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Book Review
The Wisden Collector's Guide
Published: 2011
Pages: 368
Author: Jonathan Rice and Andrew Renshaw
Publisher: John Wisden and Co
Rating: 3 stars
By Martin Chandler
17 Apr 2011
The Wisden Collector

Unlike other sports, and indeed most fields of human endeavour, there are books aplenty about events and people who have had relatively little impact on the game of cricket. It is therefore a little surprising that it has taken almost 150 years for a book to be devoted to the game's greatest institution, John Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack, but with the publication of The Wisden Collector's Guide that is something we at last have. As the title makes plain the book is aimed at those for whom acquisition of past copies of the Almanack is at best a hobby, and at worst an obsession. It consists of a biographical essay about Wisden himself, and ends with a section devoted to bibliographical information and the acquisition of the Almanack. In between is a brief look at each of the 147 editions that had appeared up to 2010, as well as a glance at the 8 editions of the now defunct Australian edition that appeared between 1998 and 2005.

As a subject the collecting of anything has a tendency to be a little dry, and Wisdens are no exception. It is a shame therefore that one opportunity for throwing some intrigue and mystery into the mix of The Guide was only partially taken, and that another does not come up at all. The former also gives rise to the only factual error that I saw in the book.

There is a section in Part 3 headed "My Uncle's Wisdens". This concerns an incident a few years ago when a collector, disenchanted with an experience with a dealer, put a spoof lot up for sale on ebay. It was given the appearance of a veritable Aladdin's Cave of a collection, comprising more than 500 volumes with heavy duplication of many of the rarest editions. The accompanying description gave the impression that the lady vendor had no real clue as to the extent of the treasure trove that she had just inherited.

The putative vendor had probably expected a heavy response but not, perhaps, exactly what he got which was such a plethora of offers and other communications as to mean the listing had to quickly be removed - or perhaps that was always the plan? The truth was not revealed straight away and speculation as to what had become of the books was rife within the ranks of the cognescenti for months. A few snippets surfaced about the manner of the approaches of the main dealers and collectors, some of whom emerged with rather more credit than others.

What the story in The Guide could tell, but doesn't, is just why the hoaxer felt the need to do what he did. It could go on to tell of the contents and source of the emails he received and of the reactions, many months later, when he felt obliged to own up to such an entertaining deception. And the error? Well the authors state that "only two or three people" know the miscreant's identity. This is not true. To my certain knowledge at least ten people are "in the know" and I dare say a number of others have been informed, in the strictest of confidence of course. I should perhaps add, for the avoidance of any doubt, that I am certainly not suggesting that I myself have breached the almost Masonic oath that, for a time, bound we eleven together.

The second omission surrounds that hoariest of all Wisden-related questions, the print runs for the Almanack going back before 1936, which it has always been assumed were lost as a result of enemy action in World War 2. A couple of years ago a man who was, initially at least, involved in this project, announced that he had details of the missing print runs! "How could that be?" was the question on the lips and keyboards of every Wisden collector. We assumed they would be here, but no, only the traditionally accepted information which was reported in the centenary edition is repeated. Was it a "My Uncle's Wisdens" type wind-up, a publicity stunt to attract interest in the Guide, or something else? What became of the involvement of the man with the magic numbers? I am none the wiser for reading The Guide, but my curiosity is undimmed.

The above comments are, of course, somewhat tongue in cheek, but I have to say that in my view there is one serious omission in the book and that is the complete absence of any decent quality photographs. I would have liked to have seen a selection of images of the, for we mere mortals, unattainable books like an 1864, or indeed any of the first few editions, complete with covers, and an 1896 hardback, and perhaps a copy signed by WG Grace. Surely too, to supplement the sage advice for collectors in Part 3, some photographs of repaired and unrepaired books, pointing out the traps for the unwary. We all know just what sort of picture quality can be achieved these days and when a 368 page book, without any special binding or other distinguishing features, retails at a recommended price of GBP45, yet has only the most rudimentary illustrations, one cannot help but feel disappointed.

There is no getting away from the fact that the 44 pages of The Guide that comprise Part 3 are invaluable, comprehensive and essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Almanack. The 8 pages that comprise Part 1 are no less worthwhile, even if nothing new is revealed. It is Part 2 I am troubled by and, representing as it does 302 of the book's 368 pages, I question whether a different approach might have been better. It seems to me that this weighty segment might have been more appropriate were it just a few pages of narrative explaining the evolution of the Almanack's contents. There could then have been a 70 page book with as many colour photographs as the budget permitted, duly reproduced on art paper, and then sold for around twenty pounds. I am afraid I simply cannot see anyone other than the hardened collector shelling out on this book which is a shame. As a keen collector myself my heirs have an interest in the number of us expanding, and accordingly this sort of book being readily available to the curious, and not just the committed.

Oh and by the by - a doosra for the authors - was there not a special "Limited Edition" of Wisden produced in 2000 to celebrate Gloucestershire's clean sweep in the domestic one day competitions?

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