31 December 2010

E.H. Visiak 'Medusa' (1929)

E.H. Visiak. MEDUSA: A STORY OF MYSTERY AND ECSTASY, & STRANGE HORROR. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1929.

Current Selling Prices
$650 - $1100 /£400-£700

E.H. Visiak, was the pseudonym of Edward Harold Physick. He was born in 1878 and died in 1972. I have had books signed by him in the late 1960s- usually in a very spidery hand. His poetry is relatively common and often turns up signed, as does his Milton scholarship. His first book The Haunted Island: A Pirate Romance (Elkin Mathews L 1910) is quite scarce. Bleiler defines it as 'adventure stories with fantastic elements' and it is an uncommon but not impossible book. There are 3 copies on the web, two with the same U.S based dealer and another ('...the author's excessively scarce first novel') with a South African conglomerate, the same bunch that want a wallet-punishing £8000 for the EXCESSIVELY SCARCE first issue (black cloth) of John Fowles The Collector a book that I had, until now, thought was in the descendant. A friend who was there this summer for the UEFA World Cup said there were some good books in Johannesburg but almost all severely, even excessively, overpriced. Even Dublin has more bargains. Their price on the Visiak, a less than brilliant example, is £800 where a 'monkey' (£500) might be more appropriate.

As for Visiak's Medusa, a weird story of a voyage to unknown waters, Clute and Grant in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) describe it thus:
"...as hard to categorize as Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS (1920). The tale moves gradually, in a slow crescendo, from its beginnings in a normal-seeming nineteenth-century England through adventures at sea and finally into a literal pit of fantasy -- a vast circular hole occupied by the eponymous sea monster which eats sexually aware men alive. The protagonist is a young boy who remains sexually innocent, though haunted by other guilts: he survives while his companions perish."
The great California fantasy collector John Ruyle was more succinct - in his copy he wrote (in pencil) "Degenerate survivors of Atlantis, psychoactive rays; unspeakable horror! WEIRD!"

There are 13 copies of the 1929 first on ABE at between £250 and £1600, six in jackets, four with the same dealer, the Quaritch of fantasy, who describes each as 'uncommon in jacket.' Medusa seems to fall into the category of 'common, rare book' but a sharp copy at less than £500 is still a good buy. The blogster z7 noting its 'very verbose style' found it a 'chore to read' and quotes Kew in his 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels "... if David Lindsay had written Treasure Island in the throes of a peyote-induced religious experience...Well, if Coleridge had given Melville a hand on Moby Dick after a few pipes of opium...." Given these encomiums the book's outlook has to be good - once a dozen collectors step forward and buy the overhanging online stock. Could take a while.

Normally when books gather like this the law of supply and demand takes over, this is somewhat stymied by most copies being with one seller who is holding steady; however dealers pursuing cash often break rank and price the book to actually sell (an invisible process that may well be happening...) The pic above is of the 1946 re-issue with a preface by Denis Saurat. A copy of this edition made £130 at a Sussex auction this year. The illustration below is from the Centipede Press edition which came out in June 2010 at $95. ABE has no copies. Good to see it has an intro by Colin Wilson, the sage of Zennor.

23 December 2010

Cover Art, a discovery...

A fellow dealer has this graphic artist's illustration for a lurid book cover pinned to the wall of his book storage unit. Dealers tend to accumulate book cover art, especially if they have been at it for a few decades. He thinks he may have bought it from someone selling a quantity of book cover illustrations on card (gouache, watercolour etc.,) by the railings on Bayswater Road about 30 years ago. Art (now mostly kitsch and worse) is still sold there every Sunday. Often these pictures have lettering so you can see the title, but not in this case, and no artist had signed either. When these collections turn up they are usually quite large and some of the images are hard to sell or unattractive and thus find very few takers, but this image was well above average.

Recently he called me up to say that he had found the actual book that had used the illustration - in a box of SF, fantasy and horror paperbacks. A mild Eureka moment, celebrated with a cup of PG tips finest. The book was Horror in the Night by Richard Macgregor published by Digit in London in 1963. Not a lot is known about Macgregor, these were 5 short horror stories and he seems to have written 5 other books between 1963 and 1964 for Digit. Titles like The Deadly Sun, Creeping Plague, The Day a Village Died --- a category that came to be known as Doom Watch fiction, possibly post apocalyptic in content. Not much more is known of Macgregor (possibly a pseudonym) --you can buy the five titles available for about £30. A further book Taste of the Temptress came out in Sydney in the mid 1960s published by Eclipse, so he could have been Australian or have turned to porn or both...As for the artist it could be one R.A. Osborne (1923 - 1973) art director of Digit at the time and responsible for many of their covers including Macgregor's Day a Village Died, the story of a village plagued by killer ants.

Such cover art is quite collectable and has a ready audience on Ebay but does not command life or even week changing sums -but this sort of discovery, this matching up, is a rare delight, even at second hand.

20 December 2010

Books by murderers 1

Mary Lamb ( 1764 - 1847 )

Tales from Shakespeare (1807 ) £3,000 +
Mrs Leicester’s School (1809) £2,000 +
Poetry For Children (1809) £1,500 +

The story of how in 1796 the deranged sister of essayist Charles Lamb chased her mother around the kitchen with a knife before plunging it into her has become part of the story of English Literature. Had not brother Charles committed himself to caring for her at home from 1799, she would most likely have died in an asylum. Eight years later the couple wrote Tales from Shakespeare together—Charles dealing with the Tragedies and ( bizarrely) Mary the Comedies. Oddly, only Lamb’s name

appears on the title page. Two further collaborations, Mrs Leicester’s School ( tales ) and Poetry For Children, followed in 1809. Mary had episodes of insanity throughout the rest of her life but survived her more celebrated brother by 13 years, dying in 1847.
Mary’s psychological state and the relationship between brother and sister have been the subjects of a number of academic studies, particularly recently. As a result, interest in Mary’s three co-written books has increased considerably and collectors must expect to pay good prices for firsts of these rare titles—particularly Tales from Shakespeare, whose 20 engraved plates after designs by William Mulready, have been attributed to William Blake.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794 – 1847)

Some Passages in the Life &c of Egomet Bonmot Esq., edited by Mr Mwaughmaim and now first published by ME (London, James Bigg 1825). £200 ++

Regency dandy, art critic and multiple poisoner, Wainewright was a friend of Hazlitt, Lamb and John Clare, and from 1820 to 1823, under the pen names Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot, and Cornelius Van Vinkbooms, regularly contributed articles on art and connoisseurship to the London Magazine. Short of the money needed to finance his exquisite lifestyle, he probably killed his uncle for his estate and almost definitely poisoned his wife’s half-sister and another as part of an insurance scam. He was never tried for these crimes, since only circumstantial evidence could be found. In 1837 he was arrested for a forgery that had earlier netted him £5,000; he pleaded guilty to this offence and was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land, where after serving his time he was released. While a convict he was granted a certain amount of freedom and found favour as an artist of note. He died in Hobart in 1847.

Wainewright was a talented portraitist whose clever sketches are still highly sought after in Tasmania. As a writer on art he was way ahead of his time, prefiguring the aesthetes of the fin de siècle and earning the admiration of Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sketch of him in Pen Paper and Poison. Since then he has become a minor cult figure, attracting no less than three full length biographies ( the most recent being a fantasy novel by the former Pet Laureate Andrew Motion ), a study of his time in Australia and a number of academic papers. In 1880 William Carew Hazlitt edited Essays and Criticisms by T. G. Wainewright, a very hard book to find and a steal at £60 ( I bought my copy for £8 in Wolverhampton many years ago ). But far rarer is the murderer’s only publication --the forty-five page pamphlet Some Passages in the Life &c of Egomet Bonmot—a hymn to himself in rhyming couplets. The booklet is very scarce, but there are copies to be found somewhere. James Bigg was a reputable bookseller in Whitehall and by 1825 Wainewright had become a minor celeb in the literary world, so there is every reason to think that Some Passages…had a decent print run, though in 40 years of searching I’ve never even heard of copies coming up for sale.

Pierre Francois Lacenaire ( 1800 -1836 )

Memoires, Revelations and Poesies, Paris 1836 £500++
Philip John Stead, The Memoirs of Lacenaire, London, Staples Press 1952. $30.
Memoires, Poemes et Lettres, 1968 $20

Like Wainewright, this French dramatist and poet was a thoroughly nasty piece of work –arrogant, egotistical and amoral. An ambitious young writer who dressed like a dandy, he was resentful at the literary success of others he regarded as less gifted than himself, and was determined to live as a libertine on the periphery of polite Parisian society. Late in 1829, after killing a rival in a duel he embarked on an unprofitable life of petty pilfering which led to several short stays in jail interspersed with even briefer periods as a freelance journalist. His criminal career came to a head when he and an accomplice brutally murdered M. Chardon, a well-off fellow criminal, and his mother. Ending up in prison for another crime, he was betrayed by his accomplice, but before being sent for trial was given a private cell where he dashed off the poems and songs that the literary editors had seen fit to reject. In his confession he revealed himself as an unrepentant sociopath:

‘Before killing and after killing, I sleep equally well, and always peacefully. I am about to make an animate being inanimate; that is all. I see a light. I breathe on it, it goes out…’

Before long, like Wainewright, Lacenaire had achieved the notoriety he sought. Gifts and bouquets were sent to his cell. His visitors included scientists, physicians and members of the beau monde – all eager to converse with the cold-blooded killer who wrote poems and songs of love. Retribution eventually came with his conviction for murder and on 9 January 1836 Lacenaire was guillotined before a large crowd. In death he became an exemplar of the romantic who rebelled against bourgeois respectability. Baudelaire idolised him, Dostoevsky based the central figure in Crime and Punishment on him, and his story has been the subject of at least two films.
In 1836 Lacenaire’s scandalous Memoires, Revelations & Poesies appeared in a censored edition, which is now extremely rare and sought after. Doubtless there were later editions too, but not one in French currently features on ABE. [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. This is the first of about three postings and I know you are covering the patricidal Richard Dadd - a great favourite.. I also know that your remit is not to do with murderers who were then encouraged to write books by sensationalist publishers, or mass murderers like Stalin and Hitler. Colin Wilson (among others) had a good theory that some murderers (eg Hitler or the Moonlight Killer aka The Texarkana Phantom) were failed creative artists--Hitler a painter, the Texarkana slayer a failed jazzman. Food for thought from the sage of Zennor...Btw the colour pic above is from the 1990 movie 'Lacenaire' starring Daniel Auteuil.

12 December 2010

The most intelligent man in the world

The works of William Sidis (1898 – 1944 )

William James Sidis, born in Boston in 1898 to Russian émigré Boris, a psychologist and his wife Sarah, a physician, showed astonishing intellectual qualities from an exceptionally early age. By the age of one he had learned to spell in English. He taught himself to type in French and German at four and by the age of six had added Russian, Hebrew Turkish and Armenian to his repertoire. At five he devised a system which could enable him to name the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Hot-housed by his pushy father, Sidis entered Harvard at eleven, and was soon lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to the University’s Maths Society. At twelve he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but recovered at his father’s sanatorium, and after returning to Harvard, graduated with first class honours in 1914, aged just sixteen. Law School followed and by the age of twenty Sidis had become a professor of maths at Texas Rice Institute.

It was then that his troubles began . Looking back at his social gaucheness, hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, it seems very probable that Sidis suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. His good looks didn’t help him and he was teased by his female students, especially when he pronounced publicly that he would never marry and intended to live the rest of his life in seclusion.

With Sidis, as with most freaks of nature, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Take his IQ. It has been assessed at above 250 ( Einstein’s is reckoned at around 168), whereas modern psychologists insist that IQs over 170 cannot be measured. I read somewhere that he could learn a new language in a day and it has been reported that he was familiar with 200 languages. This seems unlikely. The popular image of him as reclusive comptometer operator whose main hobby was collecting tram transfers—is a travesty of the truth. Only in recent years has the true extent of Sidis’s genius emerged. Far from wasting his life in menial jobs, nerdy hobbies, and idle speculation, Sidis was a prolific writer, who at his death aged just 46 of a cranial haemorrhage, left behind a catalogue of significant contributions to cosmology , applied maths, transport system theory, anthropology and linguistics—all of which suggest that he had a wider intellectual range than did Leonardo.

Some projects remained in manuscript form at his death, including a grammar and an artificial language (Vendergood), but Sidis published four substantial books, many newspaper articles, papers in journals and typewritten newsletters. And it seems there are even ‘ important ‘ collectors of Sidisiana, ‘ three in America and two in Europe , all quite bright and some quite young ‘, according to the American dealer Jay Dillon, an acknowledged specialist in the field.

But there are problems for any collector starting out. All but one of the four books are pseudonymous. For instance, his debut, Passaconaway in the White Mountains, a scholarly work on Native American history, appeared in 1916 under the pseudonym William Edward Beals Jr. Jay Dillon reports that this ‘ uncommon ‘ book went for $305 on E bay minus its jacket and he himself is asking a tentative $1,400 for a jacketed copy (‘practically unheard of ‘, says Dillon).

His second published book and his undoubted masterpiece, The Animate and the Inanimate, which is credited to ‘ William James Sidis ‘ was the first of the three works published by Dorrance, a leading ‘ vanity press ‘in Philadelphia. In this disquisition on cosmology, an abiding interest since childhood, he theorised about the existence of positive and negative sections of space and suggested that:
‘ what little radiant energy would be produced in the negative section of space would be pseudo-teleologically directed only towards stars which have enough activity to absorb it, and no radiant energy, or almost none, would actually leave the negative section of space…’

Sounds familiar ? Sidis was just 27 when he predicted the existence of what we now know as ‘ black holes’. According to Maggs, who sold a copy inscribed to Dr Percival Gerson not too long ago for £5,000 ( it would be nice to know if Stephen Hawking bought it ) only nine copies are known to exist. Dillon admits to having sold four copies since 2001.

In total contrast Sidis, a year later, brought out a more personal magnum opus. Notes on the Collection of Transfers, by ’Frank Folupa’ was a misnomer if there ever was one, since this is no dull Shire Guide type booklet of recycled hobbyist guff, but a work of Ph D quality and length in which not a single aspect of the subject is neglected. The style of the writing and the almost obsessive factual detail is characteristic of someone with AS. Most memorable is the description of how frozen transfers might be rescued from impacted ice and restored.

Sidis’ last published book was another considerable contribution to transportation systems research. In 1936 his Collisions in Street and Highway appeared under the name of Barry Mulligan . This was an accomplished, highly detailed analysis comprising 332 ‘ topics ‘which thanks to the author’s penetrating mind, are far from being dull reading. A copy with dust jacket of this scarce and sought after title would set you back at least $1,000.

Although he was to publish no more books Sidis spent the rest of his life adding to his epic The Tribes and the States, a history of the relationship between the colonial States and the Native Americans, which lay unfinished at his early death. Since then it has been edited and published in paperback and copies are easily available online for around $20.


[Thanks Robin for adding this info to the world. The explorer and writer Richard Burton is said to have learned 25 languages and forty dialects, but Sidis seems to have been in another league. That's William, above, as a boy. Competence in many languages is not all that rare and does not always indicate genius but lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to a university society while still in short trousers is the clincher... There is a good book on Sidis by Amy Wallace called 'The Prodigy' (1986) Among other stories it recounts that after a prepared talk at Harvard age 14 , when the audience applauded William turned from the podium and broke into hysterical giggles. Am now actively looking out for stuff by this many named genius.]

08 December 2010

Autograph anecdotes 4

Let's not even talk about forgery. To my mind the 'blink' test is a good start in testing for authenticity. If on very first seeing it the autograph doesn't feel right don't touch it. As Malcolm Gladwell details in over 300 pages of his book Blink. The Power of Thinking Without Thinking the unconscious mind often delivers a better answer than more deliberate and protracted ways of thinking. If the seller doesn't pass the blink test either, drop it like a hot brick. Kenneth Rendell, purveyor of manuscripts to the great and the good, advises avoiding the kind of dealer who brushes you off when probed, he adds: "The real expert will bore you with answers." I also like what he says about how forgers often fail to get the feel of a signature right -the "flying starts and endings of the pen".

Avoid signatures that look more like a drawing than writing and ones that seem to have stops and starts. Also signatures in cheap editions of books can be suspect, most forgers will not risk screwing up a signature in a four figure book. Forgers often stick to a plain signature so a date or sentiment is useful (belying the tiresome 'flat signed' schtick.) Also beware the desirable signature that is seriously underpriced, you may be lucky but it is often a sign of a grifter at work. If it is very cheap, of course, it may be real but unrated or unrecognised. Age is no guarantee of authenticity, forgers have been around since Heraclitus stood in the river. Ebay is a minefield. Bad Salinger forgeries appeared there after the writer's death and usually made a few hundred dollars. Like the curate's egg they were 'good in parts' but if it is wrong it's worthless, if it's right it's a few thousand. In one of the signatures Salinger appeared to have misspelled his own name...

Salinger was of course a notoriously difficult and elusive signer and Thomas Pynchon is even more difficult. We considered who were the most common signers - but who are the most difficult? People like Joyce, Fleming, Tolkien are very valuable but they did sign quite a bit. Kafka isn't easy, the cult writer Richard Powers signs absolutely nothing, even an acquisitve and well funded collector like the artist Richard Prince lacks a signed Powers book in his modern literature collection. I have only seen one Alan Turing signature (in a computer manual.) Does Steve Jobs give out his autograph or Roman Abramovich? Highbrow writers tend to sign less than airport writers. There was a dealer around earlier this century who dealt in signed books by fearsome intellectuals--mostly European- guys like Derrida, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Godel, Cioran, Habermas, Wittgenstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Barthes, Perec, Walter Benjamin, etc.,. It always seemed an odd model for a business because the potential collector for these is likely to be someone with contempt for autograph collecting.

Difficult signers? In the celebrity world Marlon Brando was said to be a very reluctant signer, Bob Dylan is fairly unapproachable, Metallica are snotty types, Madonna is too important to sign anything but a contract and from the sublime to the ridiculous our own Sherriff of Nottingham Alan Rickman is known to forcibly repel advances from auto-hounds. Online research reveals the sad story of a collector who had to wait 28 years for the signature of Sultan of Brunei. There are also pointers as to favourite restaurants used by stars for signature hunters to hang about outside. That explains the motley crew one sees outside 'The Ivy' in the street behind the bookshop. One thing you hear all the time is the reluctance of stars to sign autographs for dealers and resellers. Some dealers have to use their children to get autographs. A good approach might be to be up front about it -'Can I have your autograph, I want to put it on Ebay tonight? Frankly I'm broke...'

01 December 2010

Rare manuscripts and where they are found

A cellar

The score of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, missing for 100 years and presumed lost, was discovered in a Swiss cellar in 2004. The music critic of the Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Norris, an expert on the composer, was contacted by a mysterious man who invited him to conform that the manuscript was genuine. When the two men met at a Swiss railway station, Norris noticed that his companion was carrying a Co-Op plastic bag. This turned out to contain the 300 page missing score which the composer’s had covered with his scribblings.
Widely regarded as Rachmaninov’s most popular orchestral work, the score of his second symphony, written in 1907, was due to be sold at Sotheby’s sale of 7 December with an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000 but the lot was withdrawn at the last minute, the result of an ownership dispute between the vendor and the Rachmaninov estate. Legal wranglings were still going on in 2006.

Peat Bog

An eighth-century Latin manuscript containing all 150 of the Book of Psalms was unearthed in the summer of 2006 at Faddan More, Tipperary, by a local workman, Mr Eddie Fogarty, who was operating a mechanical digger.
According to Patrick Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland the sixty page vellum ‘ book ‘ was ‘ more important for Ireland than the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been for biblical scholars ‘.
Apparently, according to the conservator assigned to the task of preserving what was left of the document, vellum shouldn’t survive in such conditions, ‘ it should gelatinize away ‘. The Faddan More Psalter, as it now known, will go on display in 2011.

Book binding

A scrap from a printer’s MS account book which confirmed the chronology of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost was found glued inside the spine binding of a seventeenth century book by eccentric dealer and incunabula collector Solomon Pottesman. Pottesman, known for his hard-dealing, could have sold the fragment for hundreds of pounds but chose instead to let it go for next to nothing to an impoverished scholar, a specialist in Jacobean drama.


Robert Falcon’s Scott’s plans regarding the South Pole expedition

Eleven pages of handwritten notes for a lecture Captain Robert F. Scott gave to his team of explorers before they set off for the South Pole in 1912 were discovered in a London bookshop. Thought to be lost forever, the handsomely bound pages, were acquired by Canterbury Museum, NZ. where they were exhibited along with other Antarctica.

Thomas Traherne’s Poems

One of the most exciting literary discoveries in the twentieth century relates to Thomas Traherne (1637- 74 ), who until 1903 was known as the author of two obscure books, Roman Forgeries and Christian Ethicks. For some time his remains had been in the hands of a family named Skipp from Herefordshire, which still owned them in 1888. Then, for some reason, the family chose to dispose of the papers and by 1896/7 two manuscripts had ended up in a ‘ street bookstall ‘ from where the literary collector William T. Brooke rescued them for ‘ a few pence ‘. After studying the style of the poems Brooke concluded that they were the work of the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan and he communicated his discovery to another collector, Dr Grosart, who bought them from him as a curiosity. He too was so convinced that the author was Vaughan that he set about preparing a new edition of the poet’s works which would include the newly discovered compositions. Unfortunately, Grosart died before a publisher could be found and the two volumes were then sold with the rest of his library to the bookseller Charles Higham of Farringdon Street, who sold them on to the Charing Cross Road publisher and bookseller Bertram Dobell. Not long afterwards, Dobell acquired a third manuscript volume, when another part of Grosart ‘s library was sold at Sotheby’s. Dobell now had one folio volume and two octavos.

Dobell too was at first disposed to believe that the poems were Vaughan’s work, but in comparing the latter’s printed compositions with the poems in manuscript, came to the conclusion that stylistic differences militated against this attribution. After further research Dobell was able to identify the mystery poet as the little known divine Thomas Traherne.
Dobell published Traherne’s poems to great acclaim in 1903. A prose work, Centuries of Meditation, also edited from the manuscripts, appeared in 1908. Traherne is now recognised as one of the major metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century.

Thomas More’s A Dialoge of Comfort Agaynst Trybulacion

Bewick expert and book collector Nigel Tattersfield found a scribal copy of More’s famous Dialoge of Comfort Agaynst Trybulacion while fishing through boxes of books in the stalls of George Jeffery at Farringdon Road in1981. The original manuscript had been composed by More while in jail awaiting trial for treason and the copy may have been made by a visitor to the jail in case the original was confiscated by the authorities. How this copy found itself bound centuries later in a dull Victorian cloth no-one will probably ever know, but Tattersfield, who bought it for £20, was doubtless delighted that its significance had been thus disguised from all but himself. A few years later it was sold for £42,000 and Tattersfield bought a house with the money.
[R.M. Healey]

Much thanks for this posting Robin. Such stories spur us on to make the great discovery, hit the jackpot and live the life described by Riley. As Scott F put it '...no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—'

Hemingway lost a suitcase filled with his manuscripts at the Gare de Lyon in December 1922. T.E. Lawrence lost the manuscript of 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' while changing trains at Reading railway station in December 1919. It was in a briefcase--actually a bank messenger’s bag. Both Hem's and TE's manuscripts probably fell into the hands of petty thieves and were trashed as being worthless…but they may still be out there.

Addendum. By the way Wikipedia at their 'Love's Labour's Won' entry has this '...one Solomon Pottesman, a London based antiquarian book dealer and collector, discovered the August 1603 book list of the stationer Christopher Hunt, which lists as printed in quarto: "marchant of vennis, taming of a shrew, ... loves labor lost, loves labor won." The find provided evidence that the play was in fact a unique work that had been published but lost and not an early title of The Taming of the Shrew.'

29 November 2010

The Great Library in the Clouds

The near and far future of the book

I predict that in the year 2525 ('if man is still alive, if woman can survive') people will still have books in their homes, there may even be secondhand book shops and the publishing of books on paper (or what passes for paper in the 26th century) will not have entirely ceased. By then all the books in all the worlds libraries will probably fit on a pinhead and Wikipedia, fitting on the same pinhead, will have as many entries as there are things in the universe.

In the meantime everything is in flux - confused and litigious but full of hope and potential. At the vortex there is Google with its already enormous digitised library, their 'mind of God' visions and the money to achieve them - 'a universal library of all knowledge', Amazon brandishing their Kindle but also still eagerly selling books on paper, publishers and authors rowing with the digitisers over copyright issues and companies like Superstar in China busy getting on with the job - they have already digitised over 800,000 books published in China from the dawn of print to now. In the background is Apple who have a way of becoming indispensable and whose Itunes (soon to be cloud-based) could be a foretaste of the way books will be accessed in future. There is a potential for a coming clash of the titans but it is to be devoutly wished that none of these companies gain anything approaching to a monopoly of information, knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of the world.

Kevin Kelly's 2006 New York Times breakthrough article Scan this Book alerted all to the incredible growth in digitisation.. A highly intelligent and intelligible article rounding up current thinking on the future of the book, digitisation, the twilight of the 'reign of the copy', copyright squabbles etc., He quoted Brewster Kahle, digitiser, 'Silicon Valley Utopian' and founder of the Internet Archive -
'This is our chance to one-up the Greeks!...It is really possible with the technology of today, not tomorrow. We can provide all the works of humankind to all the people of the world. It will be an achievement remembered for all time, like putting a man on the moon.'
The title of KK's article 'Scan this Book' of course harks back 40 years to Abbie Hoffman's rant Steal this Book and there is more than a hint of Woodstock Nation in the drift of Kelly's arguments. He comes from the open access, free school of web thinkers - cash, if any, (monetisation) comes from spin-offs, ads, links etc., Four years later you still get a lot of stuff free but in 2010/11 people are becoming used to occasionally paying money for information, not much and if you are in the educational system even less - but it's happening without burning barricades or paving stones being thrown.

Reach for the Sky...Cloud Computing

In 2010 there was much emphasis on cloud computing. For digitised books it means that they would reside on remote servers; rather than permanently downloading the book, the user would read a book (or chapters) within his or her browser. If sufficiently interested the reader might check the book out of the library for good or buy a paper copy from a shop or web operator. Google is going in the cloud direction, Amazon are said to be 'big believers' and Apple and other tablet makers are known to be thinking on these lines. Their Ipad has relatively low storage capacity and is designed to read material rather than accumulate it. Usage fees , where demanded, would be paid by access counts and some of the monies would devolve back to publishers and authors in the same way that a rock album or song earns the record label, the band and the song- writer micro dollars each time it is accessed from Itunes (once they have registered proprietorship.) With a cloud library you can theoretically access tens of millions of books (not snippets) with a smartphone sitting on a rock in the Khyber Pass. You might still pack a few real books for the journey but have none of the usual fears that you might run out of something to read.

With digitised books already available from many providers, mega-portals will arrive to take you to the cheapest source and hopefully offering much free stuff including no charges on almost all books out of copyright (many, many millions of books.) Let's call such an aggregator Aleph after Borges's short story- the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points -those who gaze into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. Right now for buying real books we have established mega-malls like ViaLibri, Bookfinder, AddAll etc., There are aggregator sites for old and current TV shows, sometimes offering as many as 20 different holders of the same item rated for efficiency of streaming etc., If you want no ads and high definition quality or desire to own the show you have to pay $2.99 at Itunes. The Itunes financial model could be a good start in dealing with copyright issues, although a cheaper system like UK's Lovefilm would be preferable with friendly access rates as low as $5 a month. In the school and university system one would hope to see much free or sponsored access, likewise for institutions, social housing, hospitals and prisons etc.,

Real books printed on paper are, in my opinion, with us to stay. Ebook champion Bill Hill, late of Microsoft, would have us believe otherwise -he points out the energy-wasting, resource-draining process of how we make books now. 'We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. Do you really believe that we'll be doing that in 50 years?' We will be doing it less but I feel sure we will still be doing it. Books are not going the way of 8-Track and BetaMax, sad remnants of a bozo era, they are at their best an unassailable and beautiful technology. He has a point, however, when one thinks of forests cut down for endless truckloads of books of total trash (often TV or celebrity related.)

Looking at the advantages of a cloud library, let us say I am deeply interested in the legend of the Holy Grail. In my quest I might accumulate 20 or 30 essential books on the Grail and Arthurian legend. I would of course have A.E. Waite's The Holy Grail. History, Legend and Symbolism. Further books may be difficult to find, expensive or only partly of use. There are well over 1000 books on the subject (I know this from a man who used to deal in Grail books.) Rather than pay someone $100 for Alfred Nutt's 1880 book Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail with Especial Reference to the Hypothesis of its Celtic Origin. I could check it out of of the great library in the sky, peruse it and if it is essential download or even buy it as a real book from a shop. Being out of copyright it would probably be free online.

As my knowledge of the Grail grows I may want to annotate the odd book up there. This would be an option that could be turned off by subsequent readers and, like Wikipedia, peer reviewed. In my quest I might find an important Grail book that belonged to an Arthurian scholar with notes and queries in the text - e.g. A.E. Waite's copy of Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance. Not quite as good as T.S. Eliot's copy but of huge interest to Grail scholars. Ordinarily such a book would be bought and sold without its content being recorded and would be lost forever to scholars, seekers of the Grail and the general reader. I could annotate the cloud copy with AE Waite's own comments, thus preserving a unique item for all who wish to study it. [ To be continued...]

A lengthy screed written in the evenings while clearing an interminable art book library in Santa Cruz California. More to follow. How are they ever going to replace art books? The look and feel of the pages, the different styles of paper, the very heft of the book? Even the most modest art book is impressive. The only problem is the weight! Back to looking at past and present books real soon - enough blue sky thinking.

26 November 2010

Autograph anecdotes 3

Above is a letter signed by the 8 year old Arthur Firbank, later known as the exquisite novelist Ronald Firbank. Sadly it is a facsimile, one of a small quantity produced in his lifetime. I am on the road and I dont' have the Benkovitz /Firbank bibliography so am unsure of its status. I used to have three copies and it has some value. The point is he is writing asking for an autograph- from Dame Nellie Melba (once so famous they named food after her.) Do boys still do this? Ronald Firbank's signature is probably now worth more than Dame Melba's. Such changes of fortune are common in the world of autographs - when in the 1930s William Faulkner owed money to East Motor Company Garage, he gave them a bunch of IOU's and he wrote on one of them, 'I can't pay this now but someday this signature'll be worth more than I owe you.'

The world of autograph hunting is full of sad stories of missed celebrities, refusals from self important stars and boasts about getting autographs from deeply unimpressive Z listers. Here are a few examples culled from the web:
'I met and got the autograph of André Kuipers (A Dutch astronaut), when he visited my school when I still was in 7th grade.

I was so close to getting the signatures of Fall Out Boy at one of their concerts. But they left at the last minute.

I found Eric Clapton's car outside the biggest store
in Stockholm, Sweden. When he came out from the store, he refused to sign for me.

I went to the concerts of the Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna and Chris Brown, but I never actually met them.

I've heard woe betide anyone who asks Helen Hunt for an autograph.

Robert Heinlein would respond to autograph requests by saying, "Certainly. May I have a pint of your blood?" Had I known that and met him, I would have shown him my Red Cross blood-donor card. Do you think that would have sufficed?

Before he died, I know Marlon Brando was a real bitch about people and signatures. I think Frank Sinatra was that way too.

R. Crumb does not sign.

I was in San Francisco and saw Bob Uecker at a bar. He was a total asshole. After I took his picture with a couple of friends (in which he smiled like the Joker and waved) he told us "Now get the fuck out of here." Just the total opposite of the nice goofy guy he always portrays in TV and film.'
Bob who? However astronauts, even Dutch, are a growing area of autograph collecting as are dictators, tyrants and despots- I especially like the story (thanks Callum) of the dogged collector of tyrant's autographs posted in the last weeks comment field:
'(he) was keen to have Colonel Gaddafi's autograph and wrote, from the US, saying that he was about to name his new baby boy after the Colonel and would it be possible to have a signed photo as it would mean a lot in years to come... The Colonel sent the photo... and an engraved gold watch with a note about the photographer he was also sending who would be able to take photos of the child, parents and gifts. A child had to be found at short notice and a faux photo session was endured but, in the end the autograph was successfully added to his collection.'
There are many tales of frustrated or repelled autograph hunters. The post war London dealer Fred Bason, a sort of Driffield of his day, persuaded John Drinkwater to sign his books by saying that without his signature his books were unsaleable (this is true of many current writers.) A 1951 Time Magazine article on Fred ('Cockney Bookman') records a couple of classic rebuffs:
'...literary lions headed into the deep bush when they scented Fred on their trail. Poet John Masefield, for instance, responded to Fred's advances with a "chilly" printed card, and that "awful snob" Rudyard Kipling, trapped by Fred outside a museum, "raised his stick as I raised my hat."'
On the subject of authors (like Drinkwater) whose books are unsaleable unless signed, the question is this -which author's signature is the most common? It is hard to find an unsigned book by British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the singer Sophie Tucker seems to have signed everything that moved and for $5 you can buy fine signed firsts by writer such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Susan Kingston, Terry Brooks. If you have $10 you can buy books signed by Rushdie, Anne Rice and Margaret Atwood...for $15 you can buy a signed book by President Jimmy Carter Sources of Strength: Meditation on Scripture for a Living Faith. if on the other hand you have tens of thousands of dollars you might attempt to buy the signature of Button Gwinnett, the rarest of all signers of the Declaration of Independence. His signature looks like this:-

20 November 2010

Autograph anecdotes 2

Autograph collecting as a hobby is said to have become established in Europe in the 1780s - by the late 1890s it had become sufficiently annoying to writers to be satirised by Henry James in his short story The Death of the Lion (1894). I am indebted to David Haven Blake's magisterial work Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity for these tit bits. Blake advances the idea that early collectors saw the autograph 'as a revealing symbol of the inner life of the renowned.' This may still be true, that something private, possibly intangible, is revealed in an autograph. He quotes one Tamara Thornton as saying that the autograph represented ''a reification of self in script''. The signature signifies the man. A few anecdotes before advancing further into woo woo territory.

One of the commonest autograph stories concerns the celebrity cheque that doesn't get cashed because the signature is worth more than the amount of money on the cheque. This would not really work for Lembit Opik and the Cheeky Girls or even Gareth Gates (but it might for Bill Gates.) George Bernard Shaw boasted about how his cheques were seldom cashed, also there are tales of uncashed Marc Chagall and Michael Jackson cheques. The quirky site Anecdotage.com has this fairly typical celeb story:
While driving with Lee Marvin one day, Gary Cooper stopped for gas and paid with a $10 check. The attendant was delighted. "I'm going to frame this!" he exclaimed. Some time later Marvin asked Cooper how many of his checks came back to the bank. His reply? "About one in ten."
The trouble with these stories is that you should be able to get your cashed checks back, albeit stamped, as with all the cheques above (Doris Day, Mae West, Buzz Aldrin.) An Argentinian friend who met Jorge Luis Borges on a plane got him to sign her passport but was mortified when on renewal it was kept by the authorities... There is an amusing sub genre of related Picasso autograph stories:
Picasso once visited a local cabinet-maker to commission a mahogany wardrobe for his chateau in the South of France. To illustrate the design, he quickly drew a sketch showing its shape and dimensions, handing it to the craftsman. "How much will it cost?" Picasso asked. "Nothing," the cabinet-maker replied. "Just sign the sketch."
Similar stories are told of Dali and even Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin but I like this story of Chaplin and Picasso -a good story and as they say in Italy - si non e vero, e bon trovato:
Chaplin was visiting the studio of his friend Pablo Picasso. Picasso made a sudden gesture and accidentally spilt some paint on Chaplin's white slacks. He said, 'I'm so sorry, Charles! I'll get some spirit and remove it.' And Chaplin said, 'Please don't! Just leave the paint where it is and sign my trousers.'"
To be continued...

18 November 2010

Book Thieves. How to steal books and influence people...

The prospects for odd job man William Jacques, who on 30 July 2010 was jailed yet again for stealing books, this time from the Lindley Library, are not that rosy. After a year and a half in a comfy open jail, he’ll be out in the world of books again and may well be up to his old tome-raiding tricks once more , just like our old friend Gilkey out of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, and no doubt, like Gilkey, he’ll be caught again, probably in the same way as before. Alternatively, he may go ‘straight’ and begin offering very ordinary books at ridiculously inflated prices on the web, like so many ‘ legitimate ‘ dealers do today. Perhaps he could combine dealing with his former career as an odd job man in Maida Vale. There is certainly money to be earned thereabouts, though he may have to adopt another alias before he offers his services. As a ‘ student ‘ at the Lindley he called himself Victor Santaro. He may even grow another beard, though this tactic didn’t fool the gimlet eyed staff at the BL when he last paid a visit there.

Of course, he could return to his old mum’s house at Cliffe, near Selby, where he spent most of last Christmas before some pesky sneak tipped off the police and he was dragged away from his mince pies to be charged at the local nick. I wonder if that informer had been some disgruntled local bookseller who had recognised him. As far as graduate level jobs go, Jacques, with his smug face beaming out from at least two web pages , is unlikely to get past the online vetting procedures of any commercial organisation. Still, as he hasn’t returned the 13 volumes of Nouvelle Iconographie des Camellias that he stole, he probably won’t starve.

The same uncertain fate is unlikely to affect former Oxford don Dr Simon Heighes, who was a part time lecturer and a highly respected specialist in Baroque music, when in May 1995 he was caught stealing rare books from the library of Christ Church College. When challenged, Heighes, a 33 year old fellow of Oriel College, admitted filching altogether 74 books from the Library , including works by Newton, Milton, Edmund Halley and Vesalius (pic above), all of which he had sold on. He also owned up to stealing from the libraries of Queen’s College and Trinity College of Music at Greenwich, where he had also taught. Altogether Heighes asked for 113 other offences to be considered. The total haul netted by this man ‘ of eminence and respectability ‘was enough to pay off his mortgage. In court Heighes claimed he had since sold his house for £149,000 and thanks to a inheritance now had a total of £195,000 to offer for compensation. Nevertheless, he was jailed for two years.

Fast forward to 2010 and Mr Heighes seems to have learned his lesson and is back to his old trade of music critic, though without a handy academic niche from which to operate. He has discovered that freelancing—whether for BBC Radio 3, BBC Music Magazine , or for various record companies as an expert on Baroque music —is probably all that is open to a disgraced don with a once promising academic career. The BBC Music Department, with its earnest-faced Oxbridge graduates with clean nails and sensible haircuts, doubtless welcomed back one of its own and for the past decade or so it’s all been all go--reconstructions of Bach’s St Mark Passion, sleeve and programme notes, polite reviews in music magazines, and most bizarrely, a feature on BBC Radio 3’ ‘ Building a Library ‘. Or should that be ‘Dismantling a Library ‘ ?. And he is even a respected figure in rural Oxfordshire, where he gives talks to schools and has become a governor of the primary school in his home village of Wootton by Woodstock.

But past misdeeds often come back to haunt you. In 2004 Heighes must have flinched to read that one book he had sold on—the incredibly rare 1552 pocket edition of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica-- valued at £60,000 + ( the third folio edition is on ABE at £92,000 ) hadn’t been returned to Christ Church College Library. Having been sold quite legitimately by a dealer to the Nippon Dental Library in Japan, the authorities there had refused to give it back. Apparently under Japanese law a stolen article remains the property of the purchaser if two years have elapsed since its sale. So, the former don now finds himself reluctantly embroiled in an issue he thought was long behind him. But is he inclined to help in any way ? Nope. When approached he refused to comment. In 2006 the book was still in Japan.

So there we have it. Cambridge graduate Jacques, who in his efforts to disguise the provenance of the many historic volumes he stole wrought irreversible havoc on national treasures. And former Oxford don Heighes, who is back with his Oxford friends in the BBC Music Department, and from his rural bolt hole, elects to forget the inconvenient fact that a book he stole---one of the great treasures of Christ Church library - is unlikely ever to be returned.

Compare this pair of ex-convicts to someone like Sean Greenhalgh, the brilliant self-taught art-forger, jailed for four years for passing off works produced from a garden shed in Bolton. It could be argued that the only damage he wrought was to the reputations of smart West End dealers and museum professionals who were fooled by his art. Others might argue that in showing up their shortcomings he actually performed a valuable service. But there were no old school, college or Tate Britain contacts to help him get a job when he returned to his council house.

But then who said that in the ‘gentlemanly’ world of book thieving life is fair ?


Thanks Robin. Wise and stern words indeed. Jacques 'the tome raider' seems to have had more than his 15 minutes of fame. The saga of the Japanese Vesalius seems to be ongoing and given the Japanese ' two years and it's kosher' law I doubt it will be resolved over a glass of claret in the college library. As for BBC3 I can't help feeling it is better in the hands of these Oxbridge types, morons they ain't. The good thing to come out of this is that It has become obvious that serial book thieves have a very good chance of being caught and that it is a bad career move. A warning to wantons. Dealing in books is easier and safer, also surprisingly simple--you buy a book for a dollar and sell it for two dollars (or three) and you never get your collar felt.

13 November 2010

Autograph anecdotes

There is a story behind every autograph. Idly fossicking about on Google I have retrieved a few such stories and added some of my own. It needs cojones to be an autograph hound so I offer much respect to those who have hunted down celebs and obtained signatures. The best collection I ever bought (about 2000+ inc Walt Disney, Ian Fleming, Bogart and Bacall, the Dalai Lama, Frankie Lyman (and the Teenagers) Tony Hancock and Lester Piggot) was from a very minor celebrity who was able to get into receptions and first nights etc., He had written jokes for Bob Monkhouse. It doesn't get much better. The greatest groupies and name droppers are often slightly famous themselves and a minor name will often have accumulated a few major names.

The most common type of autograph story usually ends 'and he was a really nice guy...we had a good chat'. It seems to come as a surprise that celebrities are not monsters, although great scorn is reserved for those who refuse autographs. A star cannot disappoint his fans. Graham Greene had a good line when refusing to sign a book--something along the lines of " I would like to but it would devalue those I have already done and I don't want that to happen, sorry.'

Rudyard Kipling received a note from a fan saying '...I hear you get paid $5 for every word you write. Enclosed is $5, please send me one word. Kipling replied with the one word "Thanks."

George Bernard Shaw was more generous (and even wittier). To fans writing to ask for his autograph he would often reply "Certainly not! George Bernard Shaw."

The painter Utrillo could, after a few free drinks, be induced to sign canvasses that he had not painted. Buyers beware.

Damien Hirst, the foolishly successful artist, sometimes signs things (books, tea shirts) as David Hockney. These are still saleable as he is known to do this and, in its way, it is also quite witty.

American crime writer and essayist James Ellroy signed every one of 65,000 first-edition copies of his 1996 memoir My Dark Places. You can buy a fine signed copy on ABE for $5 - there are over 200 signed copies for sale there with several over $100. As the signing progressed his signature degenerated to an unreadable scrawl. The ever-optimistic Booksniffer of Sussex manages to make a virtue of this '…wildly scrawled signature, as frantic and vigorous as the author's crackling prose.' $70 with free postage in UK. The above pic is of the great man pointing to the exact spot in L.A. where the murder victim known as the Black Dahlia was found.

Lou Reed's signature is the worst I have seen. It goes like this '----- -----.' Two almost straight slashed lines, making Ellroy's signature look like the handwriting of a village postmistress. Possibly easy to forge, so provenance needed when buying.

[…to be continued with tales of pathos and even bathos…]

08 November 2010

Books I have never read...continued

Robin Healey has sent in this piece found in The Bookman, 1932. This is the second and last part. The man with the dog is Hugh Walpole (now that's a library I would like to have bought...)


Parts of Thackeray’s The Newcomes
Parts of Piers Plowman
Half of Balzac’s novels
Most of the plays of Corneille
Most of the plays of Racine
The ‘ Works and Days ‘ of Hesiod
Lingard’s History of England
Most of Raleigh’s History of the World
Most of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (he admits to having owned the three ‘ noble ‘ volumes of date first Oxford edition of this for 25 years and is only just beginning to read it ).
And then, for no reason whatsoever, he then goes a bit off subject.
‘If our ideals are realised, and the ethnic frontiers fixed, and co-operation established, we shall abolished war, whether military or fiscal, and we may even have reached agreement about the separate development of races. But there will still be writers, Tutankamen, Homer and many others, who will still be recognised as having faced all the facts of man versus man and man versus the Universe. These are the true immortals, these and the men who, from Catullus to Tennyson, from Omar to Housman, have made music out of the certainty of death and the beauty of the rose.
Ten thousand years hence, if any kind of organised civilisation endures, those men will still be read and will still awake an echo in ever sensitive breast.
And what will it matter then whether anybody has read the Prose Works of Milton, The Adventures of a Guinea, Caleb Williams or the Forsyte Saga ? ‘

H de Vere Stacpoole

‘I have never read Aurora Leigh and I’m not going to. Nor Shirley’ ( does he mean the novel by Bronte or the poet Shirley ?)
The Pilgrim’s Progress

Hugh Walpole

‘Mommsen’s Rome. I’ve just bought it in Everyman and on my journey next year to Mars with Professor Piccard intend to read every word of it.
Beaumont and Fletcher. I’ll catch these plays before I die !
Zadig and Candide . I can’t read Voltaire. Shameful confession !
The novels of George Meredith. I have read some but cannot reread them. Their posturings choke me….
Anything, prose or verse, by Victor Hugo---a screaming, pretentious old bore.

Professor Dover Wilson

‘ I should need time, much time…my confession would run to columns and sheets of titles.’

Humbert Wolfe

‘ I have never read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle’s French Revolution .

A good modern party game. Try and invent some responses from living authors. Such as…

Jonathan Meades.

The novels of Alan Sillitoe.

Will Self

‘I’ve never read anything by John Masefield. Even at school.’

Katie Price

‘ Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. And Philip Hensher. I’ve never liked him.’

Alain de Botton

‘Can’t say I’ve ever read a word of John Grisham. And I’m not going to.’

Ian McEwen

‘I’ve only dipped into Hugh Walpole…’

Martin Amis

William Cobbett.

Prof A.C.Grayling


[R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. Who the devil is Katie Price?! I know that Nabokov regarded Ezra Pound as 'that utter fake' but assume he must have read some of his work to utter this judgment. It is hard to make assumptions in this field-- for example one would not think Evelyn Waugh had read Frances Parkinson Keyes* but he was known to ensconce himself in an armchair on a rainy afternoon and plough through her novels. He found the writing so undemanding as to be therapeutic. Our previous posting on this subject received some attention in the biblioblogosphere, with one earnest punter declaring that life was too short to read about books that writers hadn't read, he would prefer to hear about the books great writers liked. Got a feeling that's been done ...

*Frances Parkinson Keyes (July 21, 1885 – July 3, 1970) was an American novelist, and a convert to Roman Catholicism. Her last name rhymes with "skies," not "keys."

04 November 2010

Books I have never read...

Regular Bookride contributor Robin Healey has sent in this piece found in The Bookman, 1932. (With thanks to the late Grant Uden.)

Maurice Baring

The Arabian Knights, Tristram Shandy.
Scarcely touched John Buchan
Lesser Elizabethan Dramatists, Restoration dramatist, Addison and Steele, Charlotte Bronte ( except Jane Eyre)
Cannot read:
Haven’t finished
Carlyle’s Frederich
Dipped into

Thomas Burke

Got only half-way through
Scott, Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy


Unread by me.
Racine, Corneille

Lord Dunsany

‘ The whole of the novelists of the eighteenth century ‘

John Galsworthy

‘too many…’

Ian Hay

‘ ...very little fiction except one or two old friends whose books I snap up as soon as they appear---Kipling, Mason, Sabatini, Jacobs and P. G. Wodehouse…Of contemporary fiction, the work of our brilliant sophisticated younger school ( he means, presumably, Waugh, Wyndham Lewis, Lawrence, Huxley, Woolf etc ) I am afraid I know nothing. I simply cannot read it, partly for want of time, and partly because I do not enjoy it. I know it is my loss, but there it is…’

Aldous Huxley

The Vicar of Wakefield, Les Miserables, ‘ a good deal of Meredith…’

Sheila Kaye-Smith
‘Lorna Doone, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Our Mutual Friend, War and Peace, all the works of Henry James.’

Robert Lynd

‘…Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.’

S.P.B Mais

Smollet’s Peregrine Pickle, The Origin of Species, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the works of


‘… At least half the works of Scott, the Brontes, Thackeray, Dickens and Eliot, and all of Trollope…most of Addison and Steele, Borrow and several others …’

J. Middleton Murry

Fenimore Cooper, Karl Marx’s Capital.

Beverley Nichols

‘ With the exception of Woodstock I have never read a single book of Walter Scott’s. …I have read the first fifty pages of several of Scott’s novels, but even with the assistance of strong drink, I could not get any further. They bore me to distraction…’

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero

‘So many…one of these books is Don Quixote.’

Thanks for bringing this out of obscurity Robin! To be continued with a consideration of the kind of books modern writer like Amis and Self might not have read. For example it is fairly safe to assume A.C. Grayling is not a reader of Ouida...After a wait of 75 years in 2007 Pierre Bayard's 'How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read' appeared and rendered such considerations obsolete. But it still a good game - I am with Sir Arthur and have not read 'Don Quixote.' I once started '100 Years of Solitude', I even listened to a few pages of 'Captain Corelli' but I have never read a novel by Meredith. Not reading Meredith is less astonishing these days, however.

30 October 2010

Stamboul Train. Graham Greene. 1932

Graham Greene. STAMBOUL TRAIN. Heinemann, London 1932.

Current Selling Prices
$4500-$7500 /£3000-£4500

The first of a series of 'entertainments' by Graham Greene, the prominent writer of modern first editions. Not a scarce book even in a dust jacket but seldom seen in sharp condition. A very nice copy turned up last week at Gorringe's auction rooms in leafy Lewes, Sussex and made £4500 + their 22% (a somewhat greedy commission for a provincial auctioneer.) A thriller set on the Orient Express from Ostend to Stamboul, fraught with Greene's trademark style of unease and sleaze it deftly handles issues of racism, anti-semitism, lesbianism, communism , fidelity and faith. GG wrote of it in his introduction to the 1974 edition :
"In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims."
The movie Orient Express was probably not a roaring success, I can find no stills from it, no poster and no contemporary reviews.

There is a 'point' on the book that is seldom invoked. J.B. Priestley, at the time a much bigger fish than Greene, alleged that one of the characters, a writer called Q. C. Savory, was a defamatory representation of himself. On pages 77, 78, 82, 98, and 131 the name is changed to Quin Savory and for some reason 'Dickens' was changed to 'Chaucer.' This occurs at line 2, page 82 and is a quick way of determining precedence--if you have one that says 'Dickens' it's drinks all round. 13,000 copies had already been printed and bound, and altered pages had to be substituted. Priestley had seen a review copy when he demanded the changes, and so it is possible that a few copies without the alterations escaped. The only copy I can find is a proof copy on the web right now at $7500 (which includes an unjacketed modest copy of the 1932 first.) There have been over 50 copies in auction in the last 30 years and none have been the first state. Several have been presentation copies including one from 2000 that belies the idea that this was GG's first entertaiment-- the (later) inscription reads ''For Martin, from Graham Greene. Not yet an entertainment!''. A manuscript showed up in 1964 at Sotheby's and was bought by the legendary dealer El Dieff (Lew David Feldman) for $1820. It is decribed thus:
"The Autograph Manuscript, with revisions and deletions, c. 135 pp., written on loose sheets of ruled foolscap, contained in a cloth box, folio. The title-page carries two "possible titles" besides the one actually adopted, viz. The Orient Express (the title used for the American edition) and Snow on the Line. The title-page also bears a proposed but cancelled epigraph from George Eliot (the published book has an epigraph from George Santayana), and the note "Begun Jan 2. 1932". Before publication (at proof stage) the name of one of the characters in the book was modified and some other changes were introduced to avoid a threatened action for libel."
A fabulous investment by now probably worth 50 times the sum that Lew paid. The description tends to indicate that the name changes were made before the book was published so it is possible Priestley saw a proof copy.

OUTLOOK? The Lewes result was a sort of world record for the book even allowing for inflation and would indicate that Greene is on the move. Certainly there were lesser Greene's at the auction making much higher sums than they are currently available for on the web; ironically A Sense of Reality made £122, but can be bought at ABE for £45 fine in fine jacket. Results such as this could just be down to auction fever. The early books in illustrated jackets are likely to increase in value. Movies, TV series etc., could also push them up. Greene is unlikely to do a Galsworthy, but bear in mind there is a lot of it about and some early titles (eg The Man Within) are quite common even in super condition. A painfully optimistic Canadian dealer wants $11500 for his 'fresh' copy but another Man Within described as fine with a signed laid in card is available with a major dealer at $2500. The trouble with the book is that the jacket is not illustrated and it is surprisingly common for a book that was only printed in 2000 copies as a first. The seller does however point out that the title comes from Sir Thomas Browne - "There's another man within me that's angry with me."

23 October 2010

Book Collections we would like to buy... 1. Karl Lagerfeld

It is variously reported that the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has between 60,000 and 230,000 books--- mostly art books. At one point they were housed at his Paris studio but  the report below indicates that they have been boxed and moved to the West of France: 
 "Karl Lagerfeld is going underground — to find creative storage space for his sprawling 230,000 volume book collection. "It’s a big problem, no?" asks the passionate bibliophile, ever the master of understatement. His solution: a storage facility at his house in Biarritz — underneath the tennis court. The 20,000-square-foot, climate-controlled subterranean complex will also include a photo studio, but the centerpiece of the project is a 10,000-square-foot, 20-foot high space where he plans to erect a library. What’s next, the return of the sexy librarian at Chanel?"
Last week a report on him from The Observer  turned up in Private Eye's witty Pseud's Corner column ('When his desk gets a bit messy, he buys a new one. He matches his gloves to the colour of the French daily sky...').

The interesting revelation in the Eye piece was that when Karl reads a paperback, he rips out the pages as he goes. Possibly he read the last page of A La Recheche de Temps Perdu as a single sheet before binning it with the other two thousand pages. Gianni Versace appears to have made his way through Proust without ripping a single page out. One could conclude from this that Karl's library will be mostly hardbacks. He has 350,000 followers on Twitter but follows no-one. In an industry not noted for selflessness he is the supreme solipsist. His observations on Twitter are not without merit, mostly sub-Wildean apercus - 'Throwing money out the window brings money back in through the front door…Don't look to the approval of others for your mental stability…My greatest problem in life is my indifference to the outside world...the most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can."

We have bought very large collections of art books -we cleared the Highgate mansion of Thames and Hudson founder Eva Neurath and the Earls Court flat of the art critic Mario Amaya but have had nothing on the scale of the Lagerfeld library. Few things sell as well as art books if you get the price right. Art books are often very heavy and many of these are of surprisingly low value, but quite frequently an unexceptional looking tome proves valuable. In a modest art book collection bought at auction last month we found the difficult T & H art monograph Francis Bacon by Ronald Alley and De Faucigny-Lucinge's fabulous coffee table book Legendary Parties (Vendome Press 1987) - together they will give little change from a $1000 bill. Several of Lagerfeld's own books are in the $100 class including his two Steidl photobook titles from the late 90s Casa Malaparte and The House in the Trees. He also produced issue 23 for the de luxe fashion victim magazine Visionaire (NY 1997) The Emperor's New Clothes. This appeared in a wooden box in 5000 only copies and is a portfolio of celebrity nudes shot by him of Rupert Everett, Demi Moore, Julie Delpy, Minnie Driver, Lisa Marie Presley, Amber Valetta, Linda Evangelista, Alex Lundqvist, Karen Elson etc.,. This can go for £300+ unless the box is damaged (it often is.)

He shelves his books sideways (as shown) which mimics the piles of art books one sees on tables in interior design magazines. It is a flashier way of showing books but hell when you want to get one out from the bottom of the stack. Last word on books from Karl “I’m mad for books…It is a disease I won’t recover from. They are the tragedy of my life. I want to learn about everything. I want to know everything, but I’m not an intellectual, and I don’t like their company. I’m the most superficial man on Earth.” Karl -when you tire of them utterly email us and we will show up with a dozen strong men and women in a Volvo semi truck and trailer, with 10,000 flat boxes and at least a 100 rolls of tape.

20 October 2010

A - Z of Celebrity Collections


It is estimated that there are 50,000 collectors of Black history in the US, and Bill Cosby, once the highest paid entertainer in the US, is one of them. He is a keen collector of African Americana, and it is likely that he has a copy of the only book to be published by Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet to appear in print. Her Poems on Various Subjects (1773 ) is one of the most sought after books by collectors of African Americana and its appearance in sales always arouses enormous interest. In 2006 a copy sold for $34,000 at Swann in NYC. But it is unlikely that Oprah Winfrey, who has taken over Cosby’s title, would want to spend any of her many millions of dollars on a book of eighteenth century poetry. She is more interested in collecting black angel dolls and other less elevated Black Memorabilia, such as Aunt Jemima cookie jars and images of black children eating water melon----all generally ignored by serious collectors. Chanteuse Anita Pointer of the Pointer sisters collects the same sort of stuff. Film-maker Spike Lee and Whoopi Goldberg are also collectors—though exactly what they collect is uncertain.


According to Denis Healey, who owns a signed first edition of it, complete with wraparound, Beckett’s four page poem of 1930, ‘ isn’t terribly good ‘.Today, ABE has two similar copies at $12,5000 and $15,000.Unfortunately, Healey no longer has a copy of his favourite book by Beckett--- Murphy, which he bought when it appeared in 1938. He lent it and it was never returned.


Popular wit and entertainer Stephen Fry is a notable collector of books by P. G. Wodehouse, but I gave up trying to arrange an interview with him after three written attempts. It might be best to ‘tweet ‘him should you wish to know more about his collection. Another Wodehouse fan is actor Richard Briers, who is President of the Wodehouse Society. He has admitted to collecting first editions (presumably of Wodehouse), but didn’t elaborate .


Sci-fi guru Brian Aldiss, who began book-dealing while at public school, houses part of his impressive sci-fi library in his Oxford home, but envisages that the remainder will end up in some library archive, possibly the Bodleian. Dallas Public Library already holds 5,000 items.
Oddly, Aldiss was born in the same street in East Dereham, Norfolk as motorcycling martial arts expert, sci-fi writer and TV presenter Lionel Fanthorpe, who is said to be the most prolific living writer in the world. It’s hard to believe that this genial bearded cleric from Cardiff was once the king of sci-fi pulp, with an impressive back catalogue of 168 titles ( including Barrier 346, Space Fury, Crimson Planet, Alien to the Stars) published in the fifties and early sixties by Badger Books. Making his debut at the age of 19, and writing under a number of aliases, including Bron Fane, Pel Toro and Lionel Robert, Fanthorpe was averaging one book every twelve days. He eventually gave it all up to pursue another career as a writer on psychic phenomena, but occasionally meets fans of his pulp fiction at conferences. One enthusiast asked him to sign a whole pile of his books. Indeed early Fanthorpe pulps, with their lurid covers, are avidly collected, though prices are generally low---inevitably due to Fanthorpe’s over-production—at $3 for the seventies reprints and around $10 for the really early first editions.

Yellow Book

Barry Humphries, Aussie alter ego of Dame Edna Everage and cultural attaché Dr Sir Les Patterson, has admitted in Who’s Who that one of his recreations is reading bookseller’s catalogues in bed. He also ( or used to ) collect kitsch objects, which I suppose may include books; but he is certainly a serious collector of fin de siècle publications, notably The Yellow Book, one of whose contributors was Theodore Wratislaw (1871 – 1933), a poet with a colourful ancestry. A trained solicitor and apparently a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Wratislaw self-published two slim volumes in 1892 and another the following year. Maggs has a copy of his Orchids (1896) at $682, while another dealer wants $894. All these titles appeared in small editions and later titles ( such as his translations from Villon ) were even smaller.

Israel Zangwill

It’s unlikely that this chronicler of Jewish working class life in London’s East End at the fag end of Victoria’s reign will ever regain his former popularity, though the efforts of London chroniclers Peter Ackroyd, and in particular Iain Sinclair, who has a large collection of his works, may help. Whitechapel and Spitalfields are now chic, thanks to denizens Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George and Dan ‘ House Detectives ‘ Cruikshank, but in Zangwill’s time this was one of the poorest parts of London and very much a Jewish ghetto. Firsts of Zangwill’s scandalous debut novel, Children of the Ghetto (1892) are not cheap. Jarndyce have a harlequin copy of the three volumes at $235, but firsts of his later novels are dirt cheap—sometimes under $10.


Words of wisdom from rock legend Leo Sayer.

" I’ve been collecting books for years They never let you down and you can pick them up in years to come. "


Thanks Robin, the end of a great series. I have seen Whoopi Goldberg at bookfairs and I think she collects classic black literature but she might also collect Art Deco and Wiener Werkstatte. As for Stephen Fry I had heard he collects Wilde, Georgette Heyer and possibly Corvo. He seems currently to be annoying punters by his ridiculous ubiquity but it is hard to feel any animosity to the creator of the Bishop of Uttoxeter (or Control and Tony) and other outrageously funny sketches. A word of warning with Israel Zangwill--he signed a lot of his books, do not increase your house insurance if you find one.