In a popular science book, the English Chemist James Lovelock described his Gaia hypothesis to a lay readership. The hypothesis proposed that living organisms and inorganic material on Earth are part of a dynamic, integrated, self-regulating system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere, and maintains ideal conditions for life to flourish. Initially received with skepticism, the Gaia principle is now acknowledged and accepted as a scientific theory that is embraced, to some extent, by New Age environmentalists. Written at the start of the environmental movement, it is the basis of a number of predictions made by Lovelock as part of the heightened awareness of environmental concerns, including global warming. Prior to the first edition of Gaia a new look at life on Earth, published by Oxford University Press in 1979, the theory was described in scientific journals. The February 1975 issue of the New Scientist, which included the article The Quest for Gaia by Lovelock, is impossible to find, and the first edition of the Oxford University publication is now quite scarce.

Chemist Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, one of the founders of home economics, was also the first woman to study at MIT. From 1873 to 1878, she became the university’s first female instructor as an unpaid chemistry lecturer in the MIT Women’s Laboratory. In 1882, just before the closing of the Women’s Laboratory and the opening of MIT’s Sanitation Laboratory for which she was appointed as an instructor in sanitary chemistry, she published her first book: The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, published by Estes & Lauriat in Boston. Subsequent editions of her book were published in 1897 and 1907. The book gave non-scientific readers some practical information as to the chemical composition of the common household cleaners. In the preface of the book, she writes: “The number of patent compounds thrown upon the market under fanciful names is a witness to the apathy of housekeepers…. These mysterious chemicals are not so many or so complicated in structure but that little patient study will enable any one to understand the laws of their action….”  At the request of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, she developed the so-called “Richards’ Normal Chlorine Map”, which was predictive of inland water pollution in the state of Massachusetts. It plotted the chloride concentrations and distribution in waters throughout the state. As a result of her work, Massachusetts established the first water-quality standards in America, which was followed by the first modern sewage treatment plant, built in Lowell, Massachusetts.

When James Finlay Weir Johnston wrote The Chemistry of Common Life, in 1854, he hoped that someday it would become a classic of popular science writing. He dedicated the book to his friend and patron David Brewster. Together, they proclaimed the decline of science and the need to promote it throughout the British provinces. Using language that appealed to anyone interested in how the world worked, Johnston skillfully presented the science of chemistry to the non-scientist. The book begins with food and drink, and continues with poisons, scents, fertilizers and explosives. It inspired the reader to think in terms of chemical reactions and compositions at a time when chemistry was the fundamental, exciting, and popular science. The book became, in effect, his memorial, because by the time it was published he had died from a lung infection which he caught while travelling abroad.

Despite the fact that chemistry is a complex science, it is quite fascinating to delve into the chemistry behind rockets, or viruses, or the molecular breakdown of a hangover within one’s body in common terminology. Through popular chemistry we can all learn how the properties, compositions, and structure of substances (elements and compounds), impact our lives for the good or for the bad.

Another book that we previously featured in a posting in the genre of natural history and environmental science, is also very much about chemistry. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1962, deals with the effects of the use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide. Carson’s book served as a wake-up call when she uncovered that DDT was killing the birds of Cape Cod, and was also contaminating the rivers in places where through the food chain and poisoned Salmon had reached human consumers. In following James Johnston’s footsteps from 100 years earlier, Carson brought chemistry to the public eye and helped spread its importance of its effect to our lives.


Copyright pageThe publishing details for a book are usually printed on the back of the half title or, in some cases, the title page. This page is sometimes called the ‘copyright page‘ or the ‘publishing details page’. Through the years, publishers have used a number of copyright designations to specify the edition or the printing of a particular title. There is no standard specification or legal requirement that a publisher has to list certain copyright information. Because most publishers are not typically in the business of trading in rare and collectible books, they have not necessarily had a strong reason for a unified and consistent way of identifying first editions. As a result, publishers who have been in business for decades have used a variety of printing edition information through their long histories of operation.

Often times the copyright information serves some type of marketing initiative. Publishers have used the ‘copyright page’ to show that a book is so popular that it has gone through 10 printings, when in fact it only had a few copies sold. There is nothing to stop a publisher from skipping over a few printings to boost its popularity. With collectible books, the early printings are usually the most sought after and consequently the most valuable. Collectors, who lack the experience and specialized knowledge of a particular publisher’s practices, may be fooled into thinking that certain early printings are quite scarce when in fact they are non-existent.

During the early the 1930’s, semi-underground literature publisher Jack Kahane, who published some of the works by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin and James Joyce, mixed serious work with smut, in his Obelisk Press publishing house. He took advantage of a legal hiatus whereby English-language books published in France were not subject to the censorship practiced in the UK and elsewhere. He also took advantage of the lack of any legal requirements to list the various editions or printings sequentially and deliberately skipped over early printings on some of the less popular titles published.

Another publicity stunt employed by publishers is to print statements such as: “Second printing before publication.” In other words, the first edition sold out before the book was even released, but, what it really means is that the book is a second printing if there was a “First printing before publication” published in the first place. While these pre-publication printings, including “advanced review copies,” are technically first editions, they tend to have limited appeal to collectors, who seek “true first”, (a symbolic sign of repetitive redundancy), editions.

A number line might show the printing and sometimes the year of publication in the copyright page. In most cases, the first number on that number line indicates the printing of a particular copy. With each subsequent printing, the publisher removes a number from the number line, thus allowing the lowest number on that line as an indicator of the book’s printing. In some cases, a number is removed from the left side of the line and other times from the right; sometimes the line includes the number ‘10’ and other times the number ‘0’; sometimes the numbers are in sequence  and other times the number sequence has all odd numbers to one side and even on the other side. The Random House hard covers’ line number, for example, when present, does not contain the number ‘1’. The second printings read with the same ‘23456789’ but have no “first edition” specified. Beginning with the years 2002-2003, the publisher sometimes includes ‘1’ in the number row and ‘First Edition’ specified.

Outside the number row the variations in ‘First printing’, ‘First state’, ‘First impression’ and ‘First issue’ designations, proliferate adding more complexity. The most straight forward rule for me is the “reprint house rule”, which applies to the few publishers that do not publish originals. Books from publishers: Sundial Press, Triangle Books, A. L. Burt, Grossett and Dunlap are always considered to be a reprint no matter what they have printed on their copyright page. Now that is simplicity without confusion and mental indigestion!

Quite often publishers neglect to provide the accurate date of edition or printing of the book. They either leave the original copyright date on the copyright page or they fail to provide one. Ideally a book should come with a printing history detailed with dates and actual number of copies in each printing. Many special editions indicate the number of copies produced, but again, there are no guarantees that the information is accurate. I have come across quite a few limited, numbered editions with copies that have no number specified. Sometimes these are identified as the “Not for trade” copies. However, publishers of limited number editions often publish unspecified, unnumbered extra copies for various undetermined other uses. All in all, the lack of standards or legal requirements has led to the creation of what I am calling the “Confusion Page of Anomalies”!


Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 1st Quarter, 2021

April 19, 2021
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As the pandemic spread and live book fair events shut down around the world, Virtual Book Fairs (VBF) offered a new way to buy and sell books online. At last count, there have been at least a couple dozen virtual fairs organized by IOBA, PBFA, Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”), SLAM and others. Judging from the […]

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The Most Complicated Machine

April 5, 2021
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A universal notation with symbols employed that are few and simple enough, furnish the most important assistance in the design of the order and succession of the movements in a machine’s engine. This was the most important tool that Mr. Charles Babbage employed in his attempts to construct his celebrated calculating machines. In his own […]

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The Importance of Translation Exemplified by the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature

February 24, 2021
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The books that sinologists commonly refer to as the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature are: Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Journey to the West. Their chronology spans from the Chinese Ming dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 2020

January 21, 2021
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While much of the world has come to a stop at times during the pandemic, the rare book trade, confronted with challenges of its own, managed to finish the year without a major loss. It was, however, especially painful for rare book sellers – at least physically – who normally depend on in-store, in-person book […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor update – Virtual in Boston

December 10, 2020
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Recently, book collectors, book dealers, auctioneers and book trade organizers, connected in three virtual spaces for the annual Rare Book Week, which usually take place in the month of November, in Boston. The new virtual platform settings had the obvious benefits of enhanced reach, scalability and cost-effectiveness, for the organizers, and the potential of boosting […]

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The Trade in the Middle of the Pandemic

October 31, 2020
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Aaah, it’s that wonderful time of the year when New England puts out its glorious foliage as billions of leaves change from green to a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. The air is crisp and cool — perfect for hiking, and biking along back roads, where farm stands are piled high with crunchy apples and orange […]

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The Fourth Dimension of a Rare Book

October 14, 2020
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Many Russian artists supported the Revolution of 1917, which was led by Vladimir Lenin against the old Tzarist regime, and established the first communist government. They turned their talents to promoting the social justice they believed it would bring, through Suprematism, a new abstract style in Russian art, with roots in cubist and futurist systems […]

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Silent Spring, Silent Earth

September 7, 2020
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In 1962, the American marine biologist and natural history writer, Rachel Carson, published her seminal book, Silent Spring. Carson’s powerful and poetic writing was beautifully complemented by the detail-oriented drawings of American illustrators Lois and Louis Darling. Today, it is considered to be one of the most powerful natural history books ever written; the spark […]

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