'A Long Way from the Armstrong Beer Parlour': A Life in Rare Books: Essays by Richard Landon

Edited by Marie Elena Korey. New Castle, DE and Toronto: Oak Knoll Press and The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 2014. 440 pp. (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-58456-330-3

Richard Landon (1942-2011) was a rare book librarian’s librarian. In the opening essay of this erudite collection, Landon credits An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students by R. B. McKerrow as the singular most inspirational title influencing his career. “In lucid and compelling prose,” Landon writes about McKerrow’s seminal work, “he dissects and reconstructs the physical book; its paper, ink, format, composition, imposition, imposition, printing, etc., in such a way that, after reading it one never looks at a book in the same way again” (26). That a book, independent of its content, can be an object of study as well as a thing of beauty is a belief that propelled Landon’s life in rare books.

 Landon distinguished himself early. In 1971, just four years out of library school and working as a cataloguer at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Landon headed to Leeds University for a master’s degree in bibliography and textual criticism. The accomplishment, along with other attributes such as a remarkable memory and a genuine interest in a broad range of subjects, brought respect from librarians, collectors, and booksellers—the trinity of the rare book world.

 By 1978, Landon found himself not only Head of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Fisher but also a member of the esteemed Grolier Club. He was teaching in Toronto’s library science program and contributing to scholarship by delivering papers at academic conferences around the world, writing articles, and editing books, all the while expanding collections at the Fisher and adding to his personal library. His work was an example of bygone times in librarianship. “He emulated the activities of the great scholar-librarians and welcomed the opportunity to discourse on Henry Bradshaw, Richard Garnett, A. W. Pollard and others to students and colleagues alike” (19-20), according to Marie Elena Korey, the volume’s editor who Landon met at the Rare Books and Manuscripts (RBMS) Preconference in 1976 and married fourteen years later.

 Landon skillfully coordinated purchases with donations following “the principle of ‘building on strength(241). Although he shared a universal concern “about the shortage of funding for books” (40), Landon was in the enviable position of showing up at antiquarian bookstores with support from his university. The Fisher, Landon explains, shared in common with the Beinecke, Lilly, and Bancroft libraries “the commitment of the parent institution to academic research at the highest level” (241-242). Looking back over his career after twenty-five years, Landon expressed a goal that should excite not only heads of rare book and special collections departments but also university presidents: “Our resources are better known than they were, and the demand on them is greater” (44). 

 Compiled and arranged by Korey, the twenty-five selections are divided into three sections: Autobiography; Bibliography and Book History; and Collecting and the Antiquarian Book Trade. Except for the autobiographical section, readers will need an introductory background in the broad subject headings that group the writings in parts two and three. Readers should take into account that these essays are the product of a bibliographer and textual critic whose explications will absorb their full attention. In the end, though, readers will discover insight into Landon’s concepts about collection management specific to rare book librarianship, in addition to learning a great deal about the topics that occupied the endeavors of his mind.

 Of the essays collected, “The Case of the Cabinet Connoisseur; or The Concept of Special Collections” is the most accessible and enjoyable. Delivered to various audiences over nearly two decades and one of five papers published for the first time in this book, it examines the taste and technique of Frederick Locker-Lampson, founder of the Rowfant Library and namesake for the famed club in Chicago. In relating a story about Locker-Lampson turning down, in late 1876, a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Landon points to “the tenacity and patience with which this most beautiful collection was formed and the fastidiousness with which its limits were carefully defined” (228). There are bibliophiles — and then there is Locker-Lampsonwho, when it comes to books, believed, “‘[I]t a pious thing to preserve those that have been sometime written’” (243). This is a lesson in collecting that applies to institutional and personal rare book libraries and thus appeals to any audience inclined to curatorship.    

 The volume includes a checklist of Landon’s 214 publications in an astonishing array of subjects bookish and literary. Book lovers, however, might wish that a section containing some of his sixty-seven reviews made their way into the collection; these no doubt would contribute to an appreciation for his critical thoughts on books about books. Who, for example, would not want to read Landon’s commentary of Barker’s Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script and Type in the Fifteenth Century, Johns’ The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Stoddard’s A Library-Keeper’s Business, or Dickinson’s John Carter: The Taste & Technique of a Bookman? Once readers learn that Landon kept a diary while traveling, they also might wonder what else it contains; the book’s tantalizing title—which, Korey explains, comes from a log Landon recorded when a day of buying books in New York City ended with friends “having drinks in a piano bar on E. 46th Street” (9)—promises stories the reader hopes would come but never do. Further, readers would welcome consistent use of punctuation across the essays and an index that included subject entries and subentries.

Still, the collection honors Landon’s lasting contribution to library science scholarship. Although a life in rare books took him away from a pub in his hometown in British Columbia, Landon, borrowing from A. W. Pollard, thought this of his journey in bibliophily: “‘I can’t imagine any other means of living out of which I should have got so much interest and pleasure’” (21). 

William F. Meehan III, Rehoboth Beach Historical Society and Museum