One of the questions I toss in the air to the students at the start of the annual course on Modern First Editions at the London Rare Books School (link to the right) is this: When a bookseller pencils a price in a novel or a book of poetry, is this in any sense – or on any level – an exercise in literary criticism?
The response generally (not just from the students but from my co-tutors) varies from the incredulous to the frankly aghast. We are just booksellers after all. Impertinent to have an opinion – that’s for the customers to decide. But what I want the students to attempt over the course of the week is to prise open the conundrum of literary value and monetary worth – or vice versa come to that – and come fully to understand the price which the market puts on a particular book. That there is ultimately a conflation between these different notions of value. That the esteem in which a book is held is just as cogent a factor as rarity or condition – in my belief more so. That ultimately, we are, as it were, when we price a book, giving it an examination mark of some sort – a kind of collective and collusive judgement (as between buyers and sellers) on its merit.
What brought this to mind was a brief encounter with James Tindley of Tindley & Chapman the other day. A favourite shop this for modern firsts enthusiasts. Genuine depth to the stock of the collected authors – real breadth as to who those authors are. Good, solid, books – decent condition, reasonably priced. A thoroughly professional operation. Bought a few books (as always). Then found in the basement an attractive copy of On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks. Named for the jazz classic (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, etc.) rather than the Lana Turner movie based on the Elizabeth Goudge novel. Published only in 2001 at £16.99 and by no means uncommon (the best-seller by an already established author rule of comparative rarity), but a personal favourite, here signed by Faulks – and as yet awaiting a price.
“How much would you like for this”, I ask. James looks at the book somewhat dismissively. “A tenner”, he says, a touch mournfully. Feeling that this is a little on the low side, I remind him that it is signed. “Exactly”, he says, “ten pounds – have you read it? – Terrible! – bad even by the standard of his later novels, and that’s saying something”. “Well, you know”, I say, “I’ve always regarded it as one of his very best” – and so I do. I re-read it with real pleasure only a few weeks ago – even better second time around – one of the best novels of the early twenty-first century (in my view). So who’s right? – and that twin question – What’s it worth? as opposed to What is its worth?
I was of course in Cecil Court again for Christmas Carols in the Court. Opera Holland Park in Dickensian outfits underneath the gas-lamps. Glorious renditions of all the old favourites. Wine and mince pies. Wildly enjoyable evening. Highlights were perhaps Pinda Bryars (Mrs Tim) joyously leading a chorus of opera singers in a karaoke medley of Christmas pop – “All I Want for Christmas is You …”, replete with outré finger pointing. And a senior colleague on the ABA Council, who shall obviously remain nameless, serenading a word-perfect Noel Cowardly “Let’s Do It” to the mystery blonde in the fabulous hat (aka the fabulous blonde in the mystery hat). “Somerset and all the Maughams do it – Let’s fall in love”. Another “you had to be there” evening.
Beyond that – a very good week. Finishing touches now put to the first programme of Seminars on Book Collecting to be held in the Durning-Lawrence Room at Senate House in Bloomsbury (6pm on the second Tuesday of each month in term time). A new co-operative venture run by the Institute of English Studies (IES) at London University and the ABA. An excellent, an outstanding, opening line-up – link to the outline details in the blogroll to the right. See you there – and a very Merry Christmas and an entirely Prosperous New Year to all of you.
And a very merry Christmas to you and yours, dear friend. Probably a good idea to stay away from Cecil Court for a while – the locals are beginning to wonder if you are moving in.
Thank you, Steve – and point taken. Too busy at this time of year to wander far from home – but I shall be hitting the highroad again in the New Year.