Allan Gregory: 'The eternal passion of book collecting'
Collecting modern first editions or antiquarian books is a fun and possibly profitable pursuit, writes Allan Gregory
'Call me Ishmael". This is the famous opening line of Herman Melville's great novel Moby Dick, first published by Harper & Brothers, New York in 1851. And if you happen to have a copy in your 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 rare book dealer in Palm Beach, Florida. However, if you did just happen to have a similar copy and you were a book lover or 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.
But why does it 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 60th edition? The answer is an emphatic "no". The story is 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.
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Owning it and then 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, Nicholas 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 lovely old bookshops, street stalls, auctions and car boot sales, exercising the subterfuge of a true bibliomaniac, in pursuit of a first edition of Joyce's Ulysses, at the right price.
Collecting modern first editions or antiquarian books is a fun pursuit. It can be exciting and compulsive - and is not a dreary bookish endeavour followed only by the status-conscious rich. Anyone can collect first editions, and with taste and pocket taken 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 by Giles or Martyn Turner. Books on historical figures like Michael Collins, Napoleon and Kennedy, and poets such as WB Yeats and TS Eliot are always in demand by collectors. Children's books by Roald Dahl and Patricia Lynch are highly collectable, as are the novels of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse.
First editions can generally be found in secondhand bookshops of which there are still quite a number in Ireland. A list of these bookshops and book dealers can be found in the pamphlet Antiquarian and Second-hand Booksellers in Ireland (published by Schull Books, Cork). Alternatively, 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 and dealers who specialise in first editions, the Dublin City Book Fair, held every month at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, is a popular venue for book lovers and collectors. There are also many annual book fairs in cities and towns throughout the provinces such as Belfast, Wexford, Graignamanagh, Fethard and Kilkenny Book Fairs.
Some people may prefer to buy books through the internet on eBay or book sites - but this method dissipates the excitement of the search for the true collector. This method 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 book fair.
There is no hard and fast rule in identifying first editions but most publications will state 'First Published' or 'First Printing'. Some books 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; a 3 indicates 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, is always second best to the original. Should there be a dust jacket? The answer is almost always "yes", especially if the book is post-1920. Dust jackets are essential for a complete first edition. They are interesting in themselves in the artwork they display, often by internationally renowned artists and illustrators, and also for the biographical and bibliographical information they provide.
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 a written inscription on the front free endpaper or 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. The way in which a dealer prices a book will therefore be unique to him - but in today's digital environment, competition from the internet makes the asking price far less arbitrary than it may seem.
One of the main 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 collectable 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 the book originally cost the princely sum of 13s.6d, this seller is getting a whopping return on his investment. There are also first editions of this book on the internet - unsigned - for sale between £800 and £7,000.
What do people generally collect and which authors represent the safest investment?
In the Anglo-Irish literature category, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett top the list and are very collectable. Books by great Irish women writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O'Brien, Molly Keane and Mary Lavin sell continuously. Travel writers Dervla Murphy and Richard Hayward are always in demand - while rare books of historical interest, particularly the 1916 rising and World War II, remain eminently popular.
On the international literary front, books by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and John Le Carre are collectable, as are books 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, marriage and retirement presents. And unlike most other kinds of gifts, they also have that unique advantage of increasing in value as time moves on.
Allan Gregory is the proprietor of First Editions, Antiquarian and Rare bookshop, on No 7, Pembroke Lane in Dublin 4