STORY 0004
03/14 – Words: Will Stern

If you’re the type of person who finds themselves perusing auction sites, searching in vain for affordable First Edition copies of classic books (I might be limiting my audience here, but bear with me), then you’ve undoubtedly come across the abbreviation, “PMM.”

PMM appears in the description of exceptionally rare and important books. Seldom explained, the PMM citation unfailingly accompanies a quote describing the book in question with broad, sweeping claims about its importance as a key contribution to human knowledge or the literary canon. This mysterious PMM seems to be the ultimate guide for book collectors.

The PMM finds its roots at the University of Cambridge where, in 1940, an exhibition was to be held to honor the 500-year anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing.

Among those involved in the planning of the exhibit were the economist John Maynard Keynes, the author Ian Fleming (who had yet to write his first Bond novel, but was a serious book collector), and antique booksellers Percy Muir and John Carter.

Despite World War II raging all around them, they decided to hold a celebration of printing as “an act of defiance.”

“An exhibition to show the contribution that printing had made over five hundred years, and would continue to make when the madness was over, might be seen as a challenge to the forces of destruction.”

Their optimism wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide of history, and the showcase would be short-lived, closing after just ten days as the Battle of Britain loomed in the summer of 1940.

More than two decades later, Muir and Carter put on another exhibition, paying tribute to the 1940 effort: “It was our original inspiration for several sections of our display, and its invigorating catalogue has been our constant friend.”

In 1963, “Printing and the Mind of Man” aimed to catalog some 656 examples of printed works and technology which “illustrate the history of Western civilization.”

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In 1967, Muir and Carter converted the exhibit into a book of its own, featuring a more detailed discussion of each item and leaving out the technological aspect. The result was “Printing and the Mind of Man. A Descriptive Catalogue Illustrating the Impact of Print on the Evolution of Western Civilization.”


-Peter Harrington, a London-based rare book dealer

The list encompasses hundreds of books, and one can be sure to spot a quote from PMM in any description of sale for a book lucky enough to be deemed worthy.

The wide-ranging census includes “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” by the Brothers Grimm, “Its publication brought immediate and worldwide fame to the brothers Grimm and provided the foundation for their influential and groundbreaking studies in German philology and grammar,” and “The Federalist” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, “One of the new nation’s most important contributions to the theory of government.”

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Rally’s First Edition copy of The Federalist

Even a first-hand account of the Manhattan Project has the PMM seal of approval.

Ironically, just as the books listed in the PMM impact their various fields with outsized weight, the PMM has become just that in the realm of book collectors. The head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s says the PMM gives a book an “exalted status.”

As with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia,” which finds praise within the pages of the PMM as “the greatest work in the history of science,” a book’s inclusion in the PMM is somewhat of a golden ticket.

Rally’s First Edition copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Rally’s First Edition copy of the Principia

Bauman Rare Books described the PMM as “perhaps the greatest gathering ever of printed works,” concluding: “Assigning greatness is always arbitrary, but a PMM citation is as close to an official imprimatur as one will find.”

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