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Notes On Book Collecting
Just what is book-collecting, anyway? It's a fair question, because fabulously high prices and extremely' rare books are what make news in collecting, and the impression has gotten around that you have to be a scholar or a millionaire or both to collect.
The idea is all wrong. You can collect any books; you can even collect theatre programs. As long as you group your acquisitions around a central idea, so that the whole collection has something that makes it a unity, you're a bonafide collector. You don't even have to bow to the first; edition fetish if you don't want to. You might be interested in old houses in New York that have fallen on evil days, and end up by collecting books on early New York under the Dutch. You might chase up material on the vanished towns in the Berkshires. You might collect county histories or town histories or state histories. Most collectors are on the trail of at least one writer, and want everything he wrote and probably everything written about him. You might collect old almanacs or old magazines. You might collect books on the basis of the type in which they're printed, their format, their bindings; or the illustrations in them. Any idea is good, and any idea is a fair basis on which to collect. Collecting is a game-your game; so go ahead and collect around any idea that pleases you.
You'll probably run into first editions some time, no matter how you collect. I suppose that the basic reason for the interest in first editions is that they're closest to the author, and a first is the edition that he himself is most likely to have seen through the press. In that sense, a first edition of Stevenson seems to hold more of the touch of Stevenson than' later ones and if you love Stevenson you will treasure his firsts accordingly. Also, for obvious reasons, firsts are frequently more authentic: errors and changes can easily creep into later editions. It's in the field of , firsts that most of the great collecting-is done. And, incidentally, careful and tireless collectors do a great service to all of us by finding and preserving the rare and great books. Many would have been entirely lost if the collectors , hadn't rescued them.
First editions are frequently not an easy question (that's part of the fascination of looking for them). Your own experience plus a little help from your bookseller can teach you to spot some of them. Others are more tricky. There are the pirated unauthorized American editions of Barrie and Dickens, for example. In many cases they were actually printed before the English authorized editions came out -either by being thrown together from magazine instalments or by being stolen from the English printers! In these cases, you have a distinction to draw between first editions and authorized editions. Unauthorized editions, naturally, are frequently incomplete, and often show iynportant differences from the authorized, where an author has made revisions for final publication. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is another poser in firsts. A third of it came out in French, in Paris, in 1791. A German and a Swedish translation appeared the next yearand still no edition in English! (The foreigia editions were pirated from a copy of the manuscript which Franklin had given to a friend of his in France.) This same pirated third was printed in English in 1793 but it wasn't until 1868 that the complete first edition of the entire work was brought out in America, by John Bigelow.
The study of first editions leads to questions of authors' intentions and corrections and first drafts and unpublished versions and that lands you into the field of manuscripts. Unless you have a well lined purse, few manuscripts can come your way, but that won't prevent your being interested in seeing them. And, from manuscript interest or your affection for the author you're collecting, it's an easy and fatal step to letters and notes and scraps of memoranda-and any day then you may find yourself one of the company bidding feverishly for a little scrap of yellowed paper with a scrawled note and a signature on it. Collecting is as insidious as golf-once it gets you, you're lost; but it's a pleasant way to be lost.
Collecting doesn't have to be limited to old books. You can begin collecting the books that are published tomorrow if you want to. It's a good game to get every first edition of your chosen author the minute it comes out, and to miss nothing that he writes. You'll probably branch from that into collecting reviews about him, and anthologies in which he appears and eventually, if you outlive him, his correspondence. There's a special excitement in contemporary collecting: you're pitting your judgment on your author's merits against the verdict of time, and there's always the chance that you've picked some one while the world in general is igroring himwhose first editions will some day be worth their weight in gold...