Defaced first edition of ‘Ulysses’ valued at €13,500

Book was defaced by an irate reader who regarded the book as pornographic

A copy of Ulysses by James Joyce in which a previous reader has written “A Pornographic Bible” under the title. Photograph: Philip Cloherty

A copy of Ulysses by James Joyce in which a previous reader has written “A Pornographic Bible” under the title. Photograph: Philip Cloherty

Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 01:00


A first-edition copy of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has been valued at €13,500 despite having been defaced by an irate reader who regarded the book as pornographic.

Galway-based rare book dealer Norman Healy, who acquired the book in London, said a previous owner had defaced the book by writing the comment “a pornographic Bible” on the famous blue paper cover beneath the title. The word “pornographic” is underlined.

Defaced books are often worthless but such is the desirability of first-edition copies of Ulysses it has been catalogued for resale at €13,500. Mr Healy said the book would normally be valued at about €10,500 but he believed the comment, added by “a previous, less than enthusiastic owner”, had enhanced the value.

The identity of the previous owner is not known but the defacement is likely to have occurred long before the book’s importance and financial value became apparent. The comment reflected the view, widely held in the early 20th century, that Ulysses was scandalous.

Ulysses was published in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd, 1922, by Sylvia Beach, an American publisher and founder of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. A thousand numbered copies were printed, clad in soft covers that featured the title and the author’s name in white on a blue background. A copy can be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of euro, depending on the condition and whether or not it was signed or inscribed by Joyce.

For collectors of rare books, Ulysses is said to be the most sought-after and valuable 20th century first edition. The most valuable are those rare examples that still have the fragile dust-jacket wrapper intact and were signed or inscribed by Joyce.

The defaced “pornographic” copy is missing half the dust jacket and was not signed by Joyce.

The highest price achieved to date for a first edition of Ulysses was for a copy, inscribed by Joyce to Henry Kaeser, a Swiss publisher, that was sold in 2002 at Christie’s, New York, to a private collector for $460,500 (€333,600).

Of the 1,000 first-edition copies of Ulysses, 200 are reliably believed lost or destroyed. Of the 800 copies known to be extant, about half are in public collections – including that of the National Library – and the others are privately owned. Copies occasionally turn up at auction or for sale by dealers.

In the 1920s the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice ensured Ulysses was effectively banned in the United Sates and copies sent there were seized and destroyed by the post office. Despite strict censorship during the 20th century, Ulysses was not banned in Ireland but was not imported, for fear of a prosecution.

Even some of Joyce’s literary contemporaries expressed disapproval of the novel. DH Lawrence regarded Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the novel as “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written” and told his wife: “This Ulysses muck is more disgusting than Casanova.”

Virginia Woolf was shocked by the “obscenity” she encountered in Ulysses.

In 1934, a US court ruled that the book was neither pornographic nor and obscene. Further editions were then published and the novel became available worldwide.

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