It’s no secret that I’m an inveterate book-fiend, and have been since I was a kid. Books do decorate a room, as they say, and in my case they decorate an entire floor of my house, in addition to several rooms elsewhere. I singlehandedly kept Amazon.com afloat through its initial years, and in the rare cases that I go an entire week without a package, I get a concerned call from UPS making sure I’m alive and well. (I’m convinced that when I die my corpse will be discovered by my UPS driver, who will break down my door in a concerned panic after discovering that the package he left the day before hadn’t been taken inside yet.) Truthfully, my mailman asked me the other day, “what do you do with all those books?”; my dog Penny has gotten so conditioned to having the UPS guy ring my doorbell (how Pavlovian) that she now starts barking excitedly just at the sound of the UPS truck coming around the corner, which she has learned to distinguish from all other vehicle sounds; and recently the FedEx driver, having for once caught me at home during the day, remarked that it was nice to finally meet me.
As one of my chief interests is historical linguistics, the heyday of which was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — a time when the Junggrammatiker, the Young Turks of linguistics, set about formally describing and systematizing the phonological and grammatical history of every one of the Indo-European family of languages in minute detail and in an amazing number and array of books and journals — I have also spent a considerable amount of time and money haunting the secondhand book trade. So over the years I’ve gotten quite adept at interpreting the terms by which secondhand book dealers describe their wares in catalogues. For the most part, this is conducted in a standard set of terms that is readily interpretable (though abbreviations like “ffep” and “16mo” can give one pause at first), and most dealers use them in a straightforward manner to describe the condition of books accurately if succinctly. (There are however some terms that look straightforward and innocuous, but in standard usage turn out to be rather euphemistic. For example, you would think that it would be a good thing for an old and/or rare book to be described as “sophisticated”. It turns out, though, that this means that it has had damage that was repaired. Come to think of it, though, that’s true of a lot of people that are described as “sophisticated”….)
However, some dealers are not so scrupulous, and what you get can be rather different than what you expected from their description. For example, “waterstained” usually means that there’s a small area of the cover and/or page-edges that has become discolored by moisture or a spill; but when used by some unscrupulous dealers you should interpret this to mean that the book will arrive dripping wet. (This has actually happened to me: I ordered a small run of Indogermanische Forschungen from the twenties in wraps — look that up — and when I opened the package the volumes were actually moist!) “Worming” usually indicates that the book — in this case typically a very old book — has been munched on by a bookworm, and scrupulous dealers will further indicate whether this affects the text or is otherwise extensive; but in some cases it means that your book will be shipped to you inside the bulging corpse of the bookworm that completely devoured it. And “underlining” usually means that a previous owner has underscored some passages of text, typically in pencil if not otherwise indicated; but in some cases it indicates that the previous owner’s seven-year-old daughter has decorated it throughout in crayon with rainbows and horsies and dotted all the i’s and j’s with little hearts.
Further, some booksellers get quite creatively euphemistic and even florid in their terms, which is often a bad sign. Most people know that a real-estate agent describing a house as having “character” is the architectural equivalent of a friend telling you that your blind date has “a great personality”, and that a “charming” house is one where you’ll spend many an hour with your face mashed up against drywall while you fish your hand through a hole trying to reach some frayed wiring, and will likely one day discover the desiccated corpse of a previous owner lodged in the ductwork he was trying to repair. In the same way, when a bookseller describes a set of books as “tidy” or “neat” it often enough means that they are asking for quite a neat and tidy sum for what is in fact a shoddy and disheveled set that was cobbled together from different printings (i.e., “married”). “From a smoker’s home” means that the book reeks of tobacco ash and in extreme cases may even mean that it has burn marks from where the previous owner stamped out his cigarettes in the pages. (In fact, a book I have from Tolkien’s library really does have remnants of his pipe ash at the binding between two pages; and another book from Tolkien’s library that Pat has is, I swear, redolent of pickles.) If any part of a book is described as “starting” it means that the book is “starting to fall apart” there. And describing a book as a “serviceable copy” is a warning that you’d better get some rubber bands and a large ziplock bag to keep all the loose pages and brittle or torn chunks together.
Who in bookman’s terms is a roughly used working copy in frayed jacket and bulging boards, bumped, gouged, fading, scuffed and shaken, some foxing, joints starting, considerable shelf-wear, remainder mark, previous owner’s bookplate attached, not from a smoker’s home but with a whiff of mothballs.