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Les Partenaires du feu follet Ilab : International League of Antiquarian Booksellers SLAM : Syndicat national de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne
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Bibliographic essays
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Begriffe und Konzepte der Bibliophilie


Hoc volumine continentur

Hoc volumine continenturHoc volumine continentur
Hoc volumine continentur

Le Feu Follet is an antiquarian bookshop. Despite this designation, which distinguishes us from traditional booksellers, our trade is not defined by the age of our books, but by their contribution to the cultural heritage. In this context, the expression “antiquarian book”, is not referring to books that have survived the passage of time, but instead books that time traverses, and does not exclude contemporary works by any means.

In a changing society moving from the era of reproducibility and hyper-industrialisation to dematerialisation, the book as an object is being reinstated as a symbol of the longevity of human thought, and the antiquarian book is its physical manifestation.

The distinction between an antiquarian bookshop and a new bookshop, is in our view, no longer pertinent. The opposite of “new” is really “second-hand”, which should be understood as an alternative economic model.  But in our case the antiquarian bookshop is founded on a fundamentally different idea. It is based on a premise that emerged with the invention of the printing press and relates to the underlying symbolic relationship between a written work and its support.

We don’t aim to showcase an author or disseminate a text to the greatest number. The books we offer have already stood the trial- by-fire of literary critics and the caprices of fashion with all its associated fads. Some of our authors have already taken their permanent place in the literary Pantheon, while others have been preserved by a handful of scholars.

All of our books have been read passionately by at least one of these groups. Each copy we receive has been carefully preserved, some in luxurious bindings and some plain. These have been passed down, from book lover to collector, bedside table to library, from generation to generation, often from a veteran book lover to a young book lover. If these copies have managed to survive through the decades, avoided destruction and been prized even more than later editions, it is because a special link has developed between the author and reader that places them outside the process of endless reproduction. As booksellers, our work consists of hunting down and collecting – from a multitude of books – the special books, which embody the thought process expressed on their pages.

With the arrival of the touch tablet, the idea of a book being bound to its material form might seem strange. However, since the invention of the printing press until the beginning of the 20th century all readers accepted this idea as a simple statement of fact. They, on the other hand, couldn’t have imagined today’s dichotomy. The book was not simply a support for the thought process at that time, it was the exclusive vehicle for it. The impact of a work and even its new “existence” depended on the quality of this object. In the very early years of the Renaissance, the burgeoning humanist movement would need to create a form for this object.
Due to the costs involved in publishing a book, the financial and political risks that existed, and the uncertainty of publishing as a business, booksellers were placed at the heart of one of humanity’s greatest intellectual and human endeavours from the start. Between 1455 – approximately the date of the first Bible being printed in Mainz by Gutenberg Fust & Schoeffer, almost a complete failure, leading the associates to separate and the ruin of Gutenberg – and 1500 when the invention reached maturity, printing workshops began to appear all over Europe with over ten million books being printed and sold in shops by a new skilled group of professionals.
In less than fifty years, young printing apprentices (all novices and all competing against one another) invented and perfected book design, giving the book a form that has remained almost unchanged to this day.
The title page appeared at the end of the 15th century replacing the colophon, which traditionally indicated the name of the author, editor, date and sometimes even a sort of title in the last few lines of a book. This information was not usually shown at the front of books, which usually began with a recurring formula such as, Hoc volumine continentur (this volume contains).

Placing a book’s technical information on the first page revealed the growing importance of the new political and cultural actors. The power of the latter did not go unnoticed by the State, which quickly took measures to control the spread of new ideas: retracting privileges, censorship, paper controls, prohibitions to exercise in the profession, banishment, and burning books and booksellers. In response, the latter developed new strategies of defence: pocket formats, pseudonyms, fake publisher’s addresses, cross-border distribution, and so on.
Today, the form of an antique book still constitutes one of the most precious clues to the status of the work and its relationship with society at the time. Typefaces, paper quality, book format, illustrations, the number of copies printed: publishing practices were different for an edition published for the aristocracy and a dissident pamphlet distributed in secret.

To read a book in its original and intentional, or at least accepted form, is like admiring the Madonna of Loreto by Caravaggio in the chapel it was painted for. It is the only way to know that the first thing people would notice about the painting was not the face of the virgin Mary or the body of the Christ child, but actually the dirty feet of the pilgrims kneeling before them: this hypotyposis is certainly not the end purpose of the painting but it steers the viewer’s interpretation.
The same thing can be said for antiquarian books, since the original form is not accidental and it orients the reader’s interpretation and affects the way a book is received. No matter how lofty a book may be, it is always conveyed through a form that has a meaning and affects the reader’s perception as well as reflecting the society of readers. First editions by the actor and playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name, Molière, were published in small duodecimo formats at low cost.

Molière was buried in a communal grave in 1682 ten years before the first collection of his complete works was published in a slightly larger format illustrated with anonymous engravings. In 1734, only fifty years later, a prestigious edition was published by Prault and printed as a quarto, illustrated by François Boucher. Today this is still considered to be one of the most beautiful 18th-century books ever published. First editions can only be found in very modest bindings of the period – unless it was rebound later – while later editions are luxuriously bound from the start with beautiful calfskin or Morocco leather covers.

The binding of books – carried out by bookbinders in accordance with the tastes and budget of each buyer – are also part of the silent dialogue between author and reader, and each copy contains the unique traces. In addition to the natural link between the book and the thought process, there is a second element that is important to booksellers: the future of the book object. The book is a multiple object because of its reproducibility. But for us, books become unique objects, each copy having its own story to tell. A copy given as a gift by the author and dedicated to a close friend or produced by an artist bookbinder, owned by a famous person or saved from a book burning, the list goes on. Of course, stories about a specific edition or copy are usually simple anecdotes that are only interesting to their owner: a sentimental value only significant in the private realm, a relationship between the reader and their book.
Still, when an aviator in exile from his country at war writes a children’s book in New-York, then leaves to fight even before it is published, ending up in a country where all his books are forbidden, and finds a copy brought back from America by a chaplain working for the resistance and dedicates it to some children he meets – one of only two copies in existence signed before he is shot down off the coast of Marseille – then the anecdote of Antoine and the two children in Algiers becomes an integral part of the history of Saint-Exupéry and the Le Petit Prince, the most widely translated and read book after the Bible. This modest second edition has become a unique and precious trace of 20th-century literary history.

The similarity between different copies sometimes makes investigative work to identify these traces and rediscover the uniqueness of a piece and its historic significance very difficult. Undoubtedly, it is the search to find unique works, lost among the profusion of books and book shelves that is one of the principle missions of our bookshop. For example, the case of a poetry book that testifies to the humanity of one of the most unjustly portrayed French revolutionaries: Guillotin. This book, is one of the rare vestiges of Guillotin’s personal book collection with a hand-written ex-libris. The book is by a German poet who was one of the first people to study the consequences of decapitation: research that inspired the deputy of parliament to defend the rights of condemned prisoners to die without undue suffering. 
Numerous secret or forbidden love stories abound in other mysterious signed copies. The jointly adulterous relationship between Victor Hugo and Juliette Drouet is revealed in a dedication to his lover in the first copy – still the first edition – of Actes et Paroles [Deeds and Words] which replaces his usual lyrical flight with a surprising sadness… she had just learnt he had been cheating on her for months.

Young love, also underlies the simple, pious dedication from an old Franciscan monk to a countess: Franz Liszt to his first mistress, Adèle de la Prunarède, who cast a shadow over the relationship between the composer and his muse, Marie d’Agoult. The thwarted passion of Sartre for the young Olga, who preferred... Simone de Beauvoir. The political friendship revealed by a Balzac’s extremely rare dedicated copies, to Henry Leroy, an influent lawyer. The eminently meaningful and personal gift, the dedication copy – a signed dedication in a first edition – strips bare the intimate relationship between an author and the person the book is dedicated to.

The proud dedication by Proust in his Swann [Swann’s Way] to Lucien Descaves, an eminent member of the Académie Goncourt, proves that despite claims to the contrary, the modest Marcel hoped to obtain the prestigious literary prize as early as the publication of his first volume of Recherche [In Search of Lost Time]. The unwavering friendship between Camus and the resistance fighter and poet, René Char, in his copy of Les Justes [The Just Assassins]: “à René Char, frère de ceux-ci, dont il a fait toute la route, avec l’admiration et l’affection de son ami” [to René Char, a brother of those mentioned below, who went the whole way with them, with admiration and affection, from your friend]. The acerbic friendship between Léon Bloy and his young admirer, Georges Rouault, whose style he detested: “rien pour son art – Il n’y a pas de caricature” [for his art alone, there can be no caricature]. Céline’s literary resentment towards his early critic: “À Gonzague Truc qui me déteste...” [To Gonzague Truc who hates me...].

The bookseller’s task is not to promote a book, but to select copies, from amongst all those available, with historical and symbolic links to the text they embody. Value unveiled rather than added, so that the infinitely reproducible object, the book, can rediscover its singular value as an artwork.

Working as a literary archaeologist, the bookseller extracts a meaningful object from the profusion of books, bringing the immaterial thought process that produced that book back into the physical cultural heritage. 
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