The draft minutes of the Presidents’ Meeting in Weimar (see below) report me as saying that I am “weary” of giving advice to people on what books they should or should not collect. Not quite true – I believe I said “wary”. And, I think, properly so. I devote part of the course on Modern First Editions at the London Rare Books School each summer to a brief disquisition on the history of those numerous guides to collecting – who and what to collect – that have been with us since at least the late nineteenth century. And how very, very, poorly they have served their readers.
The voices were unanimous eighty years ago that the authors to collect for the future were J. M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, W. H. Hudson, John Masefield, G. B. Shaw and James Stephens. No mention at all of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse or Virginia Woolf, all of whom had by then published major works and who might (with hindsight) have been a rather better bet. Iolo A. Williams went so far as to say that collecting modern firsts was “to a large extent a waste of time … and a waste of money too”. Again, not a terribly impressive piece of forecasting.
That is why I am wary – we aren’t able to forecast the future. The truth is surely that the most interesting collectors are those who collect against the grain – those who mark out their own paths, collecting what appeals to them, collecting the otherwise unfashionable or ignored, rather than those who follow whatever rules are currently in place. It’s a matter of personal judgement and taste. It’s the difference between art and painting-by-numbers. And it may well mean actually reading the books to understand their history and value in terms of your collection – to establish the parameters – and how they relate to and illuminate the rest. That of course has implications – a book can’t be both read and unread.
Which brings us to what must be the most false of all the current rules – the tyranny of “condition, condition, condition”. All those collectors who won’t look at a book unless it’s flawless and are thereby doomed to gap-toothed collections – at least if they are collecting beyond the very recently published. We all love a book in exquisite condition – but that should be a rare bonus, not a basic requirement.
And all those inane internet descriptions telling us that the book doesn’t have an inscription in it – as if that somehow makes it more interesting. It doesn’t – it really doesn’t. Part of the value of the book is its own history – both the history of its wider reception into the world and the history of the individual copy. As G. Thomas Tanselle wrote years ago – “the books are there, holding clues to their own history, and we must try to learn all we can from the physical evidence they preserve. They are, after all, the primary evidence … physical objects that are themselves pieces of historical evidence”.
Wouldn’t we all rather know who the original owner of the book was – and all that can tell us – than not know? It’s one of the things that can make the collecting of books so much more interesting and rewarding than the collection of other types of material. Who writes their name on a plate or a vase? A concrete example by way of illustration to follow tomorrow.