by Terry Wieland
Some years ago, at a cocktail party connected with one of the big gun shows, I ran into an editor who worked for The Lyons Press. Lyons had recently been acquired by Morris Communications, which also owns Gray’s, and this guy was enthusing about producing a volume on what he called “the Gray’s lifestyle.”
The idea was absurd on many levels, but it was rejected immediately for one major reason: He envisioned a huge “coffee table” book, full of dazzling photos and art work, replete with prose and poetry, and the Gray’s regulars in our Pendleton shirts and Filson trousers, sitting by the fireside and sipping boutique whiskey, with fly rods and shotguns and dogs.
Our then-editor, Jim Babb, and I were both horrified. We had no interest whatever in participating in such a project because neither of us wanted to contribute to a book that would not be read. And in about 99.7 per cent of cases (by actual scientific count) coffee-table books are never even opened, much less read. They are more an item of furniture than literature.
I don’t know exactly when the concept came into fashion, but by the 1990s, the idea of massive books, measured in feet and pounds rather than pages and word counts, was in full swing. Art books, wildlife books, photo books—everywhere you turned, there was an idealized living room (or trophy room, or sitting room) with a glossy volume lying pristine and unopened on a table.
The problem with these books is that they are too heavy to hold in your hands and read. Many people read sitting up in bed. With this? Can’t do it. In an easy chair with a light behind your shoulder? Nope. Not unless, as I do, you put a firm cushion on your knee and rest the book on it while you turn the pages.
Recently, for reasons that escape me, the fashion has been to books that are bigger than big—that put the 1990s coffee-table book to shame for sheer size and avoirdupois.
Last year, I was asked to contribute a chapter on Cape buffalo rifles to a new book (A Dangerous Game) by Robin Hurt. Robin being an old friend, as well as the preeminent professional hunter of the last 50 years, I naturally agreed. The book was duly published by Safari Press, and I was sent my two contributor’s copies. I was astonished at the weight and shipping cost: 25 pounds and $48 for two books! It stands 15 inches tall and 12 inches deep, weighs 10.6 pounds, and has 572 glossy pages. I don’t have a coffee table, and was hard-pressed to find a bookshelf big enough.
Then, last week, I received the latest from Tom Rowe: A three-volume work on Harry Pope and the Stevens Schützen rifles. Tom is printing only 250 copies, and charging $400 for them (that includes shipping of $25) but I was astounded when I got them. Each volume weighs almost eight pounds!
Years ago, Tom edited and produced the three-volume Alte Scheibenwaffen, and I thought that was big (three volumes, 1300 pages, 13 pounds) but the Pope-Stevens books dwarf them. Even my cushion-on-the-knee reading technique can only be maintained for a few pages before my legs start to go numb.
The argument in favor of such books, especially art or photo books, is that the size allows adequate enlargement of images. I can’t argue with that. Starting in the 1990s, Donald Dallas published a series of books on the great British gunmakers (Boss, Purdey, H&H, Dickson, Alex. Henry) which included many gorgeous photos obtained from the auction houses. His 2010 book, The British Sporting Gun & Rifle, 1850-1900, contains many similar photos, and it’s on my short, marooned-on-an-island, book list.
For gun books, Dallas really began the practice of leaning on auction houses in this way, and it’s certainly a benefit to all. They take beautiful photos for their catalogues, and after the item is sold, the photos can then be used for publicity at no cost. As for the authors, it gives us—and yes, I have done it, for both books and magazine articles—access to guns we would otherwise never see. And, we don’t have to do the photographs ourselves.
Tom Rowe is one producer of books who is a superb photographer and indefatigable in traveling around with his portable studio. I call him a “producer of books” rather than an author or editor because his contempt for the English language is palpable. If you can’t write, spell, or punctuate, you should hire someone who can, along with a competent proofreader. Alas, in Tom’s case…but enough of that.
This brings me to another point. The current trend towards behemoth books has been made possible by two factors: digital imaging combined with desk-top publishing, and printing books in China at a fraction of what they would cost here. This allows self-publishing, which Tom Rowe’s books essentially are, produced outside the business constraints of a publishing house and the good sense of its editorial director.
How long this will persist, who knows? For now, it has made available some extraordinary volumes, and I include Tom’s Alte Scheibenwaffen (3-vol.) and American Rifle Sights on that list, as well as the aforementioned Stevens-Pope books. In all three cases, Tom and his co-conspirators have put all kinds of arcane and often irreplaceable images and information between hard covers. Posterity should be grateful for that, regardless of its views on grammar and spelling.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, is an unreconstructed bibliophile who should have been custodian of a medieval European library, blowing dust off musty volumes of parchment and cracked leather, searching out the original formula for gunpowder. At least, that’s how he sees himself.