"SUCH WAS HIS addiction to books," writes H. P. Kraus of Wilberforce Fames, "that he slept in a hammock with books piled underneath, so he could reach them without getting up." When Eames - chief bibliographer of the New York Public Library - died in 1937, it took five years to process and catalogue his personal collection. Fittingly, this consisted of typographical manuals, studies of binding, papermaking and publishing, annotated bibliographies - what are commonly known as "books on books."
Perhaps the most anecdotal and certainly least technical, of such "books on books" are the memoirs of great collectors and dealers. H. P. Kraus' A Rare Book Sapa, the autobiography of the man who recently sold at auction a Gutenbergy Bible for $1.8 million, must be counted among the most engaging examples of such [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , as well as an expert and amusing introduction to the post-war antiquarian book trade. It is comparable to the best in this autobiographical genre: CHarles Everitt's The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter, that compendium of down-home yarns about scouting for Americana; David Randall's Dukedorn Large Enough, which describes Scribner's rare book department when Max Perkins, Hemingway or Fitzgerald might, at any moment, walk through the door; and W.S. Lewis' Collector's Progress, an account of the world's finest collection of Horace Walpole.
Born in Vienna in 1907, Hans Peter Kraus was the only child of a middle-class doctor who collected stamps. From a passing interest in stamps and coins, the young Kraus eventually focused on books, becoming an apprentice in a distinguished Austrian rare book emporium. But finding his ambitions slightly thwarted, he chose to become a book traveler and selected Egypt, of all places, as his territory. Fortunately, he never got there; he stopped off in Bucharest, made a sale, and decided to work the more nearby Central European countries.
Kraus prospered only and by age 30 had become a respected Viennese dealer with a stock of some 100,000 volumes. But Hitler's invasion of Austria revealed tha a chief assistant was an S.A. officer, who was only too glad to ship Kraus off to Dachan and take over his shop. Luckily, the still young bookman, with the help of his mother, managed to bribe his way out of the concentration camp and emigrate to America. He arrived in New York penniless, in possession of a single item with which to begin a new business: a copy of the famous Columbus letter announcing the discovery of America. Like so many immigrants before him, he adopted with a passion the American drive for financial success and ultimately acquired not only money, but ever so appropriately, Hency Luce's house in Connecticut.
The second half of A Rare Book Saga - that dealing with Kraus's American years - abandons chronology to concentrate on anecdotes and vignettes of the rare book world.
Soon after their discovery, a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls were ofered to Kraus - but he refused them because of their then uncertain age and authority. On another occasion, having to clear out a newly purchased library within a few hours, the dealer loaded precious books precariously on flat-bed farm trucks, only to have to stop frequently and pick up volumes which were jostled off. And most surprisingly, Kraus once acquired an important 16th-century letter from Phillip II of Spain to his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth of England; he offered the document to officials of the Spanish government, who turned it down because they already possessed the exact same letter: in the years before copy machines, such documents were always written out twice and one copy filed in the government archives.
Besides his own adventures, Kraus also remimisces about such figures as Lessing J. Rosenwald, to whom he sold the giant Bible of Mainz now on display at the Library of Congress; the long-lived Sir Sydney Cockerel (1867-1962) who had helped run William Morris' Kelmscott Press; and the Swiss Martin Bodmer, owner of the finest private Library in the world.
Even the associates who helped develop Kraus' own catalogues reads like a scholarly who's whoc Roman Jakobson, the structural linguist, prepared a Russian list; Hellmut Lehman-Haupt, the expert on early printing, was a regular cataloguer; distinguished art historian Harry Bober shed light on early manuscript illuminations. Such men created order in a shop with holdings that ranged from Books of Hours and Coptic papyri to early maps and clandestime Bolshevik pamphlets.
Not unexpectedly, there runs throughout A Rare Book Saga an underlying comparison of Kraus' W. Rosenbach, the Philadelphia book dealer who helped build the collections now housed in the Folger and Huntington libraries. Kraus certainly establishes his right to be regarded as the good doctor's heir, but whether this mildly vain family man can usurp the title from the hard-drinking, loose-living Rosie remains a question to be debated - preferabl in private libraries over a post-prandial glass of sherry.
Whatever the case, for everyone interested in books and manuscripts, H. P. Kraus' memoirs are not only fine, rare and choice, but available - for a while - mint in dust jacket.