

Last modified onMonday, 25 July 2016 14:33