Rare Book Highlights: A Sophisticated Copy of “On the Origin of the Species”

During a class visit to Special Collections last week, the professor brought something to my attention that I had not noticed before. Our supposedly first edition of Charles Darwin’s famous On the Origin of the Species, which he had requested for his class, was a sophisticated copy.

Sophisticated. That’s good, right? It means that the book is refined, polished, cultured, right? Wrong. In this case, the definition of sophisticated relates to the origins of the word, pointing to the ancient Greek Sophists, or teachers that specialized in the subjects of philosophy and rhetoric. Plato criticized Sophists for teaching deceptive reasoning and rhetorical skills to those seeking political office. You might think of the term spin doctor today. Well, a sophisticated book is ‘spinning’ the truth of its own origins, in a way, since it refers to a doctored book, or one that is deceptively altered. In this case, the title page from a first edition has been bound at the front of the text of a second edition.

This wasn’t a new discovery–it was noted in the catalog entry for this copy, so it was likely known from the time the library purchased it. This was just new information for me; something I hadn’t noticed before. The catalog doesn’t actually use the word “sophisticated,” but what it describes fits the definition of “sophisticated” to a T. What it actually says is this: “Composite copy having t.-p. and half-title of 1st ed., 1859, and text of 2d ed., 1860.

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What does it really mean, though, to add the title page from one edition onto the text of a different edition? Let’s start by defining what an edition is. An edition refers to the entire set of copies printed from one setting of type. After printing up the first edition of a book, it may or may not sell well. If the book does sell well, a printer may want to print more copies to sell. During the handpress period, this would most likely mean that he would have to set all the pages of type again. Below are images showing what it looks like to set lines of type using a composing stick (left), and a fully set page of type (right):

Chances are, in setting them by hand, the new set of pages will not exactly match the original set: words may end up on different pages, typos from the original edition may have been corrected, while new typos may have been introduced. But the changes can be so small that, unless you know just what to look for, it can be very easy to be taken in by a misleading title page.

In the case of the Origin of the Species, I wondered what those differences were the gave away the fact that we had a sophisticated copy. Since we don’t have an actual first edition copy to compare it to, I went searching online. I found Darwin Online, which, among other things, provides scans of the major early editions of Darwin’s writings. It also gives publication history of his major works. In the essay for On the Origin of the Species, it lists a number of textual differences between the first and the second editions. I will focus on one of them to illustrate how we can see that the text of our copy is, in fact, a second edition.

Page 20, line 11 of the first edition has a typo in the word “species,” misspelling it as “speceies.”

Page of text from book, with a red circle around the misspelled word s-p-e-c-e-i-e-s.

Misspelled word “speceies” from the first edition.

Page 20 of our copy looks completely different. As you can see, the typesetting turned out differently. In this edition, that same word doesn’t appear until line 14. And here it is spelled correctly.

Page of text with the same word circled in red, but appears lower on the page.

The same instance of “species” is spelled correctly in the second edition.

Why would anyone sophisticate a book? There are a couple of main reasons. One reason is profit. First editions have a special allure, which tends to make them in high demand by collectors. High demand = high selling price. Perhaps an unscrupulous bookseller had a second edition that wasn’t moving off the shop shelves as quickly as they would have liked. Perhaps they also came across a poor condition first edition that wouldn’t make as much money as one in fine condition. Well, perhaps that bookseller removed the title page from the first edition and bound it into the second edition copy. Caveat emptor*, as the saying goes.

Another reason for sophisticating a book is in order to achieve a “perfect,” or complete volume. The “perfecting” of books was a fashion among 18th and 19th century book collectors. Books deteriorate with use, and with highly used books, it is not uncommon for pages to become worn, torn, or removed entirely. In order to achieve a perfect volume, some collectors would cannibalize pages from another copy and bind them into their own copy. To read more about this practice, see this blog post from the Folger Shakespeare Library about the practice of sophisticating the First Folio. In the case of the Darwin that we have been examining here, it seems clear to me that this instance of sophistication was likely for the purpose of profit.

*So I won’t be accused of defamation of my fellow book lovers working in the book trade, I want to clarify that modern booksellers associations have adopted codes of ethics meant to establish trust in the antiquarian marketplace by laying out standard expectations for ethical business behavior. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America in their Code of Ethics and Standards, for example, specifies in point 3 that “An Association member shall be responsible for the accurate description of all material offered for sale. All significant defects, restorations, and sophistications should be clearly noted and made known to those to whom the material is offered or sold. Unless both parties agree otherwise, a full cash refund shall be made available to the purchaser of any misrepresented material” (my emphasis added). So, a bookseller knowing her business should have identified and described any sophisticated copies as such. But even the experts can sometimes miss a clue! So, it never hurts to do your own research if you are purchasing book.

Works Cited

Charles Darwin. On the Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection. London: J. Murray, 1859 [ie, 1860]. Call number: QH365 .D259o

John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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