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Archive for the 'Rare Books' Category

Each week, more or less, we discuss rare books.


"One's life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings; it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand."
—Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt

I've been thinking about the great reading experiences I've enjoyed in the last few months. What makes a reader? Is it the ability to sit quietly and fall completely into a narrative? Is it the genuine enthusiasm that we feel when we hand a book to a friend and say, "You've got to read this!"?

What makes a book collector? Love of the reading experience, love of a particular author, love of a single title? A bit of madness can't hurt. Surely the answer has more to do with emotions — desire, yearning, delight — one usually associates with sex or food. It is not a surfeit of money or shelf space that compels us.

Graves and Scholars

Whether you view Sir Aurel Stein as a tomb raider or as the savior of precious cultural objects might depend on whether you are Chinese or British. An impartial observer might merely wonder: Sir Aurel Who?

Sir Aurel Stein was born in Hungary in 1862 and later became a British citizen. He was a linguist, explorer, archaeologist, and scholar. Many of the artifacts he collected are in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library at Oxford holds his papers. Stein traveled many thousands of miles through the Middle East and Asia along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. He "discovered" the caves at Dunhuang and he brought the Diamond Sutra, the oldest known complete printed text, out of Asia in 1907.

He died in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1943 at the age of 83.

This Post Is Just an Excuse to Show a Photo of Sean Connery

It's not such a reach, really, to move from this:

into a discussion of rare books, especially if the theme of the discussion is "Publishers That Don't Fit."

Publishers, just like car manufacturers or clothing designers, all have their niche. They know what their customers want. Yet here are a few examples of (mostly) famous books that make the biblio-geek pause, just for a moment, to consider their histories.

First, A Confederacy of Dunces. Published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, the story of author John Kennedy Toole is well-known to book collectors. Unable to get his book accepted for publication, he killed himself, and his mother found the manuscript with his belongings after his death. She brought the manuscript to the attention of author Walker Percy, and LSU Press became Toole's publisher.

Better known for books such as Agrarianism & Reconstruction Politics or regional history titles, A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the three Pulitzer Prize winning titles published by LSU Press.

Forgers, Fakes, and F**k-ups

A recent New York Times story about a freshman at Drew University caught my attention. He allegedly stole autographed letters from the university library and then sold several of them:

Mr. Scott pilfered the letters while working part time at the university archives, the prosecutors said. He sold some of them for thousands of dollars, and left others sitting in a dresser drawer, where F.B.I. agents found them after executing a search warrant of his dorm room on Saturday.

Those silly freshmen — always leaving the evidence in their dorm rooms.

Collectible vs. Rare… with Trivia!

Quite often at cocktail parties or in the first-class cabins of transatlantic flights I find myself engaged in conversations about rare books. The general belief is that if a book is old it must then be rare. Without going into a lecture on sociolinguistics, it has to be admitted that "old" is relative, and that the term "rare" is too often thrown about carelessly in the world of collectible books.

Books can be collectible without being rare. These would be titles or authors that have resonance with the collector. Fight Club and first editions or signed editions from the Twilight saga are examples of collectible books.

Other books have moved beyond the collectible category and are truly rare. The three-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice is a great example. It's a classic case of supply vs. demand. The first edition is desirable and scarce. Mathematically expressed, the formula looks like this: D + S = $.

Collectible, rare, and scarce books are just like cars, only with fewer moving parts. By that I mean that much of the same criteria are used to assess them. Physical condition ...

Unknown Mongolia

In 1910 an Englishman named Douglas Carruthers began a 5,000 mile journey that crossed Siberia and Asia. His goal was to see Dzungaria, the ancient Mongol kingdom. He published his account of the expedition, Unknown Mongolia, in 1913. It is just the type of early 20th century travel literature that I love. Its value is scholarly, the narrative is entertaining, and the author's photos accompanying the text are both beautiful and plentiful.

Carruthers and his companions traveled by "tarantass, canoe, boat, and raft, by ass, ox, camel, and pack-pony." Reindeer were also ridden, though by the locals rather than by those in Carruthers's caravan. Their supplies — they carried over 300 pounds of flour with them and shot game along the way — were transported by 20 horses.

Once Upon a Time… (Plus, Trivia!)

Before Obama wrote Dreams from My Father...

Before George x 2...

Before THE blue dress...

Before the Gipper...

Before 444 days in captivity...

Before Ford pardoned Nixon...

Before Marilyn sang "Happy Birthday"...

Before the scariest two weeks in October...

Before any of this happened, there was a Senator from Massachusetts.

Bare-chested Bodhisattva

My brother gave Barnes & Noble gift cards to my parents this Christmas, and my mother is enthralled by the Kindle, so I've been shopping around for a new family. I'd like my new family to be financially secure, broad-minded, and happy. They should also be here in Oregon, because I don't want to have to get a new driver's license photo taken.

Focusing on these criteria, I think I've found my new family in the pages of the book This Very Place the Lotus Paradise.

Who’s Afraid of Anna Karenina?

The first translator of Anna Karenina into English, Nathan Haskell Dole, was raised in a strict Puritan home in Massachusetts. In his introduction to the 1886 edition, he claims that "the teaching of the story cannot fail to be considered in the highest degree moral and stimulating." Perhaps he was hoping that his literary friends in Boston wouldn't be shocked at his translating a novel that contained multiple adulterous liaisons and a suicide.

What was "moral and stimulating" in 1886 is today "a sexy and engrossing read," according to Oprah's Book Club. Anna herself is described as "the book's namesake and the woman we've all been waiting to meet," which makes her sound as though she's about to step out onto the talk show stage. Oprah picked Anna Karenina for her book club in 2004 and the title vaulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, 127 years after its publication in Russia.

Come to Scratch

There is a particular marriage between writers and the sport of boxing. A. J. Liebling, in the introduction to The Sweet Science, states that " a boxer, like a writer, must stand alone ." A simple truth, simply stated.

By his own admission Liebling boxed

...just enough to show I knew what was all about it, as the boys say. I went shorter rounds every time. The last was in about 1946, and the fellow I was working with said he could not knock me out unless I consented to rounds longer than nine seconds.

It's tempting to fill this space with quotes from The Sweet Science for three reasons. First, Liebling's writing is a joy and interminably quotable. Second, I have at my desk and am reading from the first edition copy.

The third reason to quote Liebling at length is because he is much more qualified than I to introduce Continue »

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