9 Feb 2024
Eléonore's letters
Las cartas de Eléonore

But what is this bundle of handwritten letters, filled with spelling mistakes and all adorned with wax seals and their colored silk ribbons? What treasure do we have here? Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, a collection of 43 handwritten letters, just like that! And not just any letters, as these are the correspondences addressed to her father by a figure of the high French nobility from the North of France, the Maréchale d'Hocquincourt herself!

Who exactly was this Maréchale d'Hocquincourt? Well, my friends, let me introduce Éléonore d'Estampes de Valençay, a woman with a destiny as fascinating as it is tumultuous. The daughter of Jacques d'Estampes, lord of Valençay and Happlaincourt, governor of Calais, she married in 1628 Charles de Monchy, Marquis d'Hocquincourt, Marshal of France, and governor general of Péronne, Montdidier, and Roye. Here is a characteristic marriage of the grand unions of that time, traditionally linking two great aristocratic families with converging interests.

These letters addressed to her father by Éléonore, before and after her marriage, invite us to experience her world for nearly twenty years. We discover a young girl full of innocence and childlike obedience, residing in Boran-sur-Oise. Then, over the letters, we see Éléonore grow and tackle more serious subjects, especially when she resides in Plainville or Paris. She talks about political rumors she hears, troop movements she observes, visits she receives, conflicts with her husband who abuses her dowry (what a horror!)... Ah, the joys of marriage!

But Éléonore doesn't just spread political rumors to her father or talk about her marital difficulties, no! She also conveys to the patriarch news about her family, especially the women who composed it. Her mother Louise Blondel de Joigny, her "life mother" (an appellation that probably refers to her nurse), her sister Charlotte, nun then abbess, her aunt, or family friends, etc. And she also reports information that could be useful to him in managing his affairs. One feels the importance of the role she plays in her family. And, married or not, it is invariably under her maiden name ("E. d'Estampes") that she signs her letters to her father, who annotates them as he receives them, indicating after her marriage her married name: "My daughter d'Hocquincourt." Just to make sure not to mess things up.

We can say it: Éléonore's life was not a long, quiet river. She was the mother of eight children, among whom... seven boys! Several of whom followed in the footsteps of their father and grandfather in the military career. And imagine that one day her husband decided (to please other women, they say) to betray the court of the King of France and join the Spanish in 1655... Nothing less! He ended up being killed in 1658 during the defense of Dunkirk for the Spanish, who held the city at that time. Widowed, Éléonore also had the misfortune of seeing two of her sons die in military operations, in 1665 and 1675. But she did not lose courage and launched a legal action in 1667 against the houses of Nesle and Montcavrel, to claim a sum owed to her. The Parliament almost immediately ruled in her favor, but the procedure seems to have been relaunched after her death in 1679... A true saga!

But back to our letters. They not only constitute a precious testimony to family life and the social role of women in the high French nobility but are also beautiful to read and... to look at! The wax seals, the colored silk ribbons, the handling of the French language, the formality with which they are imbued, and the charm of the formulas that Éléonore uses to express her feelings... everything is there to immerse us in the atmosphere of the time. And the spelling of these missives, practically nonexistent, does not reflect any negligence on the part of Léonore but rather her lack of academic training. This was still the case in her time for many women, regardless of their rank and condition. It only makes more moving these lines written to her father in the greatest ignorance of "aurtaugrafic" rules (which does not fail to attract her father's wrath).

In conclusion, dear readers, this collection of letters from the Maréchale d'Hocquincourt is a true historical treasure. They allow us to delve into the intimacy of a family of French warlords in the 17th century and unveil some realities of the lives of women within the sword nobility of that time. If you enjoy diving headfirst into documents that transport you several centuries back, at the risk of having a hard time coming back, Éléonore d'Estampes de Valençay is waiting for you... Feel free to write to her, we will forward the message !
posted by  Cecilie at  11:50 | permalink | comments [0]

23 Aug 2023
Artificial Intelligence and Rare Books

Dear readers, the silence of this blog has lasted too long!

Since our latest exchanges, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge (notwithstanding the current drought in Europe). Yes, the dramatic days of sanitary confinement are long gone and The Love of Books in the Time of Covid-19, a section of this blog designed to make my (and your) isolation less painful, is already an old memory. But there is also the unparalleled frenzy of the modern world, which quickly replaces one anguish with another and which, after having sounded the tocsin in the four corners of the globe, has already moved on to many other things.

"Tempus fugit". One can wonder if it is time that is running away , or if it is not rather us.

As I speak, it is the so-called "Artificial Intelligence" (AI) that is in the news. The most famous of them, whose slightly robotic name seems to be feared to become as immortal as Plato's, Shakespeare's or Einstein's, has just been declared persona non grata in Italy - after having been banned from four countries well known for their unparalleled role as Usual Suspects in international politics: China, North Korea, Iran and Russia. Italy must be credited with courage - bordering on temerity - for joining such league. But it is not alone, in our democracies, in worrying about the progress of artificial intelligence. Almost at the same time, some well-known billionaires, and others less well known, have just signed a petition to demand the "temporary suspension" of artificial intelligence developments, on the grounds that it would threaten the balance of the world. One can only dream when one thinks of the place these gentlemen have taken in the flood of technologies that have purely and simply revolutionized our lives (and not always for the better) over the last thirty years.

This blog is not intended to be a militant forum and I hope that those of you who have a different perception of what I am talking about in the previous paragraph will forgive me for not being able to be their champion on this subject. Fortunately, my purpose is not to be polemical: I'd rather like to address a question on which I have a little more experience: the place of artificial intelligence in our world of bibliophiles.

The history of bibliographic science is that of a slow blossoming, allowing the passage from an almost indiscriminate list of books to the elaboration of extremely well-documented directories covering, in a more or less specific manner, a thousand aspects of old and rare books. Authors, themes, places and dates of printing, printing workshops, print runs and papers, illustrators, translators, bindings, origins, etc. The list is long, so vast is the universe of printed books since their origin.
For example, are you familiar with the National Union Catalogue? It is an extraordinary publishing project that lists all the books printed before 1956 that are in public and university preservation libraries in the United States. I remember when we used to consult it in the bookstore with a bulky, prehistoric microfiche reader that reproduced the entire seven hundred and fifty-four folio volumes of the printed edition.

Computer technology has made an invaluable contribution to this Benedictine effort to classify books. Today, thanks to the development of the Internet, not only can we consult many national union catalogs, offering a broader perspective than the National Union Catalog, but we can often search the contents of the books themselves. And now the irruption of artificial intelligence is expanding the possibilities induced by computing exponentially, bringing extremely significant advances to these research tools.
Indeed, character recognition, the detection of complex linguistic patterns and the shuffling of gigantic amounts of information, allow us today to make sensational discoveries that would have been impossible only a few years ago.

Two months ago, it was announced that an anonymous manuscript play kept in the National Library of Madrid was attributed to the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. This result was obtained with the help of several artificial intelligence tools, which were able to decipher the manuscript and compare it to their database of linguistic models.

At my humble level, I can only be pleased to see that the knowledge of old and rare books is acquiring new dimensions that open new doors. What can the opponents of artificial intelligence say about this? I find it a great pity, for my part, to think that with our conventional bibliographic tools this manuscript of Lope de Vega would still be sleeping, ignored by all, at the bottom of a reserve.

I have a little personal anecdote on the subject.

A few months ago, the Syndicat de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne honored me with a "bookseller portrait". I was invited to describe my career path and my aspirations in the exciting world of rare book selling, and so I devoted a first paragraph to evoking my life with antiquarian books "since childhood".

Antiquarian books have accompanied my life since childhood. If the bookshop initially founded by my parents in 1969 in Paris was a store located on rue Gay-Lussac, they soon afterwards made the choice to work at home, which filled our successive houses (my parents having moved many times) with old bindings, brochures, bundles of documents and manuscript jumble of all kinds. This did not make me a bibliophile in short pants, for I was first a reader and my curiosity towards old books was only awakened in adulthood, but their silent presence at my side from an early age had the effect of establishing a kind of natural familiarity between us. Continuing my life among books was neither a choice nor a vocation, but rather what I would call "a way of being".

So what does this have to do with artificial intelligence, you might ask? Well, here it is:

I was recently alerted by Google that a rare book kept at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon was associated with my name in the Google Books records. As you know, this powerful company has undertaken to digitize a large number of books kept in public collections around the world, making their content available to the public. Thanks to a very advanced technology of character recognition, it also allows to index the content of these books, and even the handwritten inscriptions they contain.

The picture below was taken from Google Books, which spotted my signature on one of the endpapers of this book. Did the artificial intelligence of Google Books guess that I was just a child when I wrote my name in pencil on this ancient book? Does it have an imagination? Can it see me as I do? Sitting on the floor, sticking out my tongue and writing my name on an ancient book borrowed from my parents (sacrilege!), an ancient book that my parents would later sell, without realizing my misdeed, to the Lyon Municipal Library. Its curator at the time, Mr. Parguez, was one of their most faithful customers... Can artificial intelligence tell such a story? I can't help but doubt it.

What I can tell you without doubting it for a single second, in any case, (paraphrasing Guillaumet rescued from the Andes, for those who have read Saint-Exupéry), is that the emotion I felt while discovering this clumsily written line... no machine will ever be able to feel it.

And I can't help but smile when I think that being in my fifties, after more than thirty years in the business and thousands of rare books whose paths have passed through my hands, Google Books associates me with only one ancient book, the one on which I wrote my name when I was barely five years old! How ironic...

What about you? Artificial intelligence and rare books, what do you think?

A few links :

An anonymous manuscript theatre play ascribed to Lope de Vega

SLAM's bookseller portrait

The Google Books digitized copy of the Library of Lyon
posted by  Julien at  11:34 | permalink | comments [7]

4 Jun 2020
Can rare books be an investment?

A few years ago, a customer of mine asked me if rare books could be an investment. Here are some extracts of the answer I wrote him at the time:

The idea of rare books seen as a financial placement tends to divide the community of professional booksellers. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) (to which we are affiliated in two ways through the Spanish and French associations) has been including these last few years the recomendation for its members not to promote the rare book as an investment or financial product. Such a prudence is understandable when you think about certain adventures like Aristophil's!
Even so, the patrimonial dimension, in all the senses of the term, of rare books seems obvious and rare books buyers, in their immense majority, still nurture the hope that their latest purchase will increase its value in the future (or, at least, that it will not see its value decrease).

Let's remind ourselves of a few preliminary ideas:

  • Generally speaking, in the past the value of rare books used to increase over time, which responds to a certain logic if you think that rarity generally also increases with time.

  • Twenty years ago the rare book market, with the internet revolution, started to go global which put within anyone's reach millions of rare books worldwide.
    Which effects have the development of internet had on the rare book market? They are obviously many, and the purpose of this quick overview is not to offer a complete survey but I'd like to underline two important effects: 1). Access to the virtual world has provided everyone with a specialised knowledge that was, until then, reserved to a sall number of scholars, professional librarians and experienced booksellers. 2). The redefinition of the concept of rarity taking into account the internet as a new essential tool for measuring the availability of a specific title in a specific moment, and its price. Before the internet, nothing could replace each individual's point of view and even the most experienced dealers could have an incomplete vision of the market.

  • As with all other markets (including financial products) the rare book market is subject to conjunctures and fashions that can be difficult to predict. It is consequently impossible to define it as a single entity moving in an orderly way.

  • Nowadays, to a certain extent, the rare book market is still in the assimilation process of the internet revolution. For example, rare books are sometimes available for sale in several copies around the world which generally influences their price downwards, but this tendency is probably temporary and after some time (maybe ten more years?) the price of these books will perhaps start to raise again because the few copies available today will not be on the market at the same time any more.

  • Despite the internet revolution, extremely rare and important books still fetch high prices at auctions and a quick glance at booksellers's catalogues and rare book fairs, shows that many high-end rare books still reach very high prices.

So, what must we think of the potential of rare books as an investment?

My answer is: yes, certain rare books can be a placement which can eventually produce a significant return after one or two decades (ten or twenty years). That being said, it is not a risk-free placement. In this perspective I would rate the risk to loose money from "moderate" to "relatively high", depending on various factors: who assists you, what subject you are willing to collect, etc.

A few words of advice:

  • Don't think only as an investor. Assign a value and be ready to pay a price for living your passion of collecting rare books. The idea should be to buy books which are worth the price you pay when you purchase them, and to maintain an ordered purchase policy aiming to lower the risk of seeing the value of your investment decrease significantly in the future. Obtaining a return on your investment should be the cherry on the cake, not the cake!

  • Be selective: try to define the perspective of your collection with a handful of words, then try to reduce these words to a combination that could make your collection unique and recognizable, but not out of reach.

  • Take the time to create and consolidate a personal relationship with a small number of experienced professional book dealers. ILAB professionals are usually extremely reliable and experienced, and if you are willing to invest your time and some money you will probably find a few good guides to assist you in your quest. https://www.ilab.org

And you? What do you think?
posted by  Julien at  16:17 | permalink | comments [4]

6 May 2020
How did you become a bibliophile?

Among the great mysteries of Creation, one is often forgotten in the classical cosmogony: How does someone become a bibliophile?

Yet, I’m sure we all remember the first rare book we purchased! As far as I am concerned, it was an 18th century booklet in Italian, the description of an agricultural machine... a very handsome copy on blue large paper bound in contemporary gilt vellum. I was eighteen years old... and was born into a booksellers family where antiquarian books surrounded me everywhere.

Thirty years later, I’m still surrounded by antiquarian books and tens of thousands have also passed through my hands, modest and inexpensive or noble and costly, but my fascination remains the same - for the books as well as for the history of each copy and their previous owners.

Contribute and share your testimony, to show the incredible diversity of our bibliophile's world!

So... How did you become a bibliophile?

posted by  Julien at  19:17 | permalink | comments [2]

26 Apr 2020
Do you like to show off your rare books?

In the middle of this confinement the question can seem a little bit perverse! [}:)] But if your books ever begin to need fresh air, why not have a (virtual) walk with them?

Send us a picture of your favorite book, a couple of lines telling us why it’s favoured, and we will put it online for you.(You can also do it yourself in the blog, if your picture is already online, by inserting in your comment the corresponding tag and url of your picture).

As you already know, we love to show off our books and having renewed our showcase this morning we invite you to stop by for a visit, a browse, and see what takes your fancy!

We are waiting for your pictures! Take care of yourself and stay tuned.
posted by  Julien at  22:35 | permalink | comments [0]

12 Apr 2020
An Easter egg hunt for book lovers

In this situation of full confinement, the traditional easter egg hunt would prove to be unpractical. Fortunately though, there is a book shop open behind your screen! We invite you to play with us by finding the Easter eggs hidden in our book descriptions on the bookshop's website.

You just have to click on the "Visit the book shop" link, at the top of the column to the right of this blog, to enter into the site.

There are 99 Easter eggs like the one below. Our reader who will find the most before next Tuesday, April 14 at noon (Barcelona time) will win a "bibliophilic basket" containing a selection of printed catalogues, a book of bibliography to be chosen from among a list of available works, and a 25% discount voucher to be used on our web site within the next 30 days.

To participate you just have to log in or register on our web site and answer to this blog with the number of eggs you have found (you wil leventually be asked the reference number of the books where you found an Easter egg). Beware! If the button "Live Support" lights up green, you can obtain 5 reference numbers... You just have to click the button to start a live conversation with us!

Good luck to all!
posted by  Julien at  15:16 | permalink | comments [1]

4 Apr 2020
Do you read your rare books?

A profane question that often comes back to us rare books dealers, is whether our customers "read the books of their collection... "

According to an idea still widespread (and - we have to say - fed since the 19th century by portraits regularly drawn in literature), bibliophiles would be like "fetishists of the book", obsessed by all sorts of silly details meaningless for the rest of the world, and for whom the possession of a book would represent, in the end, the main part of their interest for the book in general.

As a bookseller I think that I am in a pretty good position to have an opinion on the question, (and the reading of the various comments left by our followers throughout this blog gives us, for sure, some clues for a response!). But before testifying... I would love to read your own reactions!

I will therefore limit myself to giving you just the first line of my own answer: "Yes, my clients can all read...".

It’s up to you to continue!

If you are already logged-in, you can leave a comment by clicking here

To log-in or to create a user account, please click here
posted by  Julien at  16:32 | permalink | comments [6]

23 Mar 2020
Your books and you

So... Here we are, almost all of us confined in our homes because of this bloody virus...

For us bibliophiles the (numerous) hours that we now have to spend with our partner, our family or our loneliness, is also the occasion to get closer to the friends that follow us silently from the shelves of our libraries: the books of our collection!

Aiming at a dialogue between bibliophiles we have opened this new section of our blog: "Love (of books) in times of COVID-19".

Today is the turn of your collection to speak, just by answering 6 very simple questions.

Your participation is essential and much appreciated. Without it, such a project is meaningless!

- What subject?

- How many titles?

- The oldest?

- The newest?

- When was this collection started ?

- When was the latest addition to this collection?

If you are already logged-in, you can leave a comment by clicking here

To log-in or to create a user account, please click here

We can't wait to read your posts! See you soon online!
posted by  Julien at  20:05 | permalink | comments [16]

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