24 January 2009

Colin Wilson. The Outsider, 1956

Colin Wilson. THE OUTSIDER. Gollancz, London 1956.

Current Selling Prices
$200+/ £125+

The key work of the Angry Young Men, a now slightly forgotten fifties movement akin to the Beats and preceding Hippies and Punks. The book is portentously subtitled 'An Enquiry into the Nature of the Sickness of Mankind in the Mid-Twentieth Century.' Colin Wilson, 'the Angries' best known advocate, is said to have slept rough on Hampstead Heath and written the book (age 24) in public libraries in a time of Existentialism, black polo necks, frothy coffee etc., He had been forced to quit school and go to work at 16, although his aim was to become "Einstein's successor." After a stint in a wool factory, he found a job as a laboratory assistant, but he was still in despair and decided to kill himself. On the verge of swallowing hydrocyanic acid, he had an insight: there were two Colin Wilsons, one an idiotic, self-pitying teenager and the other a thinking man, his real self. The idiot, he realized, would kill them both. "In that moment," he wrote, "I glimpsed the marvellous, immense richness of reality, extending to distant horizons." The peak moment, as detailed by William James. This vision has never left him and can be seen throughout his work - many of his later works dwell on the occult. Eckhart Tolle had a very similar moment and went on to sales in the tens of millions.

We had a copy in 2000 described thus:
'8vo. Signed presentation copy to Stephen Spender:-’For Stephen, whose work was one of the main influences on forming the sensibility that produced this book, although it cannot be responsible for the mis-spellings and mis-quotations. With affection...’ A remarkable association copy of the author’s chef d’oeuvre. Top edge sl dusty, sp sl cocked else near fine in vg or better d/w, sl soiled and a little creased and frayed at top edges. £400.'
The book is now on the web at $6750 (£4800) in a nicer jacket--something of a 'dream on' price that may be achieved by, say, 2030. What I and subsequent cataloguers failed to play up was the association of one generational figurehead to another, the torch being handed on--rather as if Johnny Rotten had signed his seminal work 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' to Donovan or possibly Wilde had inscribed 'Dorian Gray' to Walter Pater.

I console myself that my £400 re-invested in good books in 2000 and working on a 50% annual mark up (ie selling for £600 in 2001, reinvesting and selling for £900 in 2002 and so on) would now yield £10000. On this basis the buyer asking £4800 will, even if he sells the book in 2012 make a loss of £15000. Clive of Bohemia wrote a book on this kind of re-investment, the problem is finding (and being able to sell) the right books every time.

Another copy presented to no one in particular is much more overpriced at £2500, probably by a factor of 10, however it comes with 'provenance' something useful to have when re-selling on Ebay. Signed copies can be at £200 or less--even to recognisable names.

The UK first is basically a £100 book and twice that for limpid copies. The American first can make about $80 -which is the price a guy wants for one described thus: '...yellowed endpapers with tape ghosts. Otherwise, NOT price clipped, NOT BOMC, no underlinings or plates. About as close to fine as you can get for a 50-year-old book...' An interesting sales pitch making a virtue of things that the book is not, and clinching the deal with the deluded 'good for its age' ploy. Collectors in my experience make no allowance for age, especially a mere 50 years; age is hardly a factor until you go back to Victorian books (which can still show up 'as new.')

OUTLOOK? Wilson may possibly undergo a revival. He is now rather neglected--his works don't turn up in '1001 books you must read before death' and similar lists. He is not listed in price guides. He is still saleable but not really known to the current under 40s unless they are into the occult. He also wrote exceptional thrillers with Crowleyesque villains and even Science fiction and fantasy of a Lovecraftian / chthonic bent all of which has its collectors. One of his thrillers has a serial killer who leaves quotations from Blake on his victims--a Blake scholar solves the case. There is even a fanzine/ bulletin for his admirers. Meanwhile 'The Outsider' has stood still at the same price for a decade. Sell or hold but don't buy unless well cheap and in great condition.


Anonymous said...

The critics of the day received The Outsider as if indeed it had been written by Einstein’s successor Realising that they had rather gone over the top, the “pack” damned his next book Religion and the Rebel, 1957. Although he has many followers his reputation as an inovative thinker never really recovered.

Anonymous said...

I like Wilson and "the Outsider" quite a book and the criticism seems unfair.

But...I just finished his novel "The Glass Cage" which pronounces on the cover, "A novel of mysticism and the oocult."

Can some helpful soul please explain to me what is "mystical" and/or "occult" about the content of this novel. If it was, it was a flyover for me. The novel seemed like quite a conventional murder mystery.

Any help greatly appreciated!

Tim Mayer said...

A friend once challenged me to name a single person who'd finished reading THE OUTSIDER. I really couldn't come up with one name.

Anonymous said...

Hm I tried that Blake thriller but couldn't finish it - when I read Red Dragon (a far better book) i wondered if Harris had read Wilson.

Anonymous above has it right about the pack turning on Wilson. Someone, I can't mind who, wrote a rather good essay on how dispiriting the consensus was in both instances.

Tim I know several people who love (or loved) The Outsider and for whom it has had a real impact. I can't say I loved it myself, but when I read it in the mid-70s it sent me off scrabbling round for secondhand copies of Dostoyevsky etc etc.

What a great blog this is, glad to have found it - am an occasional buyer at Any Amount of Books but never thought to look for a blog.

Anonymous said...

You people are extremely snobbish and snotty, and it's pathetic because many of you are not very intelligent.