Column Editor: Thomas W. Leonhardt (Retired, Eugene, OR 97404)
“Of the making of books there is no end.” Nor is there an end to book collections. But, it is not the end that I am thinking about but rather the beginning of a book collection and how to go about creating one.
Notice that I say “book collections” and not “collecting books.” Merely collecting books can easily devolve into hoarding. There is no prize for dying with the most books. Quality beats quantity in this instance but quantity, too, counts as one’s collection grows and another shelf has to be added for the next acquisition.
If you have read any of the many works on book collecting you know that it is ill-advised to have profit as the raison d’etre for your hobby. If I could find a buyer for my four major author collections, I would scarcely get half of what I paid. But I am not about to part with my sanctuary of writing that I return to again and again, finding something new each time.
To be sure, some books gain in value, but buying books as investments is a subject entirely removed from what I want to talk about. If you are interested, there are books on collecting that can provide you with enough information to either encourage or, more likely, dissuade you from taking that route. You might be better off playing the stock market if it’s monetary riches you are after.
If not for profit, why collect books? The simple answer is because I like books. I am not just a bibliophile, I have what one of my daughters when eight or nine years old called the book disease after seeing the library of a man who regularly donated books to the Stanford University Libraries. He was a psychiatrist and keenly aware of the truth of her observation when I told him about it. He would have also understood William McFee’s comment, writing in the introduction to his own bibliography (A Bibliography of the Writings of William McFee by James T. Babb, 1931) that “the reader [of the bibliography] … is probably a collector and therefore a suitable subject for a psycho-pathologist…”
The word bibliophile has connotations of wealth, private press books, fine printing and binding, fore edge painting, incunables, etc. In short, one thinks of rare books when one thinks of bibliophiles and collecting. As an impecunious collector, my goals are modest and the rare acquisition of a scarce but affordable book is pure serendipity. But such a purchase is really only satisfying within the context of the collection.
I would also differentiate between building a library and building a collection recognizing that a library is a collection but a collection is not necessarily a library but can also be part of a library. My personal library contains at least a dozen discrete collections and a good many other books that reflect my literary tastes and subject interests but not to a degree that compels me to seek out like titles or authors. I have neither the time nor the money, nor the space, nor the inclination in doing so although winning a multimillion dollar lottery might persuade me otherwise.
What are the essentials to building a book collection? One need not be wealthy but some disposable income is required. Part of the challenge of collecting on a shoestring is reducing one’s desiderata list without going bankrupt. One must eat, after all, and pay the landlord.
A book collector will need bookshelves. I remember my first shelves when my library was modest and reflected the subjects I was taking in college. They were unvarnished boards supported by cinder blocks. Such shelves have a certain charm but lack elbow room. Ideal are the ceiling to wall built-in bookshelves, an unfulfilled dream of mine. Somewhere in between those two models lie my IKEA bookcases and with a couple of those you can easily house a decent author collection.
You will also need time, interest, and knowledge. Of these, interest and knowledge are the most important. It sounds obvious but unless you are really interested in a subject or an author, you are unlikely to go far as a collector. Knowledge follows interest and grows as one digs deeper into the chosen subject, be it author or a broader interest. Author bibliographies and checklists are important sources of information for the collector. Good ones help authenticate first and subsequent editions and identify points, that is variant bindings, just jackets, typos, and other things that differentiate between editions, printing, and issues.
Although I have a couple of shelves of books about books, my collections, as such, include a half dozen writers, its own scope, limitations, challenges, and potential depth. My Morley collection contains 90 items. I have two printed bibliographies to guide me and I annotate them, in pencil, as I acquire an item. In each book I note (in pencil) the appropriate bibliography. Morley can be expensive, however, so I often have to be content with good reading copies instead of first editions. I can also afford first editions of reprints and first printings of paperbacks, a strategy that I also apply to my Steinbeck, McFee, and Wright Morris collections.
One way to build a collection on a shoe string is to find a new author that you admire and begin buying first editions as published. Protect the dust jackets with Mylar covers and do not clip the price from the book jacket. Read each book but don’t remove the book jacket until you are finished with it. Why collect a subject or author and not read the books? Why buy a toy and leave it in its box? And when you begin your fresh collection, be sure to write the author and express your admiration. You might get a letter in return and can add that to the books. And while you are at it, ask if you can send the books to the writer, with return postage included, and have them inscribed, not just signed. You have more than doubled the value of the first editions. To quote McFee’s Bibliography introduction again, writing about book reviews: “But when one has welcomed a new writer of undoubted quality, and his next book turns out to be mere sawdust and painted cloth, the mood of the reviewer [substitute collector] is gloomy indeed. He feels that he has been let down.” But McFee doesn’t add that the next book and others that follow might be competent or compelling works and in the end you will have a collection to treasure.
Back in the early 1970s, I read the early works of Cormac McCarthy, a so-called Southern Writer at the time and variously compared with Faulkner. I admired McCarthy’s first two books, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, and was able to acquire, at a secondhand bookstore, first editions, dust jackets and all, of each. They weren’t signed but today I could sell them and buy some of the pricey Morley items that I covet. But I lost interest in him somehow and sold them to another bookseller who also admired McCarthy. As most collectors and booksellers will tell you, it’s the one that got away that haunts you the most but you get over it. Or do you?
In 1961 a friend sent me a quotation from a book and writer I had never heard of. The quote goes, “Be master of yourself. The world is not an oyster to be opened, but a quicksand to be passed. If you have wings you can fly over it, if not you may quite possibly be sucked in.” The book was Casuals of the Sea: The Voyage of a Soul and the author was William McFee. I was smitten by those words and later, when I had my own copy of the book, it became a treasured possession and a book that I re-read as if discovering it for the first time. At the time, I didn’t know who Christopher Morley was and didn’t note that my Modern Library copy contained an introduction by Morley, the person responsible for getting McFee published in this country. I now own 50 McFee items including eight editions and printings of Casuals… and I have at least two more to track down. One of my Morley books contains an essay by McFee and Casuals…, the Modern Library editions, contain the Morley introduction. The two collections share a bookcase and the books themselves reflect a friendship between two men, one a writer from his college days and earlier, the other, McFee, a ship’s engineer who read and wrote letters during his free time and, happily, decided to write about some of his impressions of life at sea using the letter form. His first book is thus titled Letters From an Ocean Tramp (1908). I have the first edition, first issue, but my favorite copy is the 1928 Cassell’s Pocket Library edition, a bit worn but bought from Brian Teviotdale, proprietor of Belle Books, Hay-on-Wye, Wales. He was of the opinion that one should buy books to read and not hold out for first editions. The book he sold me now has an association with Brian, his store (although he handed me the book and accepted payment for it in another store), my time in Hay-on-Wye, and reading the book during my train journey back to my home base. This is not what is known in the trade as an association copy but it works for me and reinforces my compulsion to collect books.
I came to collect Morley and McFee as if by chance despite the connection between the two. What drew me to each was something in their books that speaks to me. Then, in the course of my collecting and information about each man, I found that they became good friends, one living in Connecticut, the other in Long Island, and both close by to New York City, the literary hub they each radiated from. Kindred spirits. Would that I could have broken bread with them. Instead, I have their books.