29 November 2009

Stephen Spender, Poet as Printer 2

continued ....as with all legendary rarities, the fact that no-one knows exactly how many copies were produced will always feed the imagination of collectors. The Holywell Press have no information on the number they printed for Spender. And no-one who received copies from Auden is alive today.

So it seems probable there are copies still at large. For a number of years collectors, dealers and librarians have played a numbers game in which an imagined figure of 45 copies has been set against the number of copies traced. By late 1962 thirteen copies-- ten in private hands and three in public collections-- had been recorded. One of these private copies was acquired in a distinctly serendipitous way by the collector H. Bradley Martin in February 1962. According to The Book Collector Martin ' happened to be sheltering...from the rain one gloomy afternoon ' in El Dieff's shop when a copy of the Poems inscribed by Auden to C Day Lewis ' fell into his hands'. Two months later, according to the same source, another copy was ' conjured up' by Mrs Henry Cohn of the House of Books on the opening night of the Antiquarian Book Fair in New York. A further copy was sold to the Morgan Library eleven years later for a ' landmark ' $8,500 .Today, the number of recorded copies remains at 14, with possibly the same number ‘out there’. [R.M.Healey]

Thanks Robin. That's Wyndham Lewis's portrait of Spender above and Auden by Avedon beneath. I vaguely know why Spender was going for so much 20 years back; there were at least two punters around building completist collections of major twentieth century poetry. There are some nearly impossible early Sassoon items but when you have 'The Waste Land' and Pounds 'A Lume Spento' and the difficult Wiliam Carlos Williams, the last challenges remain the 1928 Spender and Auden booklets. The Spender is probably twice as hard to find. The sums don't seem to work because Auden is several times a greater poet that the talented Spender. If Auden is Dylan then Spender is probably Donovan. Time and time again in this game you realise that price does not reflect literary greatness, even within an author's own work. Sometimes an author's worst book is his rarest and most valuable.

In April of 1990 Spender's book made $57,500 and 3 months later another copy described as 'one of thirty' made £24000 (then $43,200) to one 'Stone.' None have appeared since. This was the late Bernard Stone bidding for a completist who I shall call Swiss Henry - in that same year he bought a 1928 Auden (not nice but inscribed to Spender) for the guy for £10500. In 1996 a decent Auden 1928 Poems made $17000 and it returned to auction 11 years later In the Annette Campbell White sale in 2007 where it made $58000. A decent investment, but as I recall Ms White was a fund manager.

28 November 2009

Stephen Spender, Poet as Printer 1

W. H. Auden, Poems, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$50,000 /£30,000

Stephen Spender, Nine Experiments, S. H. Spender, Hampstead, 1928
Current Selling Prices
$40,000 /£25,000

The story of how the 19 year old Stephen Spender, after just one year at Oxford, printed what would turn out to be two of the most elusive ( and expensive ) slim volumes in the history of modern English literature is a romantic one. Of Spender’s Nine Experiments and W.H.Auden’s Poems—both the size of a pocket diary and containing a handful of leaves--are now so sought after that the appearance of either for sale would probably make the national press. In the story of the Auden Generation Spender’s first collection is of negligible interest, but Auden’s poetic significance began with Poems, which contains several pieces that would reappear in the Faber Poems of 1930.

‘ The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool symmetry,
And stumps are drawn….

This fragmentary offering was not one of them, but the unmistakeable Auden voice is detectable in it. The wonderful 'Taller Today' was included, as were ‘The Watershed’ and ’The Secret Agent.’

Spender had only known Auden for a few months before the older man decided to entrust him with the poems in his possession. Others were obtained from A. S. T. Fisher, a contemporary who also wrote poems and who had frequent late night discussions with Auden on religion. But before Auden’s work could be printed Spender decided to print a selection of his own work, which he entitled Nine Experiments. So back home at Frognal, near Hampstead village, early in the long vacation, having spent £7 on ' a very primitive printing press' ( an 'Adana' label printer ) he set to work on the somewhat challenging task of laboriously producing a slim volume on a machine totally unsuited to the task. As an example of amateur printing Nine Experiments is a brave effort, but after seeing his work in book form for the first time Spender may have wondered why he’d bothered. There is a juvenile jokiness about these scraps of verse and the echoes of P. B. Shelley are obvious:

‘ Blow forever in my head !
And ever let the violins, tempest-sworn
Lash out their hurricane…’

Looking back 36 years later Spender remarked that the volume contained nothing ‘ worth preserving ‘. And sure enough not a single poem in it appeared in the Twenty Poems brought out by Blackwell’s in 1930. Spender could hardly fail to compare his sorry offerings with those of Auden and he hunted down all the 30 or so copies he could locate, which is perhaps why a copy of Nine Experiments today will fetch around £25,000,though in 1990 a enthusiastic collector ( funny to think anyone would be that enthusiastic about Spender’s poetry ) is reported to have shelled out £40,000 for one of the remaining 15 or so copies.

The degree of physical stress the Adana must have undergone in performing its unusual task can be imagined, and Spender’s physical maladroitness didn’t help. By the time he came to print Auden’s Poems Spender possibly suspected that the machine was unfit to complete the task, although the amateur printer must have been reasonably pleased by the first few pages he produced.

B.C.Bloomfield, Auden’s bibliographer, analysed Spender’s printing methods and identified various problems, including mis-alignment of impression and uneven inking in the two copies he examined . In one of these Spender's amateurishness as a printer is apparent on just about every page, and it is hard to determine whether the failure of certain type to take up ink was due to wear and tear, poor inking, or Spender's carelessness in setting down type ( or all three ). At any rate, when the 'h' in three successive lines of poem IV refused to print correctly Spender was obliged to ink in the letter by hand ! Similarly with a 't' and an 's' in the following line and a 'b' in the next. By page '18' it is quite apparent that around a third of the type used wasn't doing its job and though pages '19' and '20' showed some improvement, the situation seems to have reached a crisis point by the printing of page '22', when, after correcting three further letters, Spender must have come to the painful conclusion that, with only just over half of Auden's poems printed, a completion of the project was beyond him.

And so Spender was obliged to ask the well known Holywell Press in Oxford to complete the printing in a similar style. He also asked for the book to be inexpensively bound and provided with a wrapper. If we examine pages 23 to 37 of one copy the change of font and the higher quality of printing are quite obvious, but there are still errors. It would seem that for all their printing expertise, the professionals at Holywell were at a disadvantage to Spender when it came to deciphering Auden's handwriting. In the end 5 words were corrected by hand, possibly by Auden himself.

There is some dispute over the number of copies of Poems issued. Spender told Bloomfield that he had no exact memory of the edition size. 'About 45 copies ' is what appears opposite the dedication page, but in World Within World (1951), Spender mentions a figure of thirty. A copy inscribed by him to D. G. O. Ayerst and dated February 1929 bears the number ' 24--about', and Bloomfield supposes that by this date most of the copies would have been distributed. He guesses that the figure of 45 made no allowance for wastage in the printing and binding process, and that therefore Spender's 1951 figure of 30 was probably nearer the mark ...[continued]

pic at top is Wystan and Stephen (tall guy) and 'Herr Issyvoo' right (Isherwood)

26 November 2009

Kindle and Ebooks revisited


Our posting on Kindle sparked a muted debate. I even had an email from someone at Oracle suggesting a further Kindle pun (in advance of our 'Dell, Book and Kindle')-- something about reading on board his yacht- a 'Kindle in the wind.' He also suggested that hand held devices such as Kindle are actually a good way of introducing today's children to real books--many have become accustomed only to screens, cellphones and computer games and hardly ever read or hold a book - so a Kindle is more natural for them and could be a portal into the world of reading and then real books. Whatever it takes, I say.

Somehow I can't see today's eight year olds growing up interested in Horace's Odes or Boswell and Johnson or even Edgar Allan Poe. Will they haunt second hand bookshops? Will Charing Cross Road still have any bookshops or will they be replaced by milkbars full of Droogs drinking drugged milk to hype themselves for the night's mayhem. Over here in the USA millions of 'young adults' are actually reading the Twilight novels which, like JK Rowling's work, has made them familiar with books (even quite fat books.) I will look at this phenomenom sometime soon but Stephenie Meyer's first book 'Twilight', a vampire-romance novel ( Little Brown, New York ) published in far off 2005, can fetch $1000+ and even the 2006 London edition from Atom can fetch £180.

On one of the Twilight websites a discussion broke out about reading on Kindle with 2/3 of the YA's being pro-book and about a third of them Kindle enthusiasts or users of both platforms. A few views from the Twilight world:
'I bought my Kindle just so I wouldn’t have to drag around 10 lbs of Twilight books with me when I travel! (It paid for itself when I forked over the extra fine’s for overweight luggage a few times!) I have to say that I love the convenience of Kindle on the road but I still grab my books whenever I am home!'

'...a dog-eared book is BEAUTIFUL to those who understand it’s beauty: having the book to hold in your hands is soooooo much nicer than just absorbing the story, either through audio book or kindle. i want the book in my hands. it makes me feel…. complete.'

 My Kindle is my favorite possession, hands down! And those who get headaches reading from a screen… you most likely won’t have that problem with a Kindle, it looks just like a book page, it uses ink! AND you can change the font size, so in fact, it can drastically help those who get eye strain, etc.
 And just think of all those trees that will be saved! Hahaha!
 Not to mention how much easier it is to hold than a thick book… being able to take 1500 books on travel… and let me tell you how much I love being kept waiting in doctor’s offices, take out places, and the DMV now!'

Talking of Poe I have been reading one of his tales of ratiocination 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt", a sequel to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". I downloaded it for a dollar onto an Iphone along with many other of his stories. Reading is easy and it is particularly convenient for badly lit places like airliners at night, motel beds and bus stops. It's not the same as reading a book, it seems slower and it is slightly harder to browse or skip...boring passages seem even duller on a screen. Hard to imagine ploughing through 'War and Peace' on a cellphone, but the short stories of the 'divine Edgar' (as Humbert Humbert called him) are ideal. I hadn't realised that Poe was not only writing some of the first detective fiction but also in 'Marie Roget' the first forensic thriller -- a 100 years before Reichs and Cornwall were born. There are no blowflies but serious medical knowhow and mycology...

21 November 2009

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants

John D. Clark. IGNITION! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants. Rutgers University, USA 1972.

Current Selling Prices
$250-$1400 /£150-£800

This is rocket science. Cult book among rocket geeks or the aspiring 'rocketeer.' Includes amusing stories e.g. an attempt to use skunk oil as a fuel. Talk about stinks and bangs! 232 pages with illustrations. Couldn't find a pic of the book so used a stock ignition type photo (but see below...)

VALUE? Mainly available as a POD (Print on demand) at about $85, the actual book is scarce and only one is available at Amazon USA. Takes 2 to 4 weeks to source which often signifies that the book will not be found. Also typically there is no mention of condition and no one to ask (you can't talk to a monolith) and there is an assumption that it doesn't matter. To paraphrase Russell Crowe -- 'Condition isn't everything, (it's the only thing!)'

As an old thesis it can also be got as a POD from UMI (University Microfilms) in Ann Arbor at about $100. This is said to be true of all university theses although I have never tested it. You need patience. I have had those funky UMI paper wraps books through and they do a pretty good job. Depends whether you want to use the book or collect it. Rockets, space exploration and astronomy are all very saleable subjects - watch this space.

STOP PRESS. In late Feb 2008 the only available copy to be found at abebooks.com is $90 from Babbit's described thus:
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ [published date: 1972] Hardcover Typical library defects. Boards moderately smudged with library tape residue, spine and boards slightly edgeworn. Endpapers mildly soiled. Interior clean, binding tight. Dustjacket mildly rubbed, smudged, and edgeworn. ; Ex-Library; 8vo 8" - 9" tall; 214 pages; Rare--technology kvk orange/black scicat.
I.e. a pretty nasty copy stopping just short of hideous. The POD is still there (and will be till 2525 as it only comes into being when desired) and a copy (at Alibris.com) described thus - 'New, authorized, professionally-bound facsimile reprint. Any photographs may not be as crisp as the original' commands a stratospheric $180. Reprint it Rutgers!

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2009 Have at last found a photo of this fabled book. No one seems to be selling the Print on Demand anymore and one crackbrained seller on Amazon UK wants $1400. Cheapest copy anywhere is $249.99 for a reasonable jacketed example. Cannot understand why the book has not been reprinted (or Kindled) - right now the world needs a light-hearted rocket book (at a down to earth price.)

20 November 2009

Books as Investment

I've been pondering the question of books as an investment since posting about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. I tend to distrust booksellers who try to sell books as an investment ('here's one for the pension fund') and some booksellers organisations specifically prohibit it's use as a sales tactic (as do some estate agents, oddly enough.) The main reason is that unless you have the foresight of Nostradamus it is very difficult to know what books will go up and which will fall. Sticking to proven world famous classics is usually considered a good bet. William Rees Mogg, editor of 'The Times' and sometime bookseller, wrote an interesting article showing how first editions of certain classic books (Wealth of Nations, Johnson's Dictionary, Blackstone, Malthus etc.,) over the years had performed as well as the stock market. However it depends on how well you bought them and where and how you sell them; bought and sold in auction a lot of value evaporates in commissions...

Odd corners of the market can unexpectedly prosper- ephemera, photobooks, manuscripts etc., Leaves from the Gutenberg Bible have appreciated significantly. They usually come in a 1921 leaf book called 'Noble Fragment' which has an essay by A. Edward Newton and a leaf (occasionally leaves) from an imperfect copy of the 1455 Bible which was divided ('broken') by Gabriel Wells, a New York book dealer. A dealer on ABE wants $80,000 for his and an internet Bible specialist wants $79000 ('the “Holy Grail” of book collectors everywhere') and $120,000 for a chapter heading leaf (Deuteronomy.) He suggests these leaves are appreciating at 20% a year which means they will hit the half million in about 2018, an extremely unlikely scenario. In 1988 leaves were making $5000 regularly. Extrapolating from the value of the leaves he values an actual Gutenberg bible at $100 million which may be a tad optimistic, although in a world where Beedle the Bard gets bought by Bezos for $4 million anything is possible. The market has not been tested for over 20 years - in 1987 one of the two volumes made $5 million, 30 years ago the great Breslauer paid $2 million for the full monty.

If the Larsson 'Tattoo' was to appreciate from £500 (which it made on Ebay this week) by 10% a year it would be worth about £1200 in 10 years time. This is assuming that in 10 years it is still well esteemed and that the supply is not greater than was originally thought. The reason why 'Corelli's Mandolin' tanked (from over £600 to less than £200) was that there were simply too many about; the lousy movie did not help either. The internet responds almost perfectly to the laws of supply and demand, however when a book first starts becoming collected the market is in flux and the true value is, at that point, hard to call. If you wait you may be able to buy at a much reduced price, but you may miss out badly on a real winner (Harry Potter comes to mind if you were buying in the late 1990s.)

There was a real buzz about John Dunning's great bibliomystery 'Booked to Die' in the early 90s and prices of $1000 were being asked and occasionally achieved, but 16 years later you can buy an excellent signed copy for $400. No consolation can be had from smug advice about buying the books you love (because if they don't go up in value you at least have something to read.) Attempts to corner the market are also very risky. The murdered attorney Rolland Comstock bought the remainder of Jim Crace's first novel, 'Continent' (1986) 1085 copies. Because the book is now in ready supply (possibly from the Comstock Lode itself) the book can be bought fine/ fine/first for £5 ($8) although some bravehearts are still wanting $100. It's like the 'Diamond as Big as the Ritz'--the supply has to be carefully monitored. Our 300 Octopussies (bought around 2000 and sold at a measured pace) have now all gone although somewhere I have about a half dozen 'as new' (for the pension fund.)

Last word on investing. In X. Driffields classic 'Not 84 Charing Cross Road' he notes that the billionaire financier Michael Milken had at one time invested in the rare book world-- whether it was books themselves or a book business I am not sure. X.D's book is not yet on GoogleBooks and as I recall it was about as impenetrable as Finnegans Wake. There is a story of Milken leaving the house of a colleague after dinner one night. As he stepped into the night his host's wife looked up at the skies and remarked how beautiful the stars were. Without looking up Milken replied 'You can't buy them, you can't sell them so why look at them?' As the Italians say "Se non è vero, è ben trovato".

16 November 2009

Book Runners

I’ve never met Martin Stone, legendary book-runner, but I’ve wanted to interview him since I first heard about him—I can’t exactly remember when—and have tried several times to get his address, most recently from an old drinking pal of mine in Birmingham-- Francophile and occasional blues busker, Charlie Mitton, caricatured as Bad News Mutton, one of the infamous Ketamine Kreeps of Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower , whom I still occasionally meet in Brum. I might even have asked Sinclair himself or his friend Chris Petit, both of whom I’ve interviewed. I can’t exactly remember. Of these contacts Charlie, although ignorant of rare books, always seems most willing to help me in my quest, though the intelligence that Stone lives or lived somewhere near Pere Lachaise cemetery isn’t much use to me.

I suspect that any address in Paris divulged by Mitton is likely to be hopelessly out of date. Anyway, perhaps that’s the whole point about living legends—they take on the character of mythical beasts—you wonder if they actually exist. Surely, in my forty years of book collecting and dealing I should have met Stone by now.

But runners, however elusive, are always fascinating figures. There must have been a few at George Jeffrey’s stalls in Farringdon Road, which I used to visit regularly throughout the eighties, having first discovered them as a teenager in 1968. There was one bloke—rather tall and dishevelled—who I saw on each visit. He’d arrive on a battered-looking bike wearing a flat cap which was painted with white gloss—and he stood out from the other recognisable dealers who patronised the stalls . Having seen a photo of Solomon Pottesman recently I was reminded of him, though ‘Potty ‘, or ‘Inky’ as he was nicknamed, seemed to be shorter, and anyway died in 1978. There is a brilliant cameo of this very eccentric figure in Rare Books and Rarer People by F. O. Snelling, a former cataloguer at Hodgson’s, who regularly dealt with Pottesman and whose recollections of him are a mixture of exasperation at his eccentricities and real respect for his scholarship.

Was Potty a true runner ? To fix this label on someone whose obsession with incunabula meant that he would only sell enough non-incunabula books to pay rent and buy food, leaving him to spend the remaining profits on still more pre 1500 books for his own private collection ---would be stretching the definition quite a bit. But as he had no shop himself and sold directly to other dealers, I suppose he could be called a runner. [Photos show London's Farringdon road stalls in the 1930s and the 1980s.]

I assume that book runners have always existed. The annals of book dealing and collecting are full of characters whose hand-to mouth existence depends on their memory and instinct for a bargain. The Farringdon Road stalls attracted them from at least the 1870s, and many of the characters observed by Mary Benedetta in her wonderful Street Markets of London( 1936), with its photos by Moholy Nagy* , must have been runners. Bookshops and other shops too have also happy hunting grounds for those with the ‘ knowledge ‘. I like that story of the runner who discovered a tobacconist wrapping ounces of shag in what looked like pages from an ancient book and which indeed turned out to be ( if my memory serves me right ) an exceedingly rare early American book. More recently, I doubt if Bewick expert Nigel Tattersfield would care to be labelled a runner, but when he bought for £20 a scribal copy of Thomas More’s A Dialoge of Comfort agaynst Trybulacion from one of Jeffrey’s boxes in 1981 and sold it five years later for £42,000, he made the national news. Such luck is what every runner dreams of, but rarely ever enjoys. [ R.M.Healey.]

*(John Miles, London 1936)--photos by Moholy-Nagy and worth about £300 nice in jacket, half that for lesser copies sans jacket. Not scarce.

Wise words indeed Robin. The 'stoned one' (Martin) sometimes shows up in our shop and has even found books here which he has 'run' to more illustrious dealers, or just down the road to Cecil Court. These days he is a dapper figure in a stylish hat (the beret is long gone) ties from Charvet and an op-art suitcase with wheels. The case contains rarities 'scouted' in almost forgotten parts of Europe and at dawn markets in its great capitals.

The American equivalent of a runner is a 'scout' but they are subtly different. A 'scout' often searches for books for his own stock, whereas the runner almost exclusively sells to other dealers. Ideally he will have very little stock, often just the books that he could not sell (i.e. his mistakes.) There are one or two women, more in America, but it is mostly a male lifestyle. In general their lives go unrecorded; a few pop up in bookselling memoirs. There are several mentioned in 'The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill' edited by the great bookman John Saumarez Smith. Runners, as I recall, once even had a style of dress (seedy overcoat with string round the middle, also string used to tie the books) and cultivated themselves as 'characters' possibly for the benefit and amusement of the buyers (and customers) in grand shops. Some even ended up relatively rich, certainly Potty's library made a solid six figure sum...

14 November 2009

Stieg Larsson. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)

Stieg Larsson.THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. MacLehose Press, London [also] Knopf, New York 2008

Current Selling Prices
$80-$800 /£50-£500


The story of Stieg Larsson is well known by now. In 2008 he sold more books than Dan Brown. He died in 2004 age 50 without seeing the global success of his novels; as the Sunday Times put it:- 'Crime fiction has seldom needed to salute and mourn such a stellar talent as Larsson's in the same breath...'

He started off editing Swedish SF fanzines and became a serious political activist and writer--an indomitable fighter against racism, sexism, misogyny and the idiocies of the far right and modern day Nazis. As Nick Cohen says, the irony that his longterm partner Eva Gabrielsson should miss out on the Millennium millions 'is almost too sharp to bear.' She may well win her case yet and she is in possession of Stieg's laptop with a fourth volume of the series partly written (and his plans for it to be a series of ten.) Probably the world's most valuable laptop. Eva Gabrielsson has dismissed the likelihood of Larsson’s fourth book being published, comparing it to an uncompleted Picasso. It is not unthinkable a sympathetic writer could finish the fourth book. Dickens's mystery 'Edwin Drood' (1870) was unfinished at his death, with the killer not revealed, and it has been completed by scores of writers, the first being issued in 1873 by a Vermont printer who had channeled the latter half of the book directly from the great man--a version that was praised by Conan Doyle (not scarce, decent firsts can be had for about $100).

Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and Sara Paretsky have been cited as influences by various reviewers. Larsson's journalist hero Mikael Blomkwist is no Poirot however, although the island mystery has echoes of Agatha's most politically incorrect title. Some readers have mentioned Enid Blyton as an influence, certainly she is mentioned in the text but his goth/punk superhero Lisbeth Salander would probably not be invited to join the Secret Seven or even the Famous Five. Larsson is on record as saying she is a kind of grown up incarnation of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking - "strong and fearless." The Swedish first of the first Pippi adventure is a £1000+ book in fine condition ( Rabén & Sjögren, Stockholm, 1945.) Note that she is called Pippi Langstrump in Swedish.

VALUE? You can buy copies of the British first currently for about £400. The US first is quite common and can be had for less than $100. The UK firsts have been making good money on Ebay, one in near fine condition made £425 ($710) last week. Online mall sellers tend to want £500 and more with the more expensive copies being touted as investments, usually a bad sign. Most proclaim its 'incredible' scarcity and, for some reason, the sharpness of its corners. One Ebay Buy -it-now seller shouts 'INCREDIBLY SCARCE TITLE' and wants £725. Most of the highest prices (some as much a £1000) are with dot.com book outfits (modrarerip.com etc.,) - that tends to be another warning sign. Fortunes are wanted by vendors of copies signed by the translator, one Reg Keeland. This looks like a hype but may just work in today's free-for-all market. I don't recall people getting worked up about Archibald Colquhoun the translator of Di Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' - another posthumous masterpiece and the top-selling novel in Italian history.[Below Noomi Rapace as Salander in the new movie...]

OUTLOOK? Good, because it is a major work and has achieved cult status. The real question is how many Maclehose printed. I suspect it was several thousand in which case the current price may be toppish. If it was less than a thousand then the price is realistic. It seems unlikely that it would have been a small print run. There had been an intense buzz about the book coming from Swedish mystery fans, the launch of the book in London in January 2008 was attended by every mover and groover in publishing, review copies were sent out etc., Charing Cross's own Maxim Jakubowski was there (complaining about the translation...) By the way his shop 'Murder One', not 50 yards from us, remains empty after nearly two years (a wildly over ambitious rent can be the only explanation).

'Tattoo' may go up and it may go down. 'Da Vinci Code' has halved in value from its height (however 2 crucial differences, Larsson had real talent and Vinci was a six figure print run.) As a bookdealer I hope to find a limpid copy overlooked in a box, hopefully a review copy (NOT a proof copy) larded with handouts and fliers...

11 November 2009

A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens, 1843.

Charles Dickens. A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Chapman and Hall, London 1843.

Current Selling Prices
$8000 - $28000 / £5000 - £18000

A Dickens classic, possibly his most famous book. Correct firsts must have the words 'Stave 1' at the heading of the first chapter (NOT 'Stave one' - people often confuse this and it's an expensive mistake to make.) There are other points but if you have the number 1 stave you're almost there. Endlessly filmed, cartooned and trotted out every Christmas.

Sometimes seen in pompous bindings, including Cosway bindings, and often in full red calf with the other 4 Christmas books. Not scarce, but limpid copies are very difficult to find and command serious dosh.

VALUE? 2 copies made $15000 at auction in 2005, both nice but neither in breathtaking condition. There are 3 copies on net at just over £20K and reasonable copies of the 1843 later issue at $4000 or so and some decent rebound early issue sets of all five Christmas books in the low thousands o' dollars. A copy inscribed to Thomas Hood sold for $50K in 1997, a year earlier a copy inscribed to Walter Savage Landor made $160,000.

Highly expensive 'fresh' copies often get sold to 'carriage trade' customers and don't get dumped on the internet. Great copies tend to turn up in odd places; watch out for repaired, tarted up, sophisticated and ringed copies. Reasonable but slightly worn copies and rebound ones can be bought for less painful sums than the above.

Our photo left is of a copy stolen in a heist at the Dickens Museum London August 2002. Note the slight black mark on the front cover at about 3 o'clock. The museum estimated it's cost at beteen £20,000 and £30,000. The museum is at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839. If offered it please call the police or the A.B.A. It was reported by the BBC 'Audacious raid on Dickens museum' and there are other pics of the book at their site. Andrew Xavier the curator said:'It is really sad and rather ironic that it is Dickens' book of goodwill to all men. '

This is a revisit of a posting from late 2007. 'Christmas Carol' prices have remained reasonably firm although some of the books mentioned are still for sale. "An exceptionally fine copy" (minor crimping at spine ends) sold for £16000 (+20%)- at Sotheby's, London on Dec 17, 2008. It may have benefited from yuletide sentiment. A 'Cosway style' bound true first has been around for 5 years or more at a heady $30K. It is hard to love these meretricious objects. They are the kind of book that Swiss Toni (Charlie Higson's comic used car salesman) would buy if he had the money ('...buying a Cosway binding is very much like making love to a beautiful woman...') Cosway bindings (named after the great miniaturist) are presumably still being done. They are said to have been invented by a Miss Currie who worked at Sotherans between 1912 and 1940. They always feature a miniature, usually of the author, set into the cover. They are often in full crushed morocco, with doublures, dentelles, silk endpapers and occasionally opalescent stones or pearls set into the leather. I am happy to buy them and even happier to sell them. An understated example is below featuring the bard.

There was a trend a while back for buying small antique pistols and placing them in leather bound cache livres (i.e. with the pages cut out and in a shape to accommodate the gun.) Best if the book was called 'Man with a Golden Gun' or 'The Shootist' or 'Gun for Sale ' or 'Johnny Got his Gun.' I once asked a dealer what kind of people bought these objects and it turned out, not unsurprisngly, that the customers were 'macho men.' Cosway bindings are a cut above the macho gun book, but not by much.

07 November 2009

William Carlos Williams, Poems (1910) & other burnt books

William Carlos Williams. Poems. Privately printed, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1910.
Current selling price $25,000 (£15,000)

(and other books and manuscripts accidently burnt)

Of William Carlos Williams’ debut slim volume, Poems, which the young and popular physician of Paterson, NJ published privately in 1909 only two copies are known to exist. Of the second state, which differs from the first in only a few respects, a hundred copies were published in 1910 by a local printer Howell at 25 cents a copy. Dr Williams took a dozen of these to the local stationery store and after a month four had been sold, so he brought home the remainder and after distributing a few copies to members of his family, returned the rest of the edition to his printer. At some point Howell, as Williams recalled in his Autobiography, then wrapped them in a neat bundle and put them away for ‘safe keeping’. After they had ‘ reposed ten years or more on a rafter under the eaves of his old chicken coop ‘ they were ‘, Williams recorded ruefully, ‘inadvertently burnt ‘.

Apparently only 9 copies survived from the inferno, by which time ( it would have been sometime after 1920 )Williams had published with greater success and presumably received back what was left of the edition. Or did the egregious and highly embarrassed Howell retain them? What I want to know is why, for all that Williams regarded the contents of Poems as ‘ bad Keats…bad Whitman too ‘ and felt that there was ‘ not one thing of the slightest value in the whole thin booklet ‘, could he not have given the ninety-odd pamphlets house ( or surgery ) room ? Today, each copy of this first book by one of the most important innovators in American poetry commands around $25,000, with or without scorch marks !!

Tales of books or ( more rarely )manuscripts publicly burned are common enough in the literature of despotism or Puritanism. Whole libraries have gone up in flames ( for more details see the excellent Books on Fire by Lucien X Polastron ), and who knows how many Caxtons and Wynken de Wordes were lost in the Great Fire of London. Didn’t Pepys lose some ? And whole editions were turned to ash in printer’s warehouses during the bombing of the capital in both World Wars—we know, for instance, that the entire print run of Awake, that excellent first collection by W. R. Rodgers was destroyed, as well as most of the first edition of Country and Town in Ireland by Constantia Maxwell ( both of which were reprinted later )---and possibly (since I can’t find a copy recorded anywhere after fifteen years of searching ) of EBO by E. B. Osborn, famous literary editor of the Morning Post—which wasn’t reprinted. But losses through accident or carelessness ? J. S. Mill’s errant housemaid may perhaps be the best-known literary pyromaniac, but the fate of poor old Frank Kermode’s signed firsts, which were lost to the refuse tip in Cambridge ( presumably to be incinerated )has a element of black humour to it. Were the city’s book dealers seen scavenging late into the night for literary treasures among jettisoned fast food cartons and broken-down computers ? —and more recently still, cult children’s writer G. P. Taylor, who in 2005 lost an estimated £250,000 when he threw the MSS of his million-selling Shadowmancer on the garden bonfire along with other manuscripts. Regarding this I want to know at what point did it become impossible for the absent minded ex-vicar to recover at least a portion of the typescript from the flames? In my experience A4 sheets thrown onto bonfires tend mainly to blow away, though I suppose it could have been unusually still that day.

On this note, is the tragic story of the Dimsdale copy of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, which the first owner is said to have bought from the author himself. Apparently, while preparing for a move from Essendon Place in Hertfordshire ( later the home of Barbara Cartland ) in the 1890’s, leaves from the volume were dumped onto a bonfire by the gardener, who only realised his mistake after 27 plates had been totally consumed by the flames. Nine leaves were rescued and these, complete with singed edges, remained in the Dimsdale family until they were sold at Sotheby’s in 1952, when Blake scholar Geoffrey Keynes bought them, as he recalls in his autobiography, The Gates of Memory (1982). [R.M.Healey]

Thanks Robin. Wise words, indeed. One wonders if the Rev. G.P. Taylor isn't drastically overvaluing himself? Reminds me of when uberdealer R.A. Gekoski went to negotiate with Golding about buying the manuscript of 'Lord of the Flies'. The great man wanted a million pounds for it (in the 1980s). No deal! Not even the MS of Kafka'a 'The Trial' had made that at the time.

A few books to add--many copies of the USA 1851 first of 'Moby Dick' are said to have gone up in a warehouse fire. Gadsby, the novel without a 'e' in it much loved by Oulipians is now very hard to find because of another burning warehouse, likewise Nabokov's 'Despair' (1937) and E.M. Forster's 'Alexandria' (1922.) Other books have succumbed to what the British Library call 'enemy action' (one imagines fire was involved.) This is said to account for the scarcity of 1938 firsts of Beckett's 'Murphy' - a bombed warehouse at Routledge. As for William Carlos Williams let's not forget his great imagist poem 'Red Wheelbarrow.' He may have started off doing bad Whitman, but could Walt have written anything better?

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

05 November 2009

Downsides of the Ebook...

I have been ruminating about ebooks and Amazon's Kindle recently. I am not a Luddite and believe they have their place but I am not of the "this changes everything" school. About 18 months ago one of the Motley Fool crew wrote a piece about 'Why Kindle Will Change the World' - this was a sort of U turn after initially calling it a $399 paperweight. On examination the main reason he thought it was so fab is that he managed to publish a novel in Kindle form with a few key strokes. It was a 'cheesy' coming of age novel ( The Last Perfect Fathers Day) that he had written as an intense young student and had lying around on his hard drive in MS Word. 'In seconds, Amazon chewed it up and spat it back out in Kindle's HTML…' He priced it at $2.59 and it already has a couple of reviews and is 25000th in the Kindle charts. There is something marvellous about this and before long a work of real genius may appear just in this manner.

There is no reason why computers, printed literature and Ebooks cannot co-exist --Dell, Book and Kindle as it were. But there are some disadvantages to these devices (Kindle, Nook and the Sony Reader etc.,) which I am happy to enumerate.

1. A printed book is a delight to handle, it doesn't need a battery and it has worked well for 555 years. Call it low technology.

2. If you are on the move a paperback is easier to carry around.

3. You can't wedge a ebook under a wonky bed or table.

4. You can't throw it across the room in disgust (actually you can but it's an expensive gesture.)

5. You can't press leaves and flowers between the pages.

6. You can't lend it to a friend (Nook reckon they have sorted this out but it's just not the same.)

7. You can't get it signed by the author.

8. J.K. Rowling won't allow any of her books to appear in this format (however Dan Brown is only too keen.)

9. They don't smell of anything.

10. You can't proudly shelve it and you can't show off or boast about your book collection.

11. You can't watch the books go up in value. You can't sell the books.

12. You can't donate it to a library.

13. You can't marvel at the beauty of its hand coloured illustrations, chromolithographs, pochoirs etc.,

14. You can't have it finely bound in leather with silk endpapers and fine filigree work.

15. You can't slip press cuttings in it or hide bank-notes in it.

16. Thieves can steal it right out of your hands (this cannot happen with a real book, thieves are just not interested.)

17. They are not biodegradable and as time goes by the current models will look as dated as a Psion organiser (hence expensive updates...)

18. A book can be looked at for a few minutes with the reader flipping backwards and forwards (browsing) effortlessly. You
can then convince most people that you have read the book. Much harder with an Ebook.

19. You can spill coffee or wine on a book and it's still legible, with an Ebook you are suddenly down $399.

20. Lastly (for the moment) if you had an EBible you couldn't swear on it with any conviction, let alone bash it or thump it.

More thoughts on this to follow -reading books on an Iphone, the concept of the Cloud Library, why indexes don't work on hand-held devices and some consideration of their advantages...

02 November 2009

At an Alcoholics Anonymous auction...Part 2

Result were fairly good at the dispersal of this serious Alcoholics Anonymous collection, although mostly under the low estimates with about 30% bought in. The sale took place at Pacific Book Auctions in San Francisco on 22 October. Most early printings of the A. A. Big Book were in bright facsimile jackets and one that was in a decent original jacket- a fourth printing from 1943 made $3600. There were about a dozen books inscribed by Bill W, often quite late in the century but only two by his co-creator Dr. Bob (Robert Smith.) One book from Dr. Bob's library with his ownership signature made a healthy $2280. It was a copy of David Seabury's 1937 work 'The Art of Selfishness'. This is a sort of early self help book by a psychologist ( founded the Centralist School of Psychology.) He also wrote 'What Makes Us Seem So Queer '(1934) and 'How to Worry Successfully' (1936). Ordinarily the book would make $20 but Dr.Bob's signature is rare. The book also had his calling card tipped in showing him to be a surgeon. When selling it the auctioneer said -'...here's one to boast about at the next meeting..' something you would be unlikely to hear at a British auction.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the 'Big Book' - a landmark work not merely in saving the minds, souls and bodies of millions of out of control drinkers but also in being the first broad manifestation of group movements, 'steps', 'sharing' 'self help' and what later became known as 'recovery.' Early editions, whilst not rare, are much sought after. A genuine first inscribed by Bill W to a character called 'The Brewmeister' (Clarence 'Cracker' Snyder) made $10,800 in very mediocre condition. The story of the 'Home Brewmeister' is dealt with in the book and Snyder was a founding member known to have disagreed with Bill W on the subject of anonymity.

The big result came with a sixth printing (1944). It was a less than brilliant copy in a worn d/w but inscribed in 1948 by the three founders of AA--Bill W, Dr.Bob and Bill Dotson and later by Bill W's sponsor Ebby Thacher and a few others. It made $27000 against an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It was news to me that Bill had a sponsor (like being 'The President's Analyst'…) Thacher had attended the Oxford Group meetings, seen as a precursor to AA - another much collected movement some of whose books were in the sale.

Three real firsts of the 'Big Book', all somewhat used but acceptable examples in facsimile jackets, made between $6600 and $7800. A big lot (169 books) on 'alcoholism, substance abuse and recovery' was bought in against an estimate of $3000 to $5000. It was the kind of lot that would have sold in the boom years. Likewise a lot of 60 of the 72 printings of the third edition (pic above) all in jackets (1976-1998) failed to garner a bid of $750. A patient and diligent Ebay seller could probably have trebled his or her money on this lot but as a wise old bookseller once advised me - 'never buy hard work.'