My bibliomania – what lies ahead (2011.6.1[Wed.])

 

I'm continuing on the topic of the things that I absolutely need to settle my collecting urges. This isn't like just some common cold, mind you, but more akin to preventative medicine to keep me out of the hospital, which has me thinking about listing all my collection targets, just as Aaramata-san did a little more than ten years ago. Just thinking about it gives me a brain fever, which is not the result of any physical ill, but surely must mean my particular condition has entered Phase II.

    When I got back from Paris, I sat down for a talk with my wife. "It seems that our search for color plates can never be endless, of course, and I have a feeling we already saw the rough extent of them in this whole world now, particularly for those ones that deserve our attention, don't you think?" The form reached its apex with Cuvier's "Le Règne Animal" and the quality of printing and plate-illustrations declined thereafter, gradually moving toward modern color printing and abridgement into pictorial atlases, before culminating in collections of color photography, leaving a collector seeking true works of classical printer's art with little to choose from. Nostalgia for natural history paintings is limited to works from a brief historical moment, and the plates that can be got at les bouquinistes along the Seine are most certainly finite in number, originating in a select few tomes. I can now see the landscape in full, and my eye is more discriminating as well; works that I once would have pounced on now no longer merit a second glance. And what's more, a collection that began as a pure form of nostalgia is now increasingly colored by the academic search for imagery that can be used in our research, which requires a different set of strategies altogether.

    When thinking about writing my list, I always hesitate at a certain item, out of concern for inspiring unknown rivals: some early volumes of the Journal of Morphology*1 from the 1890s. This journal remains in publication even to this day, but I have no need of the recent issues; .pdf versions of articles of scientific interest will suffice. What I seek are original copies of the first run, which include the magisterial comparative studies of fish anatomy by E. P. Allis. Among these, the examinations of the primitive bony fish, Amia calva and Polypterus bichir (see Figs.), are particularly notable. The articles themselves are excellent science, but the accompanying figures are masterpieces. I read that the original drawings were discovered at the Harvard University Museum in the 1970s. I suppose getting the originals would be impossible, but then again, how could I be satisfied with simple color photocopies?

    Advances in printing and layout have resulted in the increasing tendency to reduce text to the absolute minimum in modern atlases, but in those days such works were printed on special heavy-stock paper, with all figures grouped at the end of the report, making these pages wonderful little pictorial collections in themselves. Even more fascinating, these illustrations are not just beautiful, but have a certain austerity that appeals to the Japanese aesthetic, and for an excellent reason. The illustrator was himself from Japan – a man named Jujiro Nomura.

    This Japanese artist of anatomy (I think it is fair to call him that) produced a beautiful body of work eminently worthy of collection. His touch speaks of training in Japanese art, into which he incorporated features of European academic printmaking, resulting in a rare and wonderful set of detailed renderings of piscine anatomy. Of course, the lack of hand-coloring means they pale next to a Cuvier, but the depictions of animal form achieved simply by the fusion of Western and Japanese artistic styles is in itself of a color worthy of record in the annals of natural history. Nomura followed Allis to the south of France, where the biologist had retreated for health reasons, and even took over his anatomical work when he became incapacitated. The achievements in art and science made by this Japanese individual in that day and age, are worthy of celebration even today.

    Many works have now become widely available in digital editions that can be downloaded with a single click of the mouse, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before libraries pressed for space begin archiving their old journal collections in data form. It is an opportunity I await most eagerly, but one I have yet to see realized. All I have found is the forlorn carcasses of volumes stripped of their plates sold on the grey market. I suppose there's no helping it. In any case, I am prepared with data on exactly which runs of which journals I should aim for, should the opportunity arise, and I have notified the specialist booksellers I frequent on the antiquarian street in Hongo. There are other venues as well, such as specialist exhibitor booths that set up in certain meetings. The International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology is one such; the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology is another.

    I don't seem to have many rivals at these booths. Many scientists exhibit a kind of stoicism in resisting the lures of plates absent the accompanying paper. This affords me a degree of comfort as I rifle through the stacks, confirmed in my obsession for collecting such treasures. There are tricks to this trade, such as looking first in larger, thicker volumes, for longer articles were often accompanied by lovely collections of plates. Of course, smaller volumes, such as the Journal of Morphology described above, are also worthy of attention, so ultimately everything needs to be browsed through. The second point is age – the most beautiful illustrations are concentrated between 1890 and 1910. Using these simple criteria, the search can be streamlined to the greatest efficiency. Indeed, this is the technique I was using when I found Bashford Dean's monograph on the embryology of the ratfish.

    There are of course other targets on my list as well. The series of folios Semon Zoologische Forschungsreisen in Australien und dem Malayischen Archipiel. planned by Ernst Haeckel collects the results of a survey of the biology of Australia and Malaysia, and features numerous lengthy and beautifully illustrated treatises. The color illustration of the masticatory muscles in the platypus in particular is lovely beyond compare, so much so as to cause the viewer to forget the customary grotesquery of anatomical art, a testament to the artistic vision inherent in Haeckel's science. But that would be getting into another endless story, so allow me end here for now...


*1, Vols 1 – 36 (1897 – 1922) are available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/11164). The CDB Library has issues from Volume 263 (2005) and later.