“. . . a great wilderness of books . . .” —Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies
It’s difficult to pin down exactly why books as objects mean so much to me. I wasn’t alive when William Goyen’s excellent Come, The Restorer was published, but owning an original printing with the dust jacket—as it would have been purchased at the time of its release—makes the book more special to me than some beat-up paperback reissue. If it’s signed, even more so. I’m only really interested in modern first editions (say, post-1950 or so)—before that books get quite expensive, but also I don’t think they look as nice, since many were issued without dust jackets, and at that time the dust jacket wasn’t considered a permanent part of the book, so they’re often missing.
So why the obsession and collecting, and why is it so important? Part of it is that it’s fun and I enjoy digging through bookstores, but a larger part of it, I think, is that it’s a connection to the past, a matter of respect in the sense that I like to keep my books nice and sharp and in good condition and well-organized. (Though copies of beat-up, written-in paperbacks will sometimes get stacked behind their first edition counterparts.) Lots of people don’t read these books any more, so in a way I’m keeping these books alive by reading and archiving them.* [FN: And I want to distance myself as much as possible from those weird book collectors with geocities websites who only collect as some sort of speculative hobby, in an attempt to make big bucks, treating books as if they were baseball cards or Beanie Babies—I don't read my books with white gloves on, but I do read them, and they mean an incredible amount to me, not just as objects.]
But this is also very personal. I love looking through the bookcases of anyone’s house I’m in, and I love showing off my library to visitors. It’s a way of making those connections between so many different writers and people. (My little desk is also in the library, and there’s something inspiring and intimidating about trying to write, surrounded by all your heroes.)
Virtually any book I want is available at abe.com, if I have the cash, but that’s a last resort only to be used if I’ve scoured stores for a while and can’t find what I’m after, or if it’s a book I haven’t read and am desperate to read (and the book is out of print and unavailable in any other format). Abe robs me of the so-called thrill of the hunt. Scouring all the Manhattan and Brooklyn used-and-rare shops every couple of months always yields some treasures. On my most recent hunt with Eric Lorberer, who edits Rain Taxi, and who is a good friend and fellow book collector, I finally tracked down (at Atlantic Avenue Books in Brooklyn) Jack Gilbert’s Monolithos ($60, paperback).* [FN: A good way to trick your wife into letting you buy a $60 paperback is to say, "I really want this, but it's so much money . . ." and when she says, "Well how much is it?" you say, "Fifteen hundred bucks," and then let it sink in a minute while she stares at you like you are insane and then you tell her you were kidding, and then $60 doesn't seem like so much. Try it.] I’d been looking for it forever, and I found it, plus first edition hardcovers of Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat ($10), a mint, clean, unread copy of Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own ($6) (my copy’s dust jacket was beat up and sun-faded); and at The Strand’s rare book floor, more hardcovers: Nicola Barker’s Behindlings ($7, mint and unread), Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants ($15), and Stephen Dixon’s 14 Stories ($6), among a few other odds and ends.* [FN: And of course when I go out of town I have to find all the used stores and check them out. Digging around in stores always turns up things you would never think to look up online anyway, or knew you needed, or things you never knew existed (e.g., Harry Mathews' Immeasurable Distances).]
Things I like:
- first editions, first printings
- clean, white pages without remainder marks (remainder marks are when unsold books get returned to the publisher, and are then re-sold later at a discount, often resulting in a black marker line across the pages, or sometimes a stamp)
- unclipped dust jackets (and the nicer the condition, the better)* [FN: a PLEA: stop clipping the price off the dust jacket! it's not like the person you're giving the book to as a birthday present doesn't know how much a book costs]
- American editions—I don’t pursue foreign editions of anything, but will buy a UK hardcover if the book wasn’t issued in hardcover in America (e.g., Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land)
- books signed by the author
- bookstores that wrap all their hardcovers in mylar dust jacket covers and don’t carry trashed books
- knowing how many copies of a book were printed—I own bibliographies of some of my favorite writers—Gilbert Sorrentino, Donald Barthelme, etc., in which scholars will often go through old publishing house records to determine print runs on books; sometimes in a book (particularly with small presses) the number of copies published in the edition will be printed somewhere
- dust jackets that feature art different from any other edition that came after it
Things I don’t like:
- ex-library copies
- books with the owner’s name written in it, unless the owner is a writer I like
- books inscribed to a friend from the gift-giver
- books inscribed by an author to someone who isn’t me (though I own a couple)
- ugly books—you know the ones—books that look out of place in a nicely-arranged bookcase—I find the Penguin paperbacks with the lower half colored that nauseatingly bright orange to be pretty repellent
- WHEN BOOKSTORES STICK THOSE GOLD “AUTOGRAPHED COPY!” STICKERS ON DUST JACKETS, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE DUST JACKETS ARE MATTE
Brutal nerd confession: I keep my library meticulously documented on a spreadsheet so I can keep track of what I have (I own 1,451 books as of 11 June 2010, and have read 946 of them). Here are some of my favorites, which I haven’t written about already in my infrequent postings on book collecting over at Constant Conversation:
Albert-Birot’s First Book of Grabinolour—I love the early Dalkey Archive hardcovers—they don’t really do hardcovers any more, so I pick them up whenever I see them. This is a wild book from Albert-Birot, but what’s also exciting here is that it was Gilbert Sorrentino’s personal copy—I got it in a box of books from Powell’s (which included an early Sorrentino first edition), and when I opened it I recognized the scrawled signature from when the author signed my hardcover of Red the Fiend back in 2003 or so. Compare them and see for yourself:
Speaking of signed books, I love them—I have dozens and dozens, from John Ashbery to David Markson to Horacio Castellanos Moya to John Yau. Having the signed, hardcover, first printing of a book is, to me, one of the great pleasures of book collecting—even if it’s something that’s not particularly rare, I love having these, especially if I can get the author to sign them in person. Here’s an inscribed first edition, first printing of Infinite Jest:
All four of Stephen Wright’s novels, all signed and inscribed (he’s one of my favorite writers):
These are proofs from a small-run chapbook (300 copies printed) Brian Evenson wrote called The Brotherhood of Mutilation—it’s recently been re-released in paperback with a sequel novella, entitled Last Days, but when this came out it was only available through Earthling Press. I ordered my copy (but wasn’t able to score one of the handful of hardcovers they published (15 copies!)) and few months after I got this super-creepy, great book the publisher emailed to inform me that I’d won a contest for which these editions were the prize. Also pictured is a rare Evenson chapbook entitled Prophets and Brothers, which includes four stories I don’t believe have been published anywhere else.
Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way is a really interesting one to me because before 3rd Bed came along and reprinted this book in 2003 or so, the original Knopf hardcover was really hard to find and quite expensive when you did find it. I stumbled upon this one, for which I paid, I believe, $5, which was a steal—the best part though is that this at the time was the only way to read the book, and I couldn’t afford the $80 or $100 for which it was selling. And of course the reputation of Stories in the Worst Way speaks for itself—it’s a masterwork of short fiction, hugely influential. (The same thing has happened with Lutz’ follow-up collection, I Looked Alive, which is now out of print, unavailable, and the cheapest you can find a copy is over $90. Look it up.)
I’m always on the lookout for uncommon editions of books I love, such as the original hardcover of Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, which took me forever to track down—either not many were published or no one who bought it is getting rid of it (or both). [See my ramblings in various corners of The Quarterly Conversation in which I insist that The Lost Scrapbook is possibly the best American novel of the nineties.* [FN: It was a good decade though: Interstate, John's Wife, A Frolic of His Own, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, others I'm sure I'm forgetting . . .]
Here’s a shot of my library. Not pictured are my books on cinema, serial killers, science, and westerns.
Poetry’s in the entry hall to the apartment, along with various titles that don’t really fit anywhere else:
I live in a smallish apartment in Brooklyn, so the main shelves are Ikea $19.99 Flarke bookcases, and the high shelves are repurposed Flarke shelves bolted to the wall. This is the product of thirteen years of serious book collecting. I don’t think I’ve paid more than $100 for more than one or two books; most of what I own was scored for retail or under, excepting a handful of rarities. I’m a bit more selective these days about what I bring home, since I know it’s inevitable that I’ll have to move it all yet again at some point, and I’ve been spending time trying to read books faster than I can bring them in. I can’t see myself ever living not surrounded by books.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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