First things first: The Book Club of California. Tucked above Sutter Street, this cozy gathering place is dedicated to letterpress books and the people who read, collect, make, and sell them. Host to literary talks, receptions, and exhibitions, the club is plush, full of overstuffed couches and sound-canceling carpets. The bar appears well-stocked, the reference library voluminous. This is the setting for You Know My Methods: A Collector's Approach to the Sherlockian Canon, an exhibition that will make rare book collectors drool, mystery fans gape, and the average reader smile.
The show draws entirely from the collection of Glen S. Miranker, a self-professed victim of the "gentle madness" that afflicts bibliomanes. In a talk at the opening, Miranker answered a few whys. Why collect books? Why Sherlock Holmes? For him, it's about the excitement of the hunt and the ability to have a different kind of relationship with a book. From his first answer, it is apparent that he and Holmes are kindred spirits -- Miranker's quest for rare items mirroring the Great Detective's search for clues.
While Holmes recently resurfaced in pop culture (with both film and television manifestations), You Know My Methods proves that his popularity is hardly a new fad. Focusing exclusively on the 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, the exhibition is filled with rare treats: some of Arthur Conan Doyle's original manuscript pages, a first British Edition, a first American edition, a first American edition inscribed by the author, the only known "salesman's dummy," among other tomes.
Many of these items are nearly identical to each other. In the United States, the Hound was widely popular. Caught off-guard, the publishers reprinted the book five times in its first year on the shelves. Between these "states" tiny and perplexing differences appear. In such comparisons, the viewer glimpses a collector's drive, the motivation to own not just one copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles but ALL copies of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The exhibition extends beyond the book, in true completist fashion. There are Hound movie posters, board games in a variety of colored packages, Sherlock Holmes cigars, cigarette cards, and strange little buttons. Original illustrations hang on the walls, their images repeated on some of the books in the surrounding vitrines.
Through entertaining and informative object labels, the exhibition conveys the broader story behind the creation and continuation of Sherlock Holmes. One 1926 cartoon published in Punch Magazine depicts a gargantuan Conan Doyle, his head in the clouds, feet shackled with a chain held by the elegant figure of Sherlock Holmes. The truth of the matter: Conan Doyle yearned to be remembered for his historical novels and other, more serious writing, not "a little group of detective books."
By 1893 he had written 24 stories and two novels for Holmes. That same year he wrote matter-of-factly in his notebook (on display at the club), "Dec. Killed Holmes." This marks the publication date of The Final Problem in The Strand Magazine. Upon news of Holmes' death uproar ensued, circulation plummeted, and still Conan Doyle was unrepentant. "I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death," he said in an 1895 speech (hand-written notes on view), "but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me."
Eight years later, a combination of opportunity and financial pressure led to the serialized publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles, set prior to Holmes' death, but supplying Conan Doyle's audience with their beloved detective once again.
You Know My Methods is about the novel but also about the ways in which collectors methodically gather an ever-widening circle of materials based on their initial obsessions. In his talk, Miranker claimed that the experience of collecting books is greater than the experience of actually reading them. Here, I must disagree.
After leaving the Book Club, my appetite for all things Sherlockian whetted, I sit with The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels at my side. The spine waits to be cracked. The mystery calls for brilliant detective work, and the story yearns to be read.
You Know My Methods: A Collector's Approach to the Sherlockian Canon is on view at The Book Club of California in San Francisco through September 10, 2012. For more information visit bccbooks.org.