Some books are so beautiful, you have to buy them. But who wants a book that merely looks nice? You might as well get something you can hang on a wall. The ideal is a book that looks wonderful and is also great. For example, my friend Rob's wonderful edition of Byron with a fore-edge illustration that reveals itself to you only gradually: step one, step two.
At the very top of this select list is Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, published in nine volumes from 1760-1767.
During the very dawn of the internet, when it was a wild cowboy frontier, I saw advertised a first edition of Tristram Shandy for, I think, $500. It could have been more than that, but not much more. I bought it (and now feel slightly guilty about owning it.) This particular edition came housed in a lovely bespoke case, in which the books sit horizontally.
Vol 9 is slightly larger than the others, and the boxmaker went to the trouble of sculpting extra space inside so the box remains perfectly rectangular. Volumes 5 & 7 are signed by Sterne: in all true first editions, 5, 7 & 9 are signed, but in this version I manage to have a first edition of Volume 9, in this case the rogue outsize volume, that is not signed. By the time Sterne had reached Vol 5 — the third installment, since the volumes were issued in pairs — the book was so popular, and had spawned so many bootlegs and parodies, that the author went to the trouble of signing the newest editions himself, just to prove they were real. What is particularly interesting is that, to prove his authorship, he signed his name "L. Sterne", although he is identified only as "The Author" elsewhere in the book. In other words, the first edition only has the Sterne's name in it if he wrote it there himself.
There was recently a film of Tristram Shandy with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, directed by Michael Winterbottom. It was as though, in the massive Venn Diagram of Film Demographics, I found myself where all the circles overlap, the movie's perfect audience. I am an ardent Shandean, I revere Steve Coogan, I love Rob Brydon, and I even kinda like the movies of Michael Winterbottom. But I didn't enjoy it much. It nailed the pre-postmodernity of the book without paying it the respect of caring for its characters — everyone was a cardboard cut-out. Tristram Shandy wouldn't have lasted so long (defying Dr Johnson's prediction) if the characters hadn't been sympathetic and the book, as a whole, full of moments of great pathos — a point amply made by Christopher Ricks in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Classic (which has now superseded by a newer edition with a different introduction entirely.)
It's the playful aspect of Tristram Shandy that seems to be of contemporary interest. Sterne was insistent on including such groundbreaking typography that the first edition is fascinating purely so you can relive the experience of readers of the 1760s when first faced with the legendary black page (in my edition the ink has graduated to the facing page, or "the grey page") and, the page that trumped even that "dark veil", the marbled page in Volume 3 ("motly emblem of my work!"). In my edition, this is spectacularly bright. Of course, every single marbled page in every hand-printed copy of Tristram Shandy is different, making every first edition of Tristram Shandy unique; doubly unique if you include the autograph. When you see the marbled page in the current Penguin Classic, nice gesture though it is, it becomes clear why some books are best experienced in their original state.
My favourite cover is The Ballad of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions, a remarkable novel that I hope one day to turn into some kind of epic Folk Opera. I recommend it far and wide in case anyone is interested: so far no takers, and I can't even find out who owns the copyright.
But among some of the most beautiful books are Edward Lear's, the author of many marvellous poems including The Owl and The Pussycat and (my personal favourite) "The Dong With The Luminous Nose". (His entire oeuvre is resolutely pre-Freudian.) Here is a lovely edition of More Nonsense with its gorgeous spine. To wind things up, I append one of its limericks . (Lear is said to have invented the limerick, though he never worked out, perhaps because he often read to children, who may well have enjoyed joining in on the last line, that the last line could be a punchline — generally, he repeats the first with one minor difference which disappoints modern readers.) Why this one? Is it particularly good? No, it's just a quite usual Lear limerick with an averagely fantastic Lear drawing. It just happens to be about "an old person of Pett/Who was partly consumed by regret" — and Pett is the precise village in England where I'm from and where my mother still lives in the house my grandfather built. Actually, they live in Guestling on Pett Road. But we're talking inches.
Edward Lear spent time there. He could also paint beautifully. This beautiful, mysterious landscape, Mahabalipooram, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Note: by complete coincidence, the excellent poet Matt Mauch won the copy of The Shrimp and the Anemone by L.P. Hartley. That book is in the mail.