Rotary Club speaker: Rare books yield fascinating stories

John Windle, an antiquarian bookseller in San Francisco, appraises at least 10 family Bibles annually, all brought to him in hopes that their age makes them valuable treasures. However, he finds that 99.9 percent are just old books.

Windle, a dealer of rare books and manuscripts, described to the Rotary Club of Los Altos March 30 the origin of one exceedingly rare volume – the “Wicked Bible.” In 1631, a disgruntled employee of British publisher Robert Barker supposedly slipped a typo into a passage with disastrous repercussions for his employer. The courts canceled Barker’s publishing license, fined him and sent him to prison, where he died in 1645.

The offending passage? In the “wicked” seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” Barker’s version deleted the word “not,” thus sealing his fate.

The rare copy of the “Wicked Bible” was valued at $100,000 when Windle sold it to Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and proprietor of the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Early in his career, Windle discovered through personal experience that simply purchasing masses of old books does not guarantee stupendous rewards.

During his university training in England, France and at UC Berkeley, his interest in the writings of William Blake led him to the William Blake Trust, which reproduces the poet’s illuminated texts, a process that involves painting with gold and colors to venerate the beauty of the text. The tradition is now thriving in San Francisco, where Windle’s antiquarian bookshop is located at 49 Geary St. He is the worldwide distributor of the Blake Trust’s books.

The most sung and recorded musical composition in English history, according to Windle, is Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” set to music to boost English resolve during World War I. Now considered England’s unofficial national anthem, it was played at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Windle highlighted the value of a hidden treasure revealed in Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror novel “Frankenstein,” penned in one long night writing ghost stories with Lord Byron and other friends. The fortunate collector who happened upon volume 1 of the book discovered a handwritten inscription inside the cover that Shelley had written to Byron.

Shelley’s mother, author Mary Wollstonecraft, defended the rights of women at a time when “a gentleman spent more on his horses, dogs and books than on his wife and daughters,” Windle said. An early feminist, she pleaded for the education of women in “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,” published in 1787. Wollstonecraft’s essay inspired Windle to work with a local private collector on a series he dubbed “The Care and Feeding of Girls,” ranging from the 15th century through 1850. Digging deeper, he found that Wollstonecraft’s “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark,” published in 1796, reveals the first account of an independent woman traveling on business.

Windle, a collector turned bookseller, noted how antiquarian books have presaged some of society’s modern issues.

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Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit

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