They are mine, all mine! I acted in a very selfish way yesterday, I have to admit. I was selfish on two counts. First, with respect to my second half; second, with respect to other book lovers who might have wanted to own the titles I coveted. Let me provide a little granularity as some of my colleagues in Zurich sometimes write in their research notes.

On Friday, as I was at home recovering from the flu and I had some time to kill, I decided to try and find out whether I would be able to come across an electronic version of a highly moving short story I had just read. The story, whose title reads as The cherries of Vale Gueuroz in English, was written by Eugène Rambert, a nineteenth century French-speaking university professor born near Montreux in 1830, best known for his writings (fictional or not) on the Swiss Alps, their flora and people.

Not only did I find a copy of the text digitised by Google, but I was able to peruse a book (also available in digital format) on the Alps of Vaud (Les Alpes vaudoises), for which I had come across a reference in a book published on the same subject some 17 years later (Au Pays des Muverans), but which I had not yet been able to locate a copy of in a library and thus borrow.

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Published in Lausanne in 1907, the book was the fruit of the collaborative work between a young mountain enthusiast from Vaud who was still a university student when he wrote the text, Auguste Vautier, and a photographer from Geneva, Frédéric Boissonnas, whose previous work had already received a substantial amount of acclaim. As the owner of one of Boissonnas’s previous books, Genève à travers les siècles (published in Geneva in 1900), which without doubt I would rank as one of the top 10 books on Geneva, I immediately fell in love with the book because of the quality of the photographs, the arresting layout of the pages, the documentary nature of the book, the feeling of familiarity with some of the photographs (for instance, Vallon de Nant on pages 58-61, the area around Tour d’Aï on pages 17 and 44-45, Rochers de Naye on pages 19 and 21, etc) and, last but not least, because the book has some pages on the area I wish to explore on my next trip to the Muveran mountains (glacier des Martinets on pages 56-57 and Grand Muveran and Petit Muveran on pages 62-72).

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Only a few clicks and a couple of words typed on the Internet and I was able to find out that both Les Alpes vaudoises and its spiritual successor, Au Pays des Muverans (published in Lausanne in 1924), which is adorned with the photographs of another famous photographer from Geneva, Emile Gos, were available from second-hand bookshops in Switzerland. Initially, my intention was to purchase only Au Pays des Muverans because the book’s combination of pictures and beautiful woodcut vignettes had really caught my fancy. I had borrowed the book from the cantonal university library (Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire, BCU) at La Riponne and had sworn to myself that I would buy my own copy before returning it (unless asked for by another reader, a book can be kept for as long as three months at BCU, if extended twice).

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However, the book was on sale at an antiquarian bookshop in Fribourg, which meant that I had better make sure that it had not already been sold before going to this city some 45 minutes away from Lausanne by rail. I quickly shot the bookseller an email and he confirmed that it was still on sale and that he would be keeping it for me until Saturday. As for Les Alpes vaudoises, as the book was mentioned on the Internet as being on sale at a bookseller … in Lausanne, I thought I would simply pop in there on my way back from the station.

As I realised that it was raining heavily outside on Saturday morning, I almost felt like abandoning the idea of buying the book, especially since I feared that it might cause a relapse in my flu. But then I recalled that I had written to the antiquarian bookseller that I would be paying him a visit on Saturday and that I wanted to possess the book not only for my collection of books on Vaud, but also as an incentive to explore further parts of the Alps of Vaud, all of which are located more than 40 minutes away from home. Lastly, as I have the CFF pass (which for CHF310 a month entitles me to unlimited access to the Swiss transport system), it would cost me only the time of travelling to and from Fribourg to go and visit this antiquarian bookseller as regards transport costs.

Although the rain was pouring down heavily as I was trying to find my way to the bookshop across the mostly medieval layout of narrow streets in the old town of Fribourg, I thought to myself that I was glad that the object of my errand had made me come to the capital of this neighbouring canton because I had not been there for many years (even though a couple of years ago I would pass through Fribourg on a daily basis while I would be doing my commute to Lausanne from Zurich) and I had forgotten how nice the old part of the city looks like.

Finally, I found the bookshop. Although the place looked unpretentious from the outside, once inside I felt that I had been transported into a treasure trove of a bookshop as there were so many beautiful leather bindings sitting on the shelves everywhere. However as I was drenched, I refrained from looking at any of these beauties (even at what looked like to be a rare book on alpine birds by Eugène Rambert) from too close for fear of causing drops of water to fall on any of these precious items. I asked for the book and was disappointed to find out that, unlike what was stated in the laconic book description on the Internet, Au Pays des Muverans had several pages with foxing (orange stains). However, as the price of the book was reasonable (certainly cheaper than what I would have to pay for a coffee table book on mountains published today) and as I really wanted it, I decided to go ahead and buy it. I kindly accepted the offer of the young assistant for a plastic carrier (even though I already had three in my rucksack; I suppose the bookseller assistant probably felt guilty at having charged me the full price quoted on the Internet, having initially quoted me a price five francs cheaper) and quickly made my way back to the railway station on time for the train I intended to catch back to Lausanne.

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Once back at Lausanne railway station, it took me less than 10 minutes to get to the other bookshop. Unlike the one in Fribourg, it was not an antiquarian bookseller. The lady in the shop, who like its counterpart in Fribourg was not the owner, did not know where the book was. At one point, she even climbed on a stool and headed for a tall and thin, red leather bound volume called La Suisse en images, which to my dismay she pulled from the shelf by its spine (see how she ought to have done so). Eventually, she found the book and handed it to me. Even though Les Alpes vaudoises had even more foxing than Au Pays des Muverans, I told the lady that I would take it because I knew of no other copy being on the market (apparently, according to Au Pays des Muverans, it was already out of print a mere seventeen years after having been published1).

Once out, I headed back to the station to take Métro 2, elated that I was carrying back home in my rucksack the only two good books ever published on the Alps of the canton of Vaud and amazed at how smoothly both errands had unfolded. It was as if deep in me there was a voice shouting in disbelief They’re mine, all mine. Again for fear of letting any water drop on the pages of my precious acquisitions, I refrained from taking a look at them during the full course of my ride back home on the M2. It was only once back home, sitting on the settee near the balcony window that I allowed myself to turn carefully each page of Les Alpes vaudoises.

So having spent in all CHF90 on two books, can I say that they are worth the price I paid and the time I spent to go and collect them? And should I go a for a little more tongue-in-cheek question, how well do they fare on Patricia Wagner’s pre-book purchase scorecard?2

  1. Do I need this book? This book, right now?
  2. Is this the best book on the subject?
  3. Will it make me a better person, a happier person?
  4. Can I find it in a library?
  5. Do I already have a copy of this book? Is this copy better?
  6. Do I have room for this book?
  7. Do I have money to take care of this book?
  8. Is this a great book?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is a definite ‘Yes’ to most of the above questions (including the first two of my own I raised in the first sentence). Even though you will have already read about question four (at least for Au Pays des Muverans) and although I must acknowledge that I am not sure about question seven given the following excerpt on foxing taken from a manual on book-collecting3:

Foxing was a term first used in about the 1840s, probably because the brownish-yellow spots and blotches reminded some fox-hunting bibliophile of his quarry in the countryside. They are caused by micro-organisms feeding on the size and cellulose fibres and seem to attack certain types of books more than others, perhaps because of the quality of the paper or some fault in its manufacture. Certainly damp and bad ventilation foster it. It will be an unusually dishonest catalogue that does not have to mention it somewhere. ‘Foxed as usual’, ‘margins foxed but plates clean’, ‘badly foxed in Vol. I’, ‘light foxing only’, will be the sort of descriptions encountered.

The buyer has two courses open to him — he can live with the foxing or try to have it removed. The pages can be immersed in a solution of hypochloride and bleached till the stains, if they are not too recalcitrant, have disappeared. Then the paper will be washed clean with running water; and, if a proper job is to be made of it, resized and even retoned. It should be clear that such a restoration is not to be undertaken lightly, and it should be entrusted only to a skilled professional. There can be little doubt that the process tends to alter the original character and ‘feel’ of a book, and only the owner can decide whether this should be accepted as part of the price for turning a blighted copy into a reasonably healthy one.

As there is absolutely no doubt that I shall not subject either book to what I deem to be a kind of last-resort treatment (especially the idea of putting them under running water), I have decided that for the time being I would put the two books in quarantine to ascertain whether these micro-organisms are still alive or not, for fear they might find the pages of my other books more appetising. This is because, as a book lover, I feel that it is my responsibility to look after the rare books I have in my private library. As such, I truly concur with the words of this American bibliophile and book-collector who owned first editions of Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, etc: the most important thing I can say to you about these books is that I never take them for granted. I am nothing more than their temporary keeper. It is my privilege to visit with them every day, and to be in their company.4

So this brings me to why I felt selfish with respect to my second half when I bought copies of these two rare books on the Alps of Vaud yesterday: I already own more than a thousand books, some of which are unfortunately confined to my cellar for lack of space in our home. Unfortunately, the same holds true for some of the books my wife brought with her to Lausanne from Singapore, currently left stranded in a storage box somewhere in Flon … Despite the fact that my wife Sity was a library manager responsible for two libraries in Singapore and just like me studied history in university, she was not bitten by the bug of collecting rare books (something I would ascribe to the lack of a proper book culture in Singapore). However, this does not necessarily entail that nine tenths of the shelves in our home should be occupied by my books … and by adding two more books, well, I must admit that this allows for less shelf space for her own books.

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Notes

1 Page 6 of Au Pays des Muverans reads: ‘Aug. Vautier : Les Alpes vaudoises (Bridel, Lausanne – maison d’édition disparue aujourd’hui après avoir publié les plus beaux ouvrages sur les Alpes suisses, tous épuisés)’

2 Page 75 of Patricia Jean Wagner, The Bloomsbury Review booklover’s guide: a collection of tips, techniques, anecdotes, controversies & suggestions for the home library, Denver: Bloomsbury Review, 1996

3 Page 158 of Grant Uden, Understanding book-collecting, Woodbridge (Suffolk, England): Antique Collectors’ Club, 1982 (reprinted 1997)

4 Abel Berland in a conversation with Nicholas Basbanes, as quoted on page 161 of the latter’s book, Patience & Fortitude, A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places and Book Culture, New York: HarperCollins, 2001

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Internet links

Links to other pages on this blog on Alpes vaudoises

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