Inspiring Explorers and Magnates

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August 28, 2020 by libroshombre

            I adore people and things that incite my curiosity and desire to learn.  For example, every edition of Lapham’s Quarterly is packed with articles and art that inspire knowing more.  The Spring edition included a salacious Arabian Nights tale, “The Slaughterhouse Cleaner and the Lady.”  There are scads of translations of that compendium of stories, but I first encountered the real deal when I was named director of the public library in Seguin, Texas which owned a collection of rare books that included Richard Francis Burton’s infamous 10-volume, unexpurgated translation of the Arabian Nights.

            This Burton was the African explorer, gifted polylinguist, poor diplomat, important author, and perhaps the Victorian era’s greatest swordsman; he was brilliant, brave, and totally uninhibited.  As a young officer in India he became fluent in numerous languages and dialects and successfully infiltrated and reported on all aspects of native society.  In 1855, dressed as an Afghan-Arab merchant, he even made the dangerous pilgrimage to Mecca.  Burton’s account of this trip is among the greatest autobiographical travel books, and, such was his prodigious grasp of Arabic, his is generally considered to be the definitive version of the Arabian Nights.  And his far-ranging footnotes provide amazing first-hand observations and facts, occasionally lurid ones, because Burton enthusiastically explored brothels and sexual mores of every description.

            Now I own a few volumes of Burton’s unexpurgated “The Arabian Nights Entertainments” published in 1955 by Heritage Press, but most libraries’ editions are heavily redacted.  Mine’s worth about $70, but the Seguin Library’s Burton Society first edition (1900) is valued at $5,000, as is the Kamashastra Society’s 1885 UK edition.   Some of Burton’s stories are so saucy they only avoided censorship by privately publishing them instead of publicly.  The Kamashastra Society consisted of Burton and a pal who claimed to print the books in Benares, India, but actually did it in England.  Similarly, the Burton Society edition claimed foreign printing but was actually manufactured in the US and bound in England.

            The Burton Society’s version is considered the standard, and their electroplates were acquired in 1903 by the Burton Club (“the non de plume of a certain Boston publisher”) who issued numerous undated editions through the 1920s.  Bennet Cerf published the first of nine supposedly “unexpurgated” editions in 1932, but he lied, and many wound up in public libraries.  However, you can read the original bawdy version, complete with Burton’s marvelous footnotes) for free at the Gutenberg Project (

            Though titillating, Burton’s tales aren’t fun reading, for he wrote in an English equivalent of medieval Arabic, drawing upon Chaucerian and Elizabethan English.  Noted British Arabist Robert Irwin wrote, “the style Burton achieved can be described as a sort of composite mock-Gothic, combining elements from Middle English, the Authorized Version of the Bible, and Jacobean drama.”   However, Irwin found them worth perusing for the incredible array of anthropological knowledge Burton exhibited in his voluminous footnotes and recommended Burton “to anyone wishing to increase their word power: ‘chevisance’ (undertaking), ‘fortalice’ (small fort), ‘cark’ (to burden with care) … ‘Whilome’ (former) and ‘anent’ (about) are standard in Burton’s vocabulary” the range of which lurches “between erudite and plain earthy, so that Harun al-Rashid and Sinbad walk and talk in a linguistic Never Never Land.”

            I’m charmed by Burton’s mini-lecture footnoting such as, a man arrives at his lover’s house in Libanus (Lebanon) and finds “the wax candles ready lighted, the meat served up, and the wine strained.”  Burton notes that “those who have seen the process of wine-making in the Libanus will readily understand why it is always strained.”

            People often ask their librarians about their old books’ values, and while we might possess rudimentary understandings of book values, the IRS wants the opinion of accredited appraisers.  So, “How Much Is My old Book Worth?” ( from Baltimore’s Pratt Free Library, one of the greatest, is a good place to begin exploring.  Consider, among other things, the edition of the book (a true first edition can be hard to distinguish), the author prominence, and its condition.  Is it “As New” (immaculate just-published condition), Fine (close to As New but not as “crisp”), or “Very Good” (small signs of wear).  Condition ranges down to “Poor” (may be soiled scuffed, stained, or spotted), “Binding Copy” (binding is very loose or nonexistant) and “Reading Copy” (“fine to read but nothing more”), and if your old book contains markings from a library (ownership stamps, glue from card pocket, etc.) it’s worth 90% less, and even if it’s in good, nonlibrary condition, reputable booksellers willing to buy it will offer around one-fourth the retail value.

            Pratt Free Library, one of the greatest, was donated to Baltimore by Enoch Pratt, a wealthy, childless philanthropist, when the city agreed to fund it in perpetuity, which inspired steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to offer similar deals to thousands of American cities, which inspired Philadelphia philanthropist George C. Thomas in 1909 to do the same for Fairbanks.  Like I said, I adore those inspirers.

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