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Modern Firsts

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 86..


Sometime in the 1920s a British bookseller named Bertram Rota coined a new term to identify a class of books which he and other farsighted booksellers felt merited the notice of serious collectors and which they believed should be collected as cultural objects rather than being treated as general used books. The term he used to denote this worthy new category was Modern First Editions. No doubt Rota and a few other imaginative British dealers who, at the time were attempting to expand the interest in book collecting, could see no reason for some invisible line – then in the mid to late 19 th century – after which books suddenly stopped being collectable as first editions and cultural objects and became mere fodder for the used book trade and the 6p box, found outside most British bookshops at the time. The best account I know of those times and those innovative dealers is to be found in Percy Muir's Minding My Own Business , which has always been my favourite book on the modern British book trade and essential to any understanding of those then-radical innovations which now are taken for granted. More recently, Anthony Rota, Bertram Rota's son and successor in the family firm, wrote his own memoir Books in the Blood, which adds both detail and greater perspective to earlier books on that period.

Just as there were no serious collectors of Modern First then, neither were there author bibliographies, providing the details necessary to identify first editions for the authors they were attempting to establish as collectable. The relative and rapid establishment of this new genre of collecting generated a need for more precise information on those contemporary writers. So the 1920s produced assorted author bibliographies, most of them now obsolete having been superseded by the sophisticated modern bibliographies created by two or three generations of increasingly well-trained bibliographers. Percy Muir, John Carter and others began to contribute their personal knowledge of Modern Firsts in various periodicals, which were then followed by books containing bibliographical checklists of numerous authors. Gradually a fund of knowledge appeared which some 80-90 years later has resulted in the full-fledged bibliographical treatment of almost every 20 th century writer of merit.

These early checklists appeared as their subjects became more collected, and one is often, when encountering these early pioneer attempts, a bit amused at the simplicity of those early times in the collecting of recent authors. Until then, the market in collecting had been dominated by the attempts of amateurs, often using their own collections as bibliographic benchmarks, so much so that frauds, like Thomas J. Wise, had become the arbiters of standards. And given Wise's propensity for pronouncing bibliographic certainty based on the fact that his own copy of any particular book was unquestionably (to him) the correct issue, means that these early bibliographies are often only of curiosity value now, not to be trusted without further confirmation of what they stated so confidently.

So successful was this new venture in collecting that the 1920s also saw the advent of another relatively new development, limited signed editions, issued simultaneously, or very shortly after the regular editions. While such special editions in sumptuous format had existed earlier they were not common and had usually tended to be large-paper issues in a nicer, but not especially innovative, format. These new limited editions were almost invariably beautiful productions, usually done on special handmade paper and exquisitely designed and bound.

When one encounters these books today one is almost always impressed by their sheer beauty. But it is precisely their physical beauty which compels us to face a rather unpleasant fact that many dealers would rather not have to deal with. Often these beautiful books are bound in sumptuous leather-backed boards – or even vellum, and their sheer beauty is what presents the unpleasant contradiction. For the real problem is that too often they are on books which no one wants. Some one spent all that money and effort to produce books which are now unsaleable. They are the works of authors who didn't last, didn't make the cut so to speak, whose popularity has faded to the degree that only specialists in the literature of the period – and, of course, the dealers who need to sell them – have any recollection of who they were. This brings us to the problem which every long-term dealer knows and which often has to be explained to disappointed people trying to sell their late father's books; what value do books have which no one wants? These days, as I find myself inevitably explaining almost every day to someone wanting to sell me books, it is no longer what we will ask for a book, but rather, how long we might have to hold a book in stock before someone might buy it that must determine what we can offer for it. Most dealers have a repertoire of explanations to deal with this uncomfortable situation. My own preferred one, which I use often, is the anecdote about the scout who offers a book to a dealer describing it as a very rare. “Yes, indeed it is,” says the reluctant dealer, “almost as rare as customers for it.” People understand that. I recently had such an experience. A man sent me a list of books, part of an inherited library, which he wanted to sell. It was the remains of what had been a large, very good collection. The best parts had been sold through Sotheby's or gifted to institutions, but Sotheby's had not wished to handle what he had left; too obscure, no market, not valuable enough for them to offer in the single-entry method of modern auctions – in other words, economically unviable in their view. They were all in lovely condition, half-leather and boards, fine first editions in perfect dust jackets, or limited signed editions – often very limited, like 100 or 125 copies bound in vellum or half-vellum. Beautiful books, but by now-uncollected authors. And all in stunning condition. I bought them because they were so beautiful I couldn't resist, and also because after his lengthy experience of rejection the owner was more than aware of how economically undesirable they were. He neither wanted nor expected much and knowing that he would be amenable to almost any offer, I suckered myself again, as my partner loves to point out, buying books I like; defying again, the wisdom of the marketplace.

The authors concerned were well-enough known. The best was Walter de La Mare, still considered important, especially for some of his poetry and his children's book, but hardly avidly sought-after now. It went down from there. Charles Morgan, still warranting theses from PHD students but seldom asked for today. And the ubiquitous George Moore. An influential stylist in the late nineteenth century, Moore was a writer who had already had a fashionable resurrection in the 1920s (when all these limited signed editions had been issued) before once again sinking into obscurity. Another such writer was John Galsworthy, who, along with Kipling, might have been the most collected author of the 1920s. Kipling's popularity, damaged by his Imperial attitude and reputation for jingoism, has justly risen as he has become acknowledged as one of the great English story tellers, but Galsworthy is almost completely out of favour today.

Galsworthy had been very expensive in first edition in the 20s and when a series of television programs based on the Forsyte Saga appeared in the 70s, interest in Galsworthy was aroused and he was extensively reprinted in new editions, both the publishers of these new editions, and the public seemingly unaware that any used bookshop could offer cheap copies of most of his books.

Perhaps the saddest amongst this lot was Hugh Walpole, enormously popular in the 1920s – destroyed, some say, by Somerset Maugham's cruel satirical treatment in Cakes and Ale (although Maugham always denied that Alroy Kear had been based on Walpole, it was clear that he had). After that book Walpole disappeared beneath the radar and has yet to make a reappearance.

I have been attempting to understand this phenomenon for some thirty years, how an author can so excite the imagination of one generation only to fade into obscurity in the next. I have seen many instances of this in my time and several were authors who I myself cherished and collected.

No doubt some of these now-neglected authors will rise again as we have seen other writers do in the past 30-50 years. But which ones we don't know. And perhaps more important to a dealer who needs to sell books – we don't know when. That's my second favorite axiom for potential sellers of such books; it's not so much what we are going to ask for a book that determines our offer, its when we might sell it. I think people understand that one too.

When I started in the trade some fifty years later it was very different. A flourishing and brisk trade in modern authors existed. And it is the differences – from the initial attempts by Rota and his colleagues, through the period before I began to the current situation in modern collecting – which will be the focus of my comments here. For collecting today has changed enormously in many ways.

The function of the serious dealer is to apply not just experience and acquired skills to collecting; far more important, it seems to me, is that he apply his imagination to his vocation.

I see regular instances of a lack of questioning of the perceived principles of collecting, on the part of many younger dealers today. And I have come to believe that many of the excesses we find in today's market are the result of a herd mentality on the part of young or new dealers. Rather than guiding their clients they seem to collude in forcing them to pay higher and higher prices for the elusive “high-spots”, which increasingly seem to be the central, if not almost the only focus, of the current period in collecting.

Many young or new dealers seem to have a very limited view of bookcollecting, they act as though the high-spot authors and the latest flavour-of-the-month authors are the only game in town. More experienced dealers regularly bemoan the dearth of people interested in comprehensive author collections. When I started that was almost the only type of collector we saw, excluding naturally, the subject collectors.

As a term, “high spots” refers to a particular author's most famous books – in other words, the most desirable ones. Amongst 20 th century authors, the most sought after books include The Great Gatsby , or The Sun Also Rises, or The Catcher in the Rye . This has caused copies in fine condition in perfect dust jackets to rise in value so radically as to shock even the experienced dealer, including me.

It is, of course, possible for one to collect some of a writer's work without needing to own everything. My own collecting has tended along those lines in the last few years. While I still have two or three authors where I buy anything and everything – in depth is the term used for this sort of collecting, which will include first printings of multiple editions, even paperbacks and foreign translations – there are also several authors where I eschew secondary appearances (anthology appearances, intros, etc). And I no longer buy magazine or periodical contributions for almost all the authors who interest me, unless the article is not collected elsewhere.

So, from then to now, in less than a hundred years of collecting history, Modern Firsts has passed from a tentative attempt to start a new trend, to become the central focus of a lot of modern book collecting, at least to beginners. And from there collecting appears to be sinking into a rapid and maybe final demise as literacy decreases even further and slavish adherence to false values exacerbates this dismal situation.

Contradictions abound, unnoticed it seems, in the frenzy to profit quickly. The astounding implications of the prices asked, and apparently realized, for copies of now established classics in 20 th century literature in English, doesn't seem to have penetrated the mentality which permeates much of the trade.

In an article, recently published, on the future of books, the journalist who interviewed me, noted my pessimistic outlook, but still insisted on quoting some of the recent astounding prices realized for major high-spots. In a small article for a newspaper he could not be expected to seriously explore such an intricate subject, but he did choose to ignore the basis of my pessimism. It is not so much that I have a problem with the huge prices paid for established classics, it is the fact that no one now seems to want the lesser writers, or books, at any price. And collectors who attempt to assemble the complete oeuvres of an author are becoming increasingly rare. The herd mentality exacerbated by the insecurity which seems to cause so many collectors to slavishly conform to the dictates of the dealer/arbiters. One prominent American dealer told me on his last visit that he had sold the same Hemingway letter five or six times in the previous year. I was astounded, not so much that he would say that (it appeared to be a boast), but that he didn't recognize the implications of such a statement. Which is that none of those purchasers was a collector – they were all obviously speculators. No collector buys a treasure and sells it a month later. It seems to me the only motive could be the quest for profit.

But most disturbing to me was my colleague's attitude. How could he not see what such activity meant? And worse, where it must inevitably lead. Speculation is not collecting – it is an attempt to profit through cleverness. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. After all, as one of the Godfathers said, “we are not communists here”. But such an attitude, so ingrained in a dealer that he can believe that such activity was evidence of his cleverness, I found dissatisfying and then depressing. What it demonstrated to me, was that he was selling his books as investments for short-term profit, rather than long-term pleasure.

It's not that we hold those astounding prices in contempt – after all they mirror the great importance collectors and dealers assign to these symbols of our literary heritage; it's the implications the un-versed choose to infer from these prices. Dismissing these prices as crazy allows them to assume that all collectors are imbeciles.

A year or so ago I had a visit from two collectors, in Toronto for a medical convention, who collected in the old manner. One of them, quite elderly, had built an amazing collection of T.S. Eliot and had gifted it to an institution. But he still bought Eliot, often, no doubt, because something appeared – usually ephemeral – that he'd never seen. From his anecdotal talk it was obvious his gifted collection had been a very major one and I could see he was just having fun, indulging his sentiments for Eliot and his work by buying a second or third copy of books of which he was particularly fond. This will be used by the ignorant as yet another demonstration of the innate nuttiness of book collectors. But this is both unfair and untrue. What it in fact demonstrates is the ignorance of the judgmental.

All collecting flows from the innate propensity humans have to create symbols. A book collector who pays a huge price for a first edition of an important work is actually paying homage to the memory of the effect that work had on them when they first encountered it. Just as hearing a song we danced to with our teenage first love suffuses us with the same emotions we felt then, so does the sight of that book in its original state cause a recurrence of the emotions we felt on our first discovery of it.

His scouting colleague bought Kipling and we traded anecdotes about both Kipling and Eliot with great pleasure. After they left, I realized how rare such incidents were becoming, meetings with the real connoisseur, who usually knows more about an author than the author himself would remember.

I wanted to tell my Hemingway colleague that I considered him one of the reasons the collecting of books is in such an abysmal state these days – but I didn't. I should have said that he was doing a disservice to the many generations of people who revered books and their contents and proved their devotion to such icons, by paying money, sometimes significant amounts of money, for the privilege of guarding them for a period. But I said nothing.

Maybe I'm too old. I'm sick of having fights with other booksellers. I've got enough enemies, I tell myself. But maybe I'm just another of those hypocrites, or moral cowards, who has come to believe that you need to go along to get along.

The 1920s saw the beginnings of the limited signed edition issued simultaneously with the trade edition, designed to produce more revenue for publisher and the authors who were considered the most popular and who were then most fashionable. In return for a higher price the collector was offered a finely produced book and often a very beautiful one. A high degree of speculation ensued, with the announced special formats often being over-subscribed and traded at higher prices even before they were officially issued. It's not that these elaborate productions were fraudulent or even not worth the money they cost. Indeed they were usually very attractive productions produced by the best designers of the period, printed on fine paper, and bound in several styles. Just like the French obsession with plates in several distinct states, these books often had special limited editions within the limited editions. So it was not unusual to be offered, after the 500 or 1000 limited signed copies, an edition of 25 (or 26) bound in full morocco, or even the notoriously difficult to work with and preserve vellum, and on even more sumptuous paper, at even higher prices. Even Joyce's Ulysses had three different formats, 750 regular copies, then 150 copies on special paper, and finally, 100 copies signed by Joyce. This in spite of the trouble Joyce and Sylvia Beach knew they would have with the censors and the customs officials of half the countries in the English speaking world.

Do not think that I disparage such things – which incidentally are still being done – I do not. Their saving grace, was that in spite of their prices and the slightly distasteful speculating aspect, they are still, for the most part, lovely examples of the bookmaker's art of the period. The firms that issued these books gave good value for money.

That so many of the authors whose books were issued in these formats are now apparently relegated to literary oblivion is the point to all this.

I don't see much evidence that the aggressively acquisitive dealers of today have learned any lessons from the melancholy truths that these books convey to those who look beyond the superficial. I recently read some comments by Oliver Brett, third Lord Esher, in the catalogue of his collection where he puts succinctly the rationale for his collecting.

“The plan on which I have founded my library is a combination of investment and speculation. I invest in the established classics; I speculate in the living writers. The former are a gilt-edged security, safer than Consols, firmly based on the sanctions of time. The latter are the expression of my individual opinion and taste, the value of which only the future can justify.”

That seems to me to be both accurate and very intelligent, especially in regards to the collecting of Modern Firsts. Brett hedges what he is fully aware is the danger in pursuing expensive modern firsts, when time will inevitably be the final arbiter, by also buying the established greats. He knows that just as time will render some of his taste in modern writers to literary and hence financial oblivion, that the major works by the truly important will more than compensate for his modern mistakes. In fact, Brett demonstrates by his comments that he doesn't really care that posterity will condemn many of his books. This to me indicates that he was a truly great collector. For only a man who respects his own tastes and his personal view of the world, will attain the confidence to defy the inevitable logic of posterity.

What remains for me the most telling example of the lack of clear thought amongst many dealers in today's Modern Firsts market resulted from a personal experience.

An elderly client, who had, like so many, become a friend, approached me about arranging the disposal of his library when the inevitable occurred. He was then 90 years old and had already buried two wives so it was not a morbid, nor even a premature concern. His third wife, a good twenty or so years younger than him, died as well during our discussions so his problem became even more focused. His only surviving relative, a young grand-daughter, lived in the States and had no interest in books so we decided it was safer to dispose of the collectible books right away. He had a large scholarly library, but he also collected some serious Modern Firsts, the principle authors being Kipling, Eliot and Joyce. I bought most of his collection outright after he gifted some books to the University of Alberta , his Alma Mater, and some to the University of Toronto , and Oxford , where he had been a Rhodes Scholar.

But one book created difficulties, because of its value. It was a first edition of Joyce's Ulysses , one of the 750 regular copies, differing from most however, in two important factors. The first was that it lacked the title page, a seemingly major defect. But this was balanced by something much more important, which was that it bore a presentation inscription in Joyce's hand to Cyprian Beach, his publisher Sylvia Beach's sister, an actress and more important, the one who had typed a chapter of the novel, for Joyce, when no one else could decipher his tiny crabbed hand.

Printing and binding usually produce a certain number of defective copies of books for a variety of reasons. We surmised, not illogically, that Joyce needed to present some token to Cyprian for her typing help and that Cyprian, an actress, probably didn't care much for books as objects, and having a copy, which had sustained damage during the printing and binding, which they couldn't sell anyway, they gave her this copy.

My client had bought the book some 25 years ago at a Toronto bookfair from a very prominent American dealer for $3,750.00.

I hadn't the means to put out the necessary money to buy it outright at that time so we decided that after we arrived at a price that satisfied my client and that I thought acceptable (given that it would be sold under my name) I would sell it for him on consignment. After much research and discussion we decided that $65,000.00 was an appropriate price given both its defect and the inscription.

I remembered a quote from Stillman Drake, the world-renowned Galileo scholar, whose magnificent collection on the History of Science now resides in the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto and who had been a lifelong collector, not just of Galileo and early science but of several modern authors and subjects, amongst them Conan Doyle and Joyce.

Stillman, one of the greatest collectors who I have had the privilege to know, had spent many years making trips to Europe with his old friend Jake Zeitlin, scouring Italy for books.

He once made a statement to the effect that the title-page is the least important part of an early book, since it is always possible to ascertain what edition of a work one has, without it. Stillman had other views which diverged from the so-called conventional wisdom dealers and collectors seem to labour under, especially the now ludicrous emphasis on condition which fuels the collecting of modern first editions. In a talk he once gave to a group of collectors, Stillman advanced several heretical views along with his title-page theory. He claimed that in his field, early science, he had bought defective copies as a young man and now had many books he would never have owned had he tried to wait for perfect copies. He also stated that early science books in fine condition aroused his suspicions, because the condition, indicated that the book had not been read and was therefore pretty good proof that it wasn't a very good book. And a reading of it usually confirmed that, he said. He constantly railed against the practice of dealers in early science constantly stressing the lovely plates in early books, which he despised, since they often had tiny angels hovering around scientific instruments. The angels might be cute, but to his mind they had nothing to do with science. He also despised the view that caused people to pay many times more for an early book that might be untrimmed and hence a half inch higher then other copies. He thought such adherence to ill-thought-out standards reflected precisely that lack of questioning which was anathema to the scientific process. But perhaps his most heretical view related to the custom in Modern Firsts of asking much more money for modern books in dust jacket than for the same book without the dust jacket. The result of strict adherence to such so-called wisdom has resulted in copies lacking those dust jackets being rendered almost unsaleable, another example of the silliness of taking sensible principles to the extremes. Stillman, being an astute man, stated that while he personally didn't think dust jackets added anything like the values assigned by the trade to these books and believed that such prices wouldn't hold in time, he had been wrong about enough things during his collecting career to be aware he could easily be wrong here too. So he admitted that these books might retain the prices they now brought. Having conceded that, he added however, that if a modern book, in its wrapper, was worth what it was selling for, what to his mind was certain, was that copies of the same book lacking the wrapper and priced at a fraction of the copy retaining it, were grossly underpriced. After I thought about that for awhile I began buying fine copies without dust jackets of the most sought after 20 th century author's books as I came upon them. Stillman was right. I have been buying fine copies of modern writers, such as Greene, Waugh, etc., when they lacked the dust jackets and enough people have agreed with me that I haven't even been forced to do what I do with other not-yet-ready-for- primetime-books, hold them for years.

And with success too, meaning with profit.

When what Stillman had stated caused me to begin questioning many of the conventional views on book collecting, I also took to buying Modern Firsts which were rebound in leather bindings, partly because I've always loved bindings, but also because once the stupidity of these conventional premises is discarded these rebound moderns start to appear very cheap. Shortly after discovering this I bought a book I treasure, a first edition of the first political book I ever read, Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide To Socialism And Capitalism . This was a seminal book for me in more than one way. The book overwhelmed me on so many levels, my general ignorance at seventeen being so enormous that I cannot even look at copies of that book without a surge of nostalgia for my youthful naiveté and especially now that I fully realize what its reading introduced to my life. The copy I bought was a first edition finely bound in full morocco and bore a presentation inscription, “To Lady Mary Murray from Bernard Shaw.” It came from a dealer not known for being cheap but it was only $300.00, even 25 years ago a foolishly cheap price for such a treasure. The sumptuous binding would have cost that much to execute, even then. Aside from the central lesson, that it's the book which matters to you that is important, it is also a wonderful example of the right person finding the right book at the right time.

Ever since then I have done the same many times and if, after I'm dead, the rigid protocols of modern collecting have not crumbled in the face of common sense, well, it won't concern me.

Re-reading what I have already written gives me great pleasure. I see that I have really been speaking, not as a dealer, but as what I really consider myself to be: a collector. And I see that, in my frustration at my fellow dealer's blindness – no doubt legitimately a consequence of their need to make a living – I am perhaps being overly judgmental.

“Please do not judge me too quickly,” said Gide, perhaps one of my two or three favorite quotes. The necessity to pay rents and staff and provide for a family can outweigh, and often does, the imperative to use, as well as demand, professional responses to dangerous trends.

I have also spent the last 20 years preaching to my clients what I think should be the basis of all conventional wisdom and not just in book collecting: “Learn the rules of collecting, and then break those that don't suit your own inclinations.” Knowing the rules is very important because only such thorough knowledge allows one to wisely disregard some of them.

It was through closely studying collectors that I began to note the slavish subservience to the perceived standards of collecting which seems to smother so many collectors, standards preached by dealers who also seem to me to never question the conventions they so arbitrarily preach as gospel.

Anyway, with the Ulysses priced I offered it for sale. But there was no response. After a few increasingly anxious calls over a couple of years my client finally became quite concerned about the status of the book. “I'm going to die one of these days, David. What are we to do?”

He was truly upset. His estate was already complicated and he didn't want to die with a valuable book like that unresolved. I told him I could try to wholesale it, to which he agreed, giving me a free hand to deal it any way I saw fit.

So I called several of the most pre-eminent dealers in Modern Firsts in North America , including the dealer who had sold it to him all those years ago. I explained the situation without mentioning what I hoped to sell it for – which was between $25,000.00 and $35,000.00 – wanting to feel out the situation with any interested dealer before I got down to hard negotiations.

The response was stunning. Every single dealer denigrated the book because of the missing title page. Not one was interested in discussing a possible purchase. From every one I heard only contempt and the suggestion that I would be lucky to get $4,000.00 or $5,000.00 at best. Even the dealer who had sold it for $4,000.00 all those years ago, while offering the highest estimate I got (“you'll be lucky if you get $7,000.00 or $7,500.00 – you won't get $10,000.00”) was clearly not interested in negotiating a purchase.

They had all known I had it, of course, and even knew the asking price – part of their eminence demands that they know where copies of all the important 20 th century books are held, who has them. In their conversations none of them bothered to mask their opinion that my $65,000.00 asking price was ludicrous.

When I finally gave up I was depressed and, in fact, dejected. For what I was experiencing from what I considered the best of my peers, was ignorance. Certainty their responses demonstrated only blind adherence to recent custom. It seemed a stunning demonstration of the lack of imagination, which I have come to believe is man's worst sin.

This is completely alien to the whole concept of what I think collecting should be. Collecting is a process of applied imagination; the imposition of a sophisticated intelligence to impose the order of a system on the chaos of knowledge, entering in a coherent and patterned intellectual resource, which in turn will result in a significant collection affording hitherto unrecognized areas for research and, of course, for personal enjoyment.

I have never looked at any of these dealers in the same manner since that incredible display of blind dismissal. And in truth, I have never looked at the field of Modern First editions since without the healthy skepticism which we should bring to bear on any human activity, or so-called received wisdom.

I went back to my client. “Nobody wants it,” I told him. “Nobody even wants to discuss it. They denigrated it and they implied that you and I are fools, or worse.”

He was devastated too.

“Well, what are we to do?” he queried sadly, his illusions about books and the collecting of them obviously shattered.

Well, I had thought it through before I had called him, aided by all the insights I had absorbed through my conversations with Stillman Drake.

“I believe in that book,” I said, “And I'm going to buy it from you. But we need to do two things, three actually, and in fact, it's you who has to do them, not me.”

“Okay,” he said, “tell me.”

“First, you have to tell me what you want me to pay you for it and you must do it in writing. I can't have some fool, or some lawyer, coming to me after you're gone, accusing me of taking advantage of a ninety-five year old. I've got enough enemies without supplying them more ammunition myself. And the second thing is, you have to allow me a couple of years or more to pay it off. I don't have the kind of money which will allow me to pay you more than a thousand a month, and even that's going to be very painful.”

“Okay. I agree,” he said. “Now what's the third thing I have to do?”

“You have to promise not to die before I've paid you off.”

“Agreed!” he said, sticking out his hand.

He called me a few days later, as we had agreed, after he had been able to think about what to ask for it. I had, of course, offered him another option, which was to put it up for auction, but by now our disillusionment at the so-called professional attitudes of my colleagues had left us with little grounds for optimism about what might occur at an auction in New York or London .

“David, you've been a good and loyal friend. I will be happy if you would pay me $13,000.00 for the book.” That triples what I paid for it and anyway I know you're sticking out your neck too. But mostly, I simply don't care anymore, I just want it settled.”

I agreed, wrote up a bill of sale, which we both signed and I paid him the first $1,000.00.

So I was paying $1,000.00 a month for a book which had been pronounced near worthless by the cream of the Modern Firsts dealers of North America , paying in fact around three times what those dealers had told me I could expect to sell it for. It was painful too. A thousand a month turned out to be quite a blow to my cash flow, far worse than I would have expected. But I managed to get it together every month and thirteen months later the book was mine.

Six months after that my old friend died and I was left – after helping his granddaughter and his executor dispose of the remainder of his library, placing more books and several batches of his papers in appropriate depositories – with a book which had crippled my finances for over a year and which most of the book trade believed was over-priced and undesirable.

In spite of that I felt good. I had refused to desert a needy friend and client but, more important in my mind, I had defied the conventional wisdom of my profession and acted according to what I believed sensible. I had refused to conform with ideas I thought stupid, a principle I have tried to sustain since my teenage years and which more than a few times has cost me considerably.

But, as is sometimes the case, what could have been another costly disaster worked out in the end and I was vindicated – at least to myself.

A few months after my client's death I received an order from another prominent American firm – one who I had not approached with my wholesaling plan – who ordered the book at the full price less ten percent. I was vindicated! Not just in my assessment of value, but in my stubbornness.

I recently learned, through a private source, that this firm sold the Ulysses for $175,000.00 US, although I couldn't ascertain if they had supplied the missing title page, either from another copy or by a facsimile. Either way they, and I, were vindicated in our assessments. And so was the book.

Recently, while pondering these things, I happened to dip into Percy Muir's two pioneering bibliographic studies Points 1874-1930; being extracts from a bibliographer's note-book (London: Constable & Co., 1931) and Points Second Series 1866-1934 (London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1934). Two very obvious points emerge germane to this discussion. The first, that in a section between the author checklists Muir makes pretty much the same point I have stressed both here, and to my clients for years, that much of collecting seems to be based on a herd mentality which for me seems to contradict what I had always assumed an axiom relating to book collectors: that they were thoughtful, intellectually independent people, who followed their own paths with little regard for convention. After all, collectors almost all operate in a vacuum; their friends consider them silly for paying real money for a copy of a book that would suit them fine in paperback (I only care about content says the pedant, unaware that he is embracing ignorance and that vulgar homogenization which has given us such abominations as Muzak and huge bookstores lacking all character).

I have spent years preaching to my clients that they should learn the rules then defy them. I have done this myself in buying art in the last few years and it works there as well. I buy pictures I like, not ones by famous names – which, not coincidently, I can't afford anyway. But the truth is, even if I were very wealthy, I wouldn't probably buy much of the Group of Seven (except Lawren Harris). I would follow my inclinations, not monetary considerations. The truth is I'd rather have a Jean Paul Lemieux than any of the Group of Seven but even he is out of my range. But the current young Canadian artists aren't so I do what I tell my new book clients to do. I buy what I like. Paying $500.00 or $1,000.00 for a picture by a young unknown is a bit dangerous – what if you're wrong?

Well, wrong about what, I would ask? If you buy a bad picture – or a questionable book – that you like, the most you can lose is your bad taste. For paying money for things, as everyone who does so seriously will tell you, educates you; it teaches quickly. And if the education may be a bit painful financially, eventually, aside from embarrassment at your mistakes, you will gradually become more sophisticated.

But we now approach my real thesis; responsibility. Who is responsible for the direction – detour maybe – which seems so apparent to me in modern collecting, whereby intelligent assessment seems to have been buried under a morass of questionable axioms? Unproven axioms, unquestioned it seems by precisely those people who ought to be the skeptics; the serious collector, and the dealers.

But I don't wish to imply with all this that the collecting of Modern Firsts is either silly or pointless. I only want to point out that while intelligence and common sense needs to be applied to all collecting, the field of Modern Firsts perhaps needs even more common sense these days.

So enormous have been the changes in recent collecting – caused by many factors, but primarily the Internet – that constant observation and adjustment are now essential.

Perhaps I can illustrate with an early mistake of my own which the advent of the Internet has made glaringly obvious.

When I began my apprenticeship my boss one day showed me a room in his basement filled with packages of books wrapped in brown paper in groups of three. “These,” he explained, “are books I bought as they were remaindered and very cheap. In ten or fifteen years with them being long out of print, I may catalogue a book I bought for 35¢ or 50¢ for $15.00, which will, if they are desirable books, be ordered several times when I offer them.”

The beauty of this, aside from a profit ratio of several hundred percent, is that usually in a catalogue one can offer only a single copy of a book. The first order exhausts the supply and while dealers always record back-orders for the future it's not so easy to obtain needed copies and even when you do there is a fair bit of paper work involved in quoting and invoicing. Worse, in the intervening two or five years, the book quoted may no longer be wanted. To have a supply of duplicates on hand can be a serious advantage.

In the heyday of Canadian Literature when institutions were building their modern collections a friend of mine once boasted that he had sold 125% of one of his catalogues because of the number of duplicates he had. (For anyone interested, from the 60-80% that would sell in a good catalogue when I started, the average now seems to hover around 10 to 20% or less, although with the way dealers lie about all their catalogue sales it's not easy to ascertain this.)

So, my boss explained these books had become the bread and butter sales in his business, guaranteed sales with a high secure profit which never failed. It often paid all the expenses of printing and distributing and/or justified the more desirable books bought with tiny profit margins. And, of course, the only real criteria for success in this area is a knowledge of what a good book is, not the flash-in-the-pan bestseller or latest flavour-of-the-month, but the good work which will always be of interest.

I thought this was a brilliant idea and immediately began doing that myself. I bought literary titles, first editions of the best of the current writers as they got remaindered and I now have a very large stock of multiple copies of these books in my warehouse. But I didn't count on two things. The first is that while thirty years can be a fair bit of time in a subject area, in literature it's not long at all. How is a thirty year old going to know that thirty years, in the grand scheme of things, isn't a long time?

There were, and are, clues, of course, but one needs that thirty years of perspective to begin to see this. There's a famous story of the Princeton librarian who turned down Scott Fitzgerald's papers offered for $2,500.00, stating “Why would we be interested in the papers of some obscure Midwestern hack just because he was lucky enough to attend Princeton .” Today the first edition in a fine dust jacket of The Great Gatsby realizes $125,000.

When Jack Kerouac died he got a paragraph or two on the back page of some newspapers (“Beatnik writer, once popular, dies forgotten and friendless in Florida ”). Ask how much On the Road or a Kerouac original letter will cost you today.

And one of my great favorites, Lawrence Durrell, whose Alexandria Quartet changed my and many of my generation of readers' view of literature and life. When he died he got two paragraphs deep inside the New York Times, “Travel Writer Dies,” said the headline and then mentioned Durrell's books on Greece , passing over the Quartet as “a now unreadable novel.”

So reputations suffer, often while the writer is still around and almost certainly after they have died. I hadn't known that at the time, but then again how could I have?

But the main problem didn't even exist then. The Internet. What the Internet has done in a relatively short period is to render all these books so assiduously purchased and carefully stored for 25-40 years, completely unsalable.

Any one of these books looked up on the Internet will result in some 150 copies appearing priced from $50 or $75 down to $5 or $10. Even with so much to choose from, it is unlikely that I will sell my “as new” copy unless I choose to price it at the $5 or $10 that Sadie Amateur has done with the copy she bought at the Church sale, which may or may not actually be a first edition or in the condition she describes.

All my carefully chosen titles are essentially unsalable and furthermore it doesn't take very long studying the facts to conclude that not only are my titles worthless but I shouldn't even be buying books from that period at any price. The thirty years is not enough time elapsed, it will take a hundred years or so and I am left with many thousands of books for which I will be lucky to get back what I paid.

Another point that seems to be overlooked by everybody, or at least I have never heard anyone mention it, is what will be the result of the practice, now twenty to thirty years old, of dealers supplying a protective plastic covering for literally every first edition they acquire. What will the instant and widespread use of these effective protectors do to the value of these first editions fifty or a hundred years from now?

As everyone knows who has experience of the collecting and trading of modern literature, the lack of such protectors on books published pre-1970 or so, meant that important books – precisely because they were important – are difficult to find in stunning condition. The dust jackets were discarded, or worn, stained, and torn by constant readings. Consequently, very fine copies demand – and get – very high prices. But no one seems to have caught on that for the next generation of booksellers and collectors there will only be very fine copies in perfectly preserved dust jackets. Except, of course, for those books which our arrogant assumption of our innate superiority causes us to ignore.

There exists a whole industry which restores dust jackets with missing pieces replaced – invisibly – with the scenes and lettering on titles restored. So good is the work that it sometimes needs an explanation to notice that half of a dust jacket might be fake. Many years ago I was once told that the best practitioner of this restoration process charged $400.00 per jacket, not a large amount when one measures how much more dealers ask for the dust jacket. Although, I'm sure it costs a fair bit more now.

Nobody seems to comment on the fact that such replacement of a considerable part of the dust jacket by no means can substitute for the complete perfect original.

In fact one can't help wondering why my colleagues, openly judgmental about what a missing title page does to value, apparently cannot see any parallel with the dust jacket on their book, which is half-fake. If half a dust jacket on their book still merits an extra $10,000.00 where is the logic of completeness?

And with everything apparently being learned on the Internet these days and every new book treated like a treasure, where does scarcity go? A young dealer said to me one day, of a book published in the late 1990s. “That's a rare book you know, there were only 10,000 copies done of the first edition.” I replied that a printing of 10,000 copies does not make it rare, nor even scarce.

He stared at me blankly. I continued, explaining that in the 19 th century a thousand copies of an edition was almost standard. Thomas Hardy's first editions, for instance, were sometimes only 500 copies, and there are lots of examples of lesser authors (meaning less popular at the time) whose first editions might be two or three hundred copies. With labour so much cheaper then, publishers could reset and reprint if sales demanded. Such numbers often meant they were testing their market. Many of the 19 th century books didn't necessitate more, and sadly were often never reprinted. But these books are still obtainable. With some exceptions, 19 th century fiction in first edition will be obtainable to a serious collector from two or three times a year to perhaps two or three times a decade. There are exceptions, of course, books which the collector ignores at his peril. If they don't buy it, thinking the price ludicrous, they risk never getting another chance.

So, to categorize a book issued in 10,000 copies ten years ago as rare, is to demonstrate a lack of depth that is unfortunately not especially uncommon.

Ever since the Second World War, over-enthusiastic dealers have attributed the scarcity of many English books to German bombing raids during the Blitz. If half the books in publisher's warehouses that I have seen described as destroyed, actually had been, London would surely have disappeared. The truth is that the majority of copies of any recent edition, will be found where most recent books will be found, on the shelves of ordinary people who are simply readers who bought it, read it, and consigned it to their shelves and forgot about it.

Until these people, if they are relatively youthful, have died off (the biggest cause of books appearing in the market) these books might be considered scarce, even rare, but this is an illusion which time will make apparent, an illusion that the Internet is already dispelling.

All these factors should be apparent to anyone who looks with an open mind, but I do not hear them being discussed amongst my colleagues, or my clients.

The world of Modern Firsts is in the doldrums these days. I'm sure I'm not the only dealer who only buys for stock the really important Modern Firsts or the ones I know to be rare, or the work of authors I personally love.

But all that said, when I get a catalogue which contains a copy of a book I lust after for myself, I still pick up the phone.

This personal response, in the face of everything I've stated here, gives me comfort and the confidence to believe that the collecting of Modern Firsts will never die. But it has changed and will continue to change, and only those who apply their imagination and intelligence will be in a position to properly deal with these changes.



-David Mason

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