|Catalogue of Concerns
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
3 March 2007
I love my library, I buy and receive books
all the time and I am very slow to "deaccession" a
book, but my library is a working library. Books get written
in and underlined. Pages get turned down. What I buy on the
internet is always the cheaper option, and condition is of no
interest to me at all (unless it renders a book illegible).
In consequence, many of my books are themselves the victims
of deaccessioning from public or college libraries.
I would rather they had stayed where they were,
in whatever dusty institution they once graced. But there it
is. They were put up for sale, cheaply because of the page of
date-overdue stamps and the Manila ticket-pocket stuck to the
endpapers. These are the books I use, misuse and lose around
the house. When I have spent a lot of money on a book, it is
only because I have felt there was no option: I "needed"
it, and there was only one copy available in, it would seem,
At the opposite end of the book market lies
the world of the bibliophile. It is worth keeping an eye on
it, on the important principle that it is always worth knowing
what things, in general, cost. I don't have the remotest sense
of what, say, a good diamond costs, because that is very far
from any of my preoccupations, but supposing I found a copy
of the first edition of Finnegans Wake, priced at £50,
or £500, or £5,000, would I know whether this was
a bargain? Or dreadfully overpriced? It's worth having some
Here is an amusing catalogue from the top end
of the modern firsts market, the London firm of RA Gekoski,
and here is a first edition of Finnegans Wake, "one of
425 numbered copies, signed by the author" and in its original
yellow box, "slightly soiled". The price is £8,500.
So now I know, and can forget, as I please, that a signed first
edition of Finnegans Wake ought to have a box, that it is really
quite expensive, viewed as a book, but really quite cheap, viewed
as a Joyce first edition, since the same catalogue informs me
that Joyce's Collected Poems, as published by the Black Sun
Press in New York in 1936, one of 50 copies of a deluxe issue,
costs £32,500. And that's not the most expensive of the
By now we have been able to form a picture
of what the Joyce collector's library must be like - a small,
vault-like room, I should say, with security bars on the windows
and attention paid to atmospheric controls. I see a lot of leather:
leather armchairs, leather-topped tables, leather cases for
the books - including, of course, such books as themselves came
first in cases, such as the slightly soiled yellow box for Finnegans
Wake, for which an outer box would have to be made, so that
its slightly soiledness could be kept constant. Here you might
find Joyce's "first" book, a 96-line broadside poem
called The Holy Office (£45,000), but you would be unlikely
to come across his actual first book, Et tu Healy, of which,
Gekoski's catalogue informs us, no copy has ever been located.
(Silly me for having put mine out with the trash.)
Here is something for the Sylvia Plath fan,
a self-portrait at the age of 17, done in pencil. What would
you price it at? The catalogue (which is often a good read)
tells us that Plath was a "modestly able amateur artist",
but that her watercolours and oils tend to "heighten the
imperfections of her technique". In other words, if we
wanted a work of art by Plath, better a drawing than a painting.
The National Portrait Gallery recently bought a drawing of Ted
Hughes by Plath - a perfect addition to their collection, because
of the intense biographical interest attached to it - for £25,000.
This self-portrait (not illustrated) is priced at £9,000.
Coming down to another level, in the same category
of poets' drawings, we find four pen-an-ink illustrations by
Stevie Smith. "Whimsical" is the word the catalogue
uses, and whimsical is the problem with this poet - what may
look like originality one day seems more like affectation the
next. But there she is. She added a profoundly useful phrase
("Not waving but drowning") to the language. She sang.
She drew. She is surely part of the history of our poetry. The
four drawings, together with a couple of manuscript pages, come
in at £2,000.
A condolence letter from Virginia Woolf to
Philip Morrell, on the death of Lady Ottoline ("I'm so
glad you think I understood her - but she was a complex subject"),
an excellent letter but "somewhat foxed", costs £2,750.
What you would do with it I don't know. Donate it to the Museum
of Tact, perhaps.
The one book I should have liked to own (but
it is characteristic of these catalogues that all their best
items are already sold before the catalogue itself is mailed)
is WH Auden's copy of DH Lawrence's Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious.
Auden has signed it on the front free endpaper, and there are
"4 lines of metrical signs to the rear endpaper".
Here is a book where the expression "association
copy" has a real meaning. Auden's interest in psychoanalysis
dates from the 1920s, and he would have read this particular
book while writing what became Poems (1930). John Fuller's commentary
on Auden tells us that he gives a rather laconic account of
Lawrence's view on arrested development in the poem "It
was Easter as I walked in the public gardens". A little
later, in the poem "What's in your mind, my dove, my coney?",
we find a line, "Do thoughts grow like feathers, the dead
end of life", which lifts a phrase from this book: Lawrence
had written that "the mind is the dead end of life".
The "4 lines of metrical signs to the
rear endpaper" sound intriguing. It might be possible to
work out what was running through Auden's mind as he sat reading
Lawrence, what abstract stanza was forming in his head. The
price is £400, not quite the cheapest thing in the catalogue,