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Undercover Books

Undercover Books

By Simon Beattie


I’d like to tell you about a book.  It’s a book which, it seems, no one’s ever heard of and yet, when I included it in my catalogue Short List 1 last year, I had seven orders for it.  It’s not a big book, not grand or imposing.  In fact, it was expressly intended to be small, to be hidden away, and, if found, to deceive.  The Germans would call it a Tarnschrift, a ‘camouflaged book’. 

Masquerading as a little French–German dictionary, it’s actually a pocket sabotage guide produced by the French Resistance for distribution among French workers in about 1943, and includes instructions on how to ‘do your bit’ against the Nazis if you work in factories (sand in the lubricating oil will soon damage machinery, etc.), coal mines, on railways (if you work on the points, send trains the wrong way), roads, rivers, canals, or on a farm.

The literature on books produced by the French Resistance tends to focus on the clandestine newspapers, presumably as examples of such exist in much greater numbers.  There was nothing comparable illustrated in the recent (and rather wonderful) Collaboration and Resistance, published to coincide with the 2009 exhibition at the New York Public Library.  And yet, in their little way, books like this helped win the War.

Undercover Books

But the story doesn’t end there.  I have found, over the years, that working with rare books often throws up amazing coincidences, and here’s another to add to the list.  That little French Tarnschrift is a rare book.  (Roger Stoddard, Senior Curator Emeritus of Harvard’s great Houghton Library told me that, in his time, he had seen - and naturally bought - a number of German Tarnschriften, but had never seen a French one.)  But then I came across three more French Tarnschriften, textually identical to the first one but with different covers: a volume of poetry, a book on war damage, and an almanac.  So the Resistance evidently produced different covers for their book, perhaps further to help evade detection.  After all, lots of little red pocket dictionaries suddenly popping up all over the place might have aroused Nazi suspicion.

I like books like this, books with stories to tell.  And I am pleased to say that all four have found a home together in the same library.

The collecting tip is published in Simon Beattie’s blog The Books You Never Knew You Wanted. It is presented here by permission of the author.

Published since 19 Oct 2011

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