On the prowl for precious volumes

For lawyer and independent researcher Robert Thake, collecting rare books is more than just an expensive hobby. Recalling globe-trotting adventures in pursuit of rare volumes of Melitensia, he also opens up with TEODOR RELJIC about the stigma of being an ‘independent researcher’

Robert Thake: “Only books can give you these two things at the same time – beauty and knowledge”
Robert Thake: “Only books can give you these two things at the same time – beauty and knowledge”

“Books can give you two things that nothing else can,” lawyer Robert Thake tells me as we meet to chat about his true passions – collecting rare books and uncovering the ‘hidden histories’ behind some intriguing volumes of Melitensia.

“They give you both knowledge, and beauty. No other thing you could acquire will give you both those things at the same time. Art can’t give you that, silver can’t give you that, antique furniture can’t give you that...”

Now, I have my reservations about that first example – surely, visual art can contain multitudes of knowledge folded into it – but I keep them to myself, allowing the young book collector and independent researcher to get going about what truly makes him tick.

Speaking in terms that could describe either an impassioned, long-term love affair – though Thake’s own fiancee, he tells me, has been admirably patient about his “expensive hobby” – or, perhaps more accurately, a bona-fide addiction, Thake explains how his passion for antique books began when he was in college.

A lawyer and indepednet researcher, Robert Thakes's true passion is collecting rare books
A lawyer and indepednet researcher, Robert Thakes's true passion is collecting rare books

“I had read Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and fell in love with it. I wanted to have a closer affinity with it, And since I couldn’t exhume the body of John Milton himself...” Thake says with a wry smile, “...I set about trying to acquire an antique copy of the book.” While a first edition of this game-changing work of English poetry was out of Thake’s range, he did manage to find a relatively affordable single volume segment of a two-volume edition, dated 1756.

“And when it arrived, I immediately scanned through it for my favourite passages... and I haven’t looked back since then.”

Seeing Milton’s words on pages that survived centuries of time packed a sizeable emotional wallop for Thake. “And that’s where my obsession with antique books started.”

But it was his second acquisition that paved the way to a life-long fascination with and commitment to Melitensia – both as a collector and, eventually, as an author with international accolades and publication credits. Not that he would have guessed it on that fateful day.

“I was actually visiting an antique shop to buy an old map for my mother’s house. But then I noticed that the dealer had some old books – nothing terribly interesting, but he told me he had more back home.”

Thake followed the dealer home, initially aiming to purchase a copy of ‘The Vertot’ – a crucial and controversial piece of Malta’s history that Thake would write about years later. However, the book he ended up taking home with him was the Codice de Vilhena – the first book of laws to be published in Malta, in an edition dated 1724 – which piqued Thake’s interest, given the legal angle.

“The book immediately struck a chord with me, but at the same time, I knew that I would never be able to afford it.” But in what turned out to be something of an unexpected portent – at least, Thake looks on it as such – his mother agreed to lend him the money, provided he paid her back in due course.

“This came as something of a shock to me, since my mother is the kind of person who really takes good care of her money. And to this day I have no idea why she did it. But the fact that she did made me think, ‘this was meant to be’...”

Soon, Thake began collecting beyond the niche of legal books, though he did decide to “limit” himself to Melitensia – “in as much as one can use the word ‘limit’, in this case” – tailing bibliophile treasures across Europe as he goes. As he claims that “most antique books on Malta, sold in Malta, tend to be unreasonably expensive and in a terrible condition”, his top spots for bookshops and auctions – the latter of which he always participates in by phone – tend to be found in the Latin quarter of Paris and London. “Italy is also a good one, though the finds tend to be spread out across Rome, Milan and Venice,” he says, before delving into just why owning the physical copies of the book sends an electric chill down his spine.

“When I got the ‘Codice’, it had an ex libris, so I could see who its previous owners were. This made it clear to me that I was a part of this venerable book’s history, now. I was a part of its life. And it made me realise that I, like other collectors, am a custodian of these books. And this is an extremely important task. Because these books are repositories of Malta’s cultural identity.”

Though by definition a sedentary pursuit – its inherent nerdiness is not something Thake shies away from – acquiring antique books is not without instances of adventure, as Thake was soon to discover, and continues to wholeheartedly embrace.

“Technically, I could get them all shipped over by DHL or whatever, but really – whenever I can, I like to fly over and pick them up in person, since it’s always more fun to be able to attach a story to an acquisition.”

One notable journey happened back in 2010. Thake’s original, quaintly Romantic idea was to travel to Paris’s Antiquarian Book Fair at the Grand Palais – “beeeeautiful”, he croons wistfully – and ‘escort’ a precious book he had managed to acquire ahead of time, ‘Mustafà Bassà di Rodi schiavo in Malta’ (Naples, 1751). The book, which ended up forming the basis of Thake’s first published work in 2013, certainly sounds like it would have deserved the international TLC treatment – being a rare and controversial text banned by Grandmaster Pinto at the time.

But the Eyjafjallajökull volcano had other ideas.

“I got stranded in Paris! Now, granted, there are far worse places to be stranded in, but I couldn’t relax since I had a pretty important and scary Law exam to sit for at University in a few days’ time.” He set off to Marseilles, but – “comically enough” – the ash cloud caught up with him there too. And so, the journey back to Malta ended up being something of a road trip, with Thake going through Monte Carlo, Nice, Ventimiglia and Genoa – “with this priceless book in my satchel” – before finally managing to catch a flight back home from Rome.

 Ignazio Georgio’s D. Paulus Apostolus in Mari (Venice, 1730)
Ignazio Georgio’s D. Paulus Apostolus in Mari (Venice, 1730)

“Though as luck would have it, the second I landed to Malta, I noticed that a flight from Paris had just arrived... but in the end, I think this little round trip made my ‘escorting’ of the book even more Romantic,” he concedes.

Neither did this episode scare off Thake from impromptu trips to Paris that feed his obsession. “This one time, I got an email right before 6am to alert me that a book I was after was available at this Paris bookshop. I got confirmation that it was complete, and in good condition, later on that day – while I was in the middle of a particularly hostile work meeting. So I had to excuse myself very awkwardly to take that call. I knew the shop opened at 10am, and I didn’t want to miss this chance.”

In short, Thake was in Paris the following morning. “I took leave and went to the bank to get the cash... needed to do that due to withdrawal limits. I’m telling you, when I told them that it was for a book, they looked at me funny...”

But it’s not just bank clerks and – one would presume – more sober members of society that would look at Thake “funny”. Given that his official profession is that of a lawyer (who also teaches Law as a casual lecturer at the University of Malta), his publication efforts mark him out as that much-maligned thing – the independent researcher.

It’s a stigma he’s well aware of, and he confesses that it does make him feel “uneasy” at times.

“But what encourages me is the fact that, in Malta, some of our best writers of history have in fact been lawyers, doctors, even architects... rather than more ‘mainstream’ historians.”

Further encouragement – even, in a lot of ways, complete validation – would come from overseas, however, and from some pretty decorated sources, too. Eschewing local publication – “It was difficult, for reasons I don’t want to go into” – Thake sent the manuscript for his latest work, ‘A Publishing History Of A Prohibited Best-Seller: The abbé de Vertot and his Histoire de Malte’ to his favourite publisher, the US-based Oak Knoll Press. To Thake’s delight and awe, not only did the publisher respond to his query – they opted to publish the book. It has subsequently been reviewed by the likes of the venerable Times Literary Supplement (arguably the benchmark for UK letters), where David Coward described it as, “scrupulous, meticulous, sumptuously produced and painstakingly researched biography of a book”.

Perhaps its triumph also validates an opinion Thake holds with some earnestness. “What people often don’t realise is that sometimes, the life of a book is far more interesting than the life of its author.”