Saturday, September 21, 2013

Vintage Book Reproductions: Buyer Beware.


There's no doubt about it – I love old books, especially books on architecture. Unfortunately, many of the best examples are fairly rare, and when available are often obtainable only at a very high price.

One book I've had my eye on for some time is Alan Jackson's The Half-Timber House: Its Origin, Design, Modern Plan, and Construction – which was originally published in several editions, from about 1912 through 1929. What makes the book particularly interesting for me is that the author is American, and he studies the characteristics of Tudor-revival homes from an early 20th century viewpoint--analyzing the style's appropriateness for [his] time and offering both good and bad examples of how it might be adapted for American homes.

As far as the text is concerned, it may be slightly “wordy” for the average reader; the language is perhaps too flowery and expressive for today's tastes, and might have benefited from a firm editing. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting read, especially since the period when it was written was a time when Tudor-revival was one of the most popular of American residential styles.


Behind Jackson's clear admiration for the warmth and comfort offered by the “Old English” style, you can sense the popular notions and attitudes that caused so many of these homes to be built across the United States from 1900 to about 1935. Interestingly, a bit of waspishness sneaks in as he discusses other “sub-types” of half-timbered architecture, specifically examples found in France (Norman) and Germany, both of which he subtly dismisses as seeming “foreign” to most Americans.

While I have come close to purchasing some original editions of this book on Ebay, they are uncommon and usually demand a stiff price. Happily, the recent proliferation of publishers who are now offering facsimile copies of the book via page-scanning of the originals (now in the public domain) has made it easy to add a copy to my architecture library.     But in that realization there remains a critical caveat.

Quality Matters

One of the reason I love old books is that I find them attractive, and in the best examples, quite beautiful. While I have not seen an original copy of The Half-Timber House, it looks like it was produced with some level of care and attentiveness to design—all of which suffered greatly in the repro copy I purchased from Forgotten Books via Amazon.

Be aware that there are several publishers offering this book, and the prices vary from $7.56 for a paperback version (my sample) to almost $30.00 for a hardcover reprint.  The quality of the final product will depend on how the scanning equipment was set up and what type of sample was used—the Forgotten Books edition looks like it was scanned not from an original, but from a poor xerox copy. While the text was of acceptable quality, most of the illustrations were useless—not looking like halftone photos at all (as in the original) but more like super-high-contrast black and white drawings, offering little detail and large areas where the image dropped out completely. I suppose one issue might be that the contrast setting on the scanner was set extra high to make the text clearer (and ruin the halftone images in the process) but the illustrations are so poor that I find it impossible to believe that an original copy of the book was used.
Perhaps a better solution would be to purchase the book on CD; I have seen some examples available on Ebay as well, where the book has been scanned into PDF and the images look fairly decent. In any case, I would recommend to any buyer that if page samples of these reproduction copies are available to view, they take a careful look to see that the quality is acceptable.

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