31 December 2012

Book Jackets reviewed

G. Thomas Tanselle. Book Jackets, their history, forms and use. Oak Knoll, 2nd edition 2011. £45.

How many academic books sell out in months? This one did.  Around a year ago I ordered a copy of the first edition and the publishers told me that they had sent it. I never received the book and was later sent a second edition. Perhaps some book collecting postal worker took the first to be sent. If any work in the field of bibliophily is likely to become a new ‘must have’ for collectors dealers and auction cataloguers alike, this is it.

For one thing, it’s a labour of love by arguably the world’s greatest authority on book jacket history. Secondly, it is based on the author’s own collection, which was begun in 1968, and is soon to be lodged in an American library. This catalogue is  supplemented by Tanselle’s decades-long correspondence with fellow enthusiasts in the field, notably Tom Congleton, who used to write a column for Rare Book Review. Thirdly, the book has the distinct appeal of cutting edge research, albeit in a subject that for many non-bibliomaniacs, has always been regarded as the source of loud belly laughs.

Forget all that. Book jackets are no longer a joke. To laugh at book jacket is to pass up the opportunity to make big money. There are many examples of a jacket being worth more than the book without it. For instance, a first edition of The Great Gadsby with the jacket will sell for many times more than a copy without one. In 1999 a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles in a jacket made £80,700 at auction. A copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902) in its dull brown  jacket made £2,600 at Sotheby’s in 1986, the cataloguer noting that the ’ book on its own ‘ would sell for about £100.

But why do so many collectors insist on a jacket ? Simple. If the history of book jackets can now be traced back to around 1830, as Tanselle argues, surely it is not too much to ask that a book printed in, say 1930, retain its jacket and to be worth more by having it, especially as the jacket may contain important information not available in the book itself, such as reviews in obscure magazines, illustrations, and remarkably, extra material on the reverse surface of the jacket. And although most early jackets were dull brown paper affairs that simply reproduced elements of the title page in black ink, a jacket, however uninspiring, must be seen as part of the book. Does any collector of LPs throw away the sleeve notes on acquiring a new addition to his record library?

But this new collecting trend brings with it new dangers. Tanselle warns us that modern technology has meant that laser- printed facsimiles can be passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous dealers. The old consolation that exceptionally rare modern books can’t be copied convincingly probably still applies, even in the age of the computer printer, but jackets are a different matter. With four figures sums at stake collectors must now be very vigilant.

Half of Tanselle’s treatise is taken up with such matters, including, of course the history of the jacket, which we learn was a natural development from the first  protective devices for fragile books, which were slip cases made of card. The first example listed dates from 1779, but doubtless others will be discovered sooner rather than later. After all, this is cutting edge stuff. Tanselle is good too on the rationale of the book jacket in the twentieth century and he rehearses all the silly reasons proffered by librarians and so called ‘ book-lovers’ for dispensing with them at the earliest opportunity. This is all very illuminating , but the meat of the book resides in its second half, which is a chronological list of jackets up to the end of 1900.

Why 1900 ? For Tanselle this seems a reasonable cut-off date. By 1900 the number of jacketed books listed has crept from 2 in 1871 to over 137 in the year 1900. And anyway, have some finishing point has to be laid down, however arbitrary. Why do incunabula end in 1499 ? For collectors of book jackets Tanselle’s list is a ‘ wants list ‘, especially to American collectors. Those titles included in it are around 80% American imprints, because, after all, Tanselle is an American who lives and works and buys books in the States. However, the power of the Internet has enabled him to correspond with collectors and dealers all over the world , with the result that many British and a sprinkling of exceptionally early European jackets/slip cases, are also included. Many of the British  books they cover seem to be illustrated editions of classics or verse, with Andrew Lang and Kate Greenaway featuring frequently. Others are rather dull or obscure books for which no sane person would think of shelling out three figure sums if it wasn’t for the jackets that come with them.

There are some exceptions. We learn that the first edition of Dickens’ Edwin Drood (1870) was issued with a jacket and as such is well documented in the literature on the author. No price is mentioned, but you can be sure that it will be high. Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876) is a more famous example of a jacketed classic.  Another gem in a jacket is a work edited by Theo Marzials, one of John Betjeman’s favourite poets. His Pan-Pipes, a Book of Old Songs (1883) was priced at a cool $350 in 1989.[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Sorry you actually had to buy the book to review it, that doesn't happen at the TLS! The biggest price differential on a jacket I can think of is for Greene's Ministry of Fear (London, 1943) a book that can be obtained in decent condition sans jacket for £40 but wearing a smart jacket £8000 is achievable (more if you believe web mall prices.) That's 200 times, I guess if Drood, a sort of £200 book, was to sell for over £40,000 in d/w, which seems entirely possible (although unfinished and posthumous) Dickens would take the biscuit...


03 December 2012

Two economics classics

Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of the Wealth of Nations (London, W. Strahan and Cadell; 2 vols, 1776 )

Current selling price around £100,000

Just as every natural scientist covets a first of The Origin of Species, many city bankers would love to find a copy of The Wealth of Nations, now generally recognised to be one of the most influential books ever published. A first edition would be nice, and such a book, if one could be found, would hardly stretch the finances of your average hedge fund manager. I remember my old paymaster at Rare, Bernie Shapero making a very early Wealth of Nations the star turn in a collection of works on economics that he was trying to sell a few years ago. I even remember wondering at the promotional drinks party whether one of the treasured volumes might get nicked. However, I ‘m not entirely sure whether the book in question was an actual first edition. You can say goodbye to £100,000 if you want one of these. Currently, there is one on line, appropriately, in Beverley Hills. And in Pennsylvania there is a second edition for £60,000.

Apparently, all copies of the first edition were sold within six months and Smith spent some of 1777 incorporating important emendations in  a second edition, which appeared in 1778 and  is now ( rather oddly ) scarcer (at 500 copies ),according to the Pennsylvania dealer, than the first. Other editions followed, some published in the newly empowered USA. As Smith died in 1790, editions which appeared after this date lack the glamour, or indeed significance, of the early editions, but they still go for three figures. Were I buying an eighteenth century edition I’d go for one with interesting marginalia and crossings out from the hand of a prominent businessman of the Industrial Revolution.  

J. M. Keynes, Indian Currency and Finance (Macmillan 1913)

Current selling price £1,875.

Unlike some of the rarest first editions of his Bloomsbury pals, the great economist’s first book is not a sexy title. It is a rather dry treatise on economics which is now so pricey that only a completist Bloomsburyite with long pockets would afford a copy. It is more likely to appeal to admirers of Keynes the economist, since it is the first hint of the direction in which the great man was to go with his radical theories regarding the necessity of government intervention in fiscal affairs

Keynes, like many a spoilt child of wealthy late Victorian parents, had a comparatively easy ride financially up to his late twenties. After graduating from Cambridge in maths he received a generous ‘allowance’ which enabled him to follow his intellectual bent without the fear of falling into debt. Even when, in 1906, he was able to earn money for himself as a Clerk in the India Office he still continued to receive an allowance. His exposure to colonial economics resulted in Indian Currency and Finance, which was published while Keynes was a recently elected Fellow of King’s College. In this treatise Keynes addressed the problem of the rupee and its relation to its exchange value in silver and gold. He argued that as long as the unit of current had no intrinsic worth in relation to gold it would be vulnerable to international market fluctuations. A return to the gold standard, however, would guarantee the stability of the Indian economy, particularly regarding exports. Thus instead of letting the free market determine the future worth of the rupee, the Government had a duty to step in whenever necessary with a fiscal policy for India that would safeguard the currency in relation to world trade. 

This was a distinctly radical theory in 1913 and Keynes was strongly opposed by free-marketeers. However, his talents were recognised by government economists and the book earned him a seat on the Royal Commission on Indian Finance and Currency. Only in the thirties, however, were his ideas on government intervention recognised as a possible alternative solution to the economic crisis then gripping the nation.

Perhaps sensing that his writings were likely to prove popular in the future Keynes  persuaded Macmillan to share profits from Indian Currency and future works on a 50/50 basis. His predictions proved accurate and by 1942 over 4,000 copies had been sold, netting him £295.

Though it lacks the glamour of The Wealth of Nations, Indian Currency, without question, a spectacularly dull looking tome, might be easier to acquire among a job lot at some country auction. But if you can’t wait thirty years for such a chance find, there are a handful of copies online. These range from two ex-library books at £250 and £350, to a lovely copy in the original cloth, for which Harrington wants £1,875. [R. M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. That old Adam Smith book could almost be bought as a hedge against inflation (although at a little less than £100K). I seem to recall William Rees-Mogg (bookdealer and Times editor) setting out to prove that it out-performed the market at one time. As for Keynes years ago Indian Currency was a bit of a sleeper and I bought one from a dealer in Eastern travel, normally an ambitious pricer, at about a quarter of value. Couldn't happen any more.