Book collecting: a gentle madness or license to print money?

Which Irish and international authors’ first editions are the most sought after? A beginner’s guide to the rare book world

Allan Gregory: Collecting modern first editions or antiquarian books is a fun pursuit. Photograph: Arran Henderson arranqhenderson.com

Allan Gregory: Collecting modern first editions or antiquarian books is a fun pursuit. Photograph: Arran Henderson arranqhenderson.com

 

“Call me Ishmael.” This is the famous opening sentence of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, first published by Harper & Brothers, New York in 1851. If you happen to have a copy in the attic, in good condition, you could be richer by up to €62,000. This is the asking price for a first edition of the novel by a prominent rare bookshop owner in Palm Beach, Florida. However, if you did just happen to have a similar copy, and you were a book lover or a book collector, chances are you might not want to part with it at any price. Book collectors and bibliophiles are universally reluctant to part with their precious first editions no matter what the offer might be.

One of my favourite first lines comes from John Banville’s delightful novel Ancient Light, published by Viking Penguin in 2012. “Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.” It immediately captures the reader’s imagination inducing a compelling desire to “read on”. Banville is one of our highly collectible contemporary writers, particularly since he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea in 2005. His first book Long Lankin, published by Secker and Warburg in 1970, is a collector’s item and prices from €750 to €1,000 have been realised for a signed first edition. However, you can buy a first edition of Ancient Light in a good antiquarian book shop for sums ranging from €45 to €100, depending on condition. First editions of Banville’s Benjamin Black novels are also collectible.

But why does the book have to be a first edition? Is the story not exactly the same in the second, third or fourth editions? Or is it not exactly the same in the sixtieth edition? The answer is no. The story is probably the same but the book is most definitely not the same. For collectors, bibliophiles and bibliomanes there is nothing more exciting than holding in your hands the book in its original state, as it first reached the public, and laid itself bare to the whims and vagaries of the critics. Then, to have it signed by the author, knowing that he or she had actually handled this particular copy, makes the experience even more exhilarating.

Owning it, and adding it to your collection, is the ultimate pleasure. This particular euphoria has been humorously diagnosed as an illness or indeed, a disease, which the American writer Nicolas A Basbanes called a “gentle madness”. A Gentle Madness is the title of his book published by Henry Holt & Co, New York, in 1995. The book gives an in-depth analysis with numerous stories and anecdotes on what motivates the collector in his eternal passion for books. However, it was written before the emergence of the internet, when collectors had the now almost defunct experience of frequenting dusty old bookshops, street stalls, auctions and car booth sales, exercising the subterfuge of a true bibliomaniac, in pursuit of a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Books on historical figures like Michael Collins and Napoleon and poets such as WB Yeats and TS Eliot are always in demand by collectors

Collecting modern first editions or antiquarian books is a fun pursuit. It can be exciting and compulsive and, contrary to some critics, it is not a dreary bookish endeavour, followed only by the status-conscious rich. Anyone can collect first editions and, taking taste and pocket into account, the collector’s choice is limitless. Some collect the entire output of a particular author, while others are interested in genres, illustrated books by Arthur Rackham or Harry Clarke, or books of cartoons such as Giles and Martyn Turner. Books on historical figures like Michael Collins and Napoleon and poets such as WB Yeats and TS Eliot are always in demand by collectors. Children’s books such as first editions by Roald Dahl and Patricia Lynch are highly collectible as are the novels of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse.

First editions can generally be found in second-hand and antiquarian bookshops of which there are still quite a number in Ireland. A list of these bookshops can be found in the pamphlet Antiquarian and Second-hand Booksellers in Ireland, published by Schull Books, Cork. Some of the large auction houses conduct extensive book auctions a number of times each year, but collectors at these events must beware and take into account the heavy auctioneering fees which can add considerably to the cost of the book. Apart from bookshops that specialise in first editions, the Dublin City Book Fair, held each month at the Tara Towers Hotel, Merrion Road, is a popular venue for book lovers and collectors. There are also many annual book fairs in cities and towns throughout the provinces, amongst these are the Belfast, Wexford and Kilkenny Book Fairs.

Some people may prefer to buy books through the internet on eBay or AbeBooks but this method dissipates the excitement of the search for the true collector. It also has certain disadvantages in that you may not always get what you ordered and the additional cost of fees and postage can make the transaction much more expensive. What you see is what you get when buying the book in a bookshop or at a book fair.

There is no hard and fast rule in identifying first editions but most publications will state “First Published” or “First Printing”. Some merely have a date on the verso of the title page but modern first editions will have either the number 1, or a sequence of numbers from 1 to 10, which indicates that the book is a first edition. When the number sequence begins with 2, this represents a second printing, or beginning with 3, a third printing and so on. Some publishers will use the alphabet instead of the numerical system so that the letter A on the verso of the title page indicates the book is a first edition. However, especially for older books, a generally safe rule is that if the book bears no indication to the contrary it is indeed a first edition. The professional bookseller will have done his homework and research in order to assure himself of the true status of any publication.

The binding of the book and the dust-jacket are two other factors in identifying a “First Printing”. The publisher’s original cloth can usually be identified by the colophon at the foot of the spine of the book. For true collectors, it should be remembered that even the most exquisite hand-tooled, deep-banded calf leather, or whatever other unique binding is used, it is always second best to the original.

The most common disfigurement, together with the absence of the dust jacket, is some sort of inscription on the front endpaper, or even sometimes on the title page

Should there be a dust jacket? The answer is almost always “yes”, especially if the book is post-1920. Dust jackets are really essential for a complete First Edition. They are interesting in themselves in the artwork they display, sometimes by internationally renowned artists and illustrators, and also for the biographical and bibliographical information they provide. From the point of view of jacket design, modern first edition collectors owe a special debt to Gallery Books, Loughcrew, for their superb publications of Irish and English poetry books over the last 40 years.

Condition is vitally important in all fields of book collecting. The ideal collector’s item is the book in its original state precisely as published. The most common disfigurement, together with the absence of the dust jacket, is some sort of inscription on the front endpaper, or even sometimes on the title page. However, some collectors do not object to the name of the last owner if it is neatly inscribed, and accept that this is part of the history and provenance of the book.

The value of a book to a collector, apart from its literary content, is the figure he or she is willing to pay for it. The price charged by the bookseller will generally depend on the condition of the book and the cost to him in sourcing and acquiring the book in the first instance. The way in which a dealer prices a book will therefore be unique to him, but in today’s digital environment, the competition from the internet makes the asking price far less arbitrary than it may seem. One of the major factors influencing the price of a book is demand or indeed fashion. For example, the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming published by Cape are highly collectible and have been for decades. There is currently a signed first edition copy of From Russia with Love, first published in 1957 for sale on the internet for €10,000. Considering this book originally cost the princely sum of 13s.6d, this seller is getting a whopping return on his investment. But there are also first editions of this book, unsigned, for sale between €800 and €7,000. This is the major problem with buying books online no matter how specific the advertising details may be, whereas in the bookshop or at the book fair, you can hold the book in your hand, examine it for authenticity and condition, and be satisfied with your particular purchase.

So what do people generally collect and which authors represent the safest investment? In the Anglo-Irish literature category writers such as James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett and John Banville are very collectible. As are great Irish women writers Kate O’Brien, Molly Keane and Mary Lavin. Travel writers Dervla Murphy and Richard Hayward are always in demand as are rare books of historical interest, particularly books on the1916 Rising. Dolmen Press and Cuala Press first editions are always desirable as are children’s books by Beatrix Potter and Dr Seuss. On the international literary front, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and John Le Carré are all highly collectible as are first editions by South American writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Collectors are not the only people who buy first editions. They also make beautiful and meaningful birthday and marriage presents, as well as having the unique advantage, unlike most other kinds of gifts, of increasing in value as time moves on, and they become rarer and rarer and rarer.

One of the most outrageous literary crimes of the twentieth century was the unauthorised publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses by Samuel Roth, editor of the New York magazine Two Worlds Monthly
One of the most outrageous literary crimes of the twentieth century was the unauthorised publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses by Samuel Roth, editor of the New York magazine Two Worlds Monthly

Ulysses in Two Worlds Monthly

One of the most outrageous literary crimes of the twentieth century was the unauthorised publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses by Samuel Roth, editor of the New York magazine Two Worlds Monthly.

Following the ban on Ulysses and copyright difficulties encountered by Joyce in Europe, Roth took it upon himself to serialise the work in his New York magazine, much to the consternation of Joyce and the publisher of Ulysses, Sylvia Beach. The work was serialised in 11 issues of Two Worlds Monthly from July, 1926 - September 1927. These 11 issues contain bowdlerised (and unauthorised) reprints of 13 episodes of Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been banned in the United States on grounds of obscenity. Joyce sought and obtained an injunction against Roth, but by that time Two Worlds had ceased publication. Joyce sued for damages, claiming that an American edition of Ulysses could make $500,000. The New York Times reported that Roth in return maintained that the circulation of his Two Worlds Magazine had decreased very appreciably since the announcement of the articles by Mr Joyce leading to its eventual demise. This outrageous piracy certainly brought Roth to the attention of the literary world and resulted in considerable public indignation which provoked an international protest signed by 167 artists and writers, including EM Forster, Ezra Pound, John Galsworthy, Wyndham Lewis, James Stephens, Virginia Woolf and WB Yeats. Roth had planned to publish 14 instalments in 12 issues; however, the 12th issue never appeared.

In the September 1927 edition of Two Worlds Monthly, editor Samuel Roth issued an open invitation to James Joyce as follows: “If Mr Joyce is really in need of money, it is here in New York waiting for him, provided he is willing to make one public appearance to answer my charges against him for his conduct in the matter of my publication of his Ulysses in TWO WORLDS MONTHLY”.

In addition to Ulysses, the magazine contains writings by TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Anatole France, DH Lawrence, and Octave Mirbeau’s scandalous novel, Diary of a Chambermaid. Complete sets of the individual issues are very hard to find, especially in good condition. The journal’s first 11 issues, containing the 13 episodes of Ulysses, edited by Samuel Roth in original printed paper wrappers, are now a collector’s item, and very difficult to find. The entire set, in very good condition and housed in custom-made casing, is for sale by Allan Gregory, First Editions, 7, Pembroke Lane, Dublin 4. The price? €3,250.

First Editions: the antiquarian bookshop in Ballsbridge, Dublin established by Allan Gregory
First Editions: the antiquarian bookshop in Ballsbridge, Dublin established by Allan Gregory
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