A Passion for Books Created
The Abel Berland Library

By Robert Cotner
Caxtonian, May 1996

his is not a collection in the usual sense. I was not interested in a single author, period, or subject. When I buy a book, I buy what I want to read and make it part of my library. These are books that I cherish as part of my own literary and scientific interests.” The speaker is Abel Berland, Caxtonian since 1957 and collector par excellence. He continues: “The heart and soul of my collection is William Shakespeare, whom I consider to be the most important writer in any language and who created the greatest body of work, other than the Bible. Shakespeare understood the human condition and spoke for humankind everywhere. He is as relevant today as he was in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

The Berland library is composed of four general collections: 15th Century incunabula—books and manuscripts produced between 1455 and 1500; English literature, landmark scientific texts, and the works of William Shakespeare.

The earliest document in the Berland library is a hand-drafted manuscript on vellum of the Magna Charta, dating from the first quarter to the first half of the 14th Century. The next earliest is a Sarum Use Book of Hours, circa 1430, containing 26 full pages of hand-painted illumination and numerous additional illuminations.

The library contains 63 incunabula, among them three early editions of Cicero. The 1467 Laelius de Amicita is a first edition. The 1468 De Oratore is one of two copies in the United States, the other being in the Morgan Library. The third is the 1483 Inventone. There are, as well, the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 containing 1,800 woodcuts, Hypnerotamachia Poliphili of 1499, and L’Arbe des Battailles of 1493. Only one other copy of the L’Arbe des Battailles exists in the United States, a copy on paper in the Morgan Library. The Berland copy is on vellum. There is the 1475 first edition of Vergil, and the 1478 Jenson Plutarch's Lives beautifully illuminated—a "typographic monument," Berland calls it.

The library’s English literature collection is equally remarkable for its quality and range. It contains runs of first editions by Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb, Tennyson, and Coleridge—many inscribed and most in original boards. Notable in this collection is a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems with the handwritten manuscript of Juvenilia bound in one volume. This particular text is found nowhere else and has been used in recent major scholarship on Donne.

There is a holograph copy of Keats’ “To Hope,” written in February 1815. There is a signed copy of Shelley’s Adonais of 1821. There is a first edition of John Milton’s Poems of 1645, in contemporary binding and signed and inscribed by Milton, and there is a first edition of Shakespeare’s Poems of 1640 in contemporary binding and in very fine condition.

Berland considers his 1789 edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence to be his most valuable book “next to the First Folio of Shakespeare.” The Blake book was written, illustrated, printed, and hand-painted by Blake himself.

Among the landmark books of early science, philosophy, and economics are St. Augustine’s Civitate Dei, printed by Nicholas Jenson in 1475; Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, 1478; Poeticon Astronomicon, 1485 (with woodcuts on science); a 1492 edition of Plato’s writings, and a 1495 edition of Aristotle. There are, as well, three first editions by Francis Bacon: Advancement of Learning, 1605; Novam Organum Instauratio Magna, 1620, and Essays, 1625.

The library contains a first edition of Isaac Newton’s monumental Principia Mathematica, 1687, and his Opticks, 1704. It also contains the most important medical book of the 17th Century, William Harvey’s Anatomical Exercises, 1653, and a complete run of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, including the 1653 first edition (the Holford Rosenbach copy), as well as the second, third, fourth, and fifth editions, all printed during Walton’s lifetime.

There are, as well, first editions of William Gilbert’s De Magnete, 1600; Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo, 1632; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, 1776; Thomas Malthus’ On Population, 1798; Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 1859, and many others.

The heart of the Berland library is William Shakespeare for whom he has had a life-long passion. He owns what Shakespeare used for background study for his dramas, including a 1550 edition of Halle’s Chronicles, both the first (1577) and second (1587) editions of Holingshed’s Chronicles, the 1591 Florio’s Fruits, a dictionary and thesaurus, and the 1603 English edition of Montaigne’s Essays.

The Berland library contains the Four Folios of Shakespeare, some of the most remarkable books in existence anywhere in the world. The Fourth Folio, published in 1685, is the finest in existence because of its condition and its provenance. This volume is one of three Fourth Folios bound in the original blue morocco. It came from the George Daniel collection, auctioned in 1864. Berland has owned it since 1971.

The Third Folio is the rarest of the Four Folios owned by Berland. Printed in 1663 and 1664, it contains a title page from each year. From the collection of Frank Brewer Bemis, this Folio was owned by Richard Farmer, Shakespearean scholar at Oxford. Berland elaborated on the provenance of this volume: “Samuel Johnson consulted the Farmer copy when doing his eight volume edition of Shakespeare, and it may well be that Johnson himself used this particular volume in his research.”

The Second Folio, 1632, in contemporary binding, marks John Milton’s first appearance in print, with his epitaph “What Neede my Shakespeare.”

The First Folio is the finest in private hands. This 1623 edition is one of three complete Folios in the United States. Its first owner was Allen Puleston. In 1744 the Folio passed by marriage into the John Dryden family and remained there until 1913, when it was sold to Bernard Quaritch. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach of Philadelphia, called by Nicholas Basbanes the “20th Century’s best-known bookseller,” became repeatedly involved with this Folio, being the agent for its passing into the hands of Commodore Mortimore Plant, Frank Bemis, and Morris Wolf, father of Edwin Wolf II and Manager of Rosenbach’s Philadelphia shop. In 1961 it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London and bought by dealer John Fleming of New York City for Marjorie Newton, who acquired it to give as a gift to her alma mater. A dispute, however, interfered with the donation, and it was returned to Fleming. Berland bought it in 1970. This Folio is the heart—the soul—of Berland’s library, as Shakespeare, Harold Bloom writes, is the center of the Western canon.

“This room,” Berland observes, “is my library of the mind, the habitation of books literary, scientific, and historical that I consider important. I often read into the night and am stimulated by the great ideas of these remarkable people.”

The range of the Abel Berland library is extensive; the quality, remarkable; the collection, awesome. More than 500 uncommon titles brought together by the passion and genius of one person through an absolute devotion to books, ideas, and learning is an achievement worthy of reflection in an age enthralled by the chimeras of contemporaneity.