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Things That Have Interested Me

Catalogue of Concerns

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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, the world.

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 vague idea.

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 Joyce items.

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, but almost.

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