Book Collecting

“Hey, it hardly matters how I got started on this project. Man starts collecting stamps, pasting them in a book, lives in an attic on peanut-butter sandwiches, puts every dime he can into his stamp collection, are you gonna ask him what got him started collecting in the first place? He’s a stamp collector. It’s what he does.”

Lawrence Bloch. A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN.

       In April 2001, a Greek court sentenced fourteen British and Dutch men and women to prison terms from three years to six years on charges of espionage, after a policeman at an Athens air show noted them taking down the identification numbers of Greek Air Force planes and diagramming flight manoeuvres. The year before, Tom Hart-Dyke was held for nine months by Colombia guerrillas who found him prowling their rain forest. And in Reno, Nevada, Robert Bailey was jailed for twelve years in 2002 after barricading himself in a comic book store and threatening to set off a homemade bomb.

None of these people were spies or criminals. They were members of that particularly brazen breed of modern adventurers, the collectors. Hart-Dyke’s passion is rare orchids. Once the guerillas released him, he headed straight for another of the world’s most inhospitable areas, the jungles of Papua/New Guinea. Bailey was a comic-book fancier whose $100,000 collection was stolen in 2000. He accused a local store of selling some of the stolen comic books. "He's not a predator on society," his lawyer explained. "He's a man who went mad, who spent his whole life collecting comic books and they were taken away from him."

The Athens Fourteen were plane spotters, part of the fraternity that travels the world for the pleasure of standing at the windy margins of airports, taking down the registration numbers of the planes that roar overhead. This successor to train spotting is now a world-wide hobby. The Renaissance Hotel at London’s Heathrow offers a "Plane Spotter Break" weekend special, which guarantees an unobstructed runway view. In 2001, it booked more than 350 rooms at $135 per night. The sales pitch: "The only thing we overlook is the airport."

My own collecting obsession goes back to the early fifties when, as a twitchy and socially inept eleven-year-old, I forked over three shillings and sixpence in Australian currency in the newspaper shop of the small country town of Junee for  The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke.

Today, I live in Paris, and need a separate double garage to house my  ten thousand books, mostly first editions, many of them unique. From my desk, I can see  first editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring,  and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the latter containing a letter from Burgess explaining a fine point of the Russian-based slang nadsat  he invented for it. 

A first edition of James Agee’s Depression epic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, illustrated with bleak photographs of sharecropper families by Walker Evans, contains, as well as Agee’s spidery and extremely rare signature, a pencilled draft of a letter  begging his landlord for a few more weeks to pay his rent.

Like poverty, poor penmanship seems to go with literary ability. A biography of Edgar Allan Poe is scrawled with spidery marginalia by Graham Greene, who’d been sent it to review. On a business card tucked into the first edition of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett informs an admirer in an almost illegible scribble, “I regret I have nothing to say about anything.” 

Anyone studying a collection can read its owner’s evolving personality as unerringly as a dendrologist can follow a tree’s growth from its  rings. When Spike Jonze made the film Adaptation, set in the world of orchid collecting, British critic Philip French described its real-life inspiration,  John Laroche, as “an eccentric, low-life autodidact…who has gone from one obsession to another, the latest being orchids.”

Laroche’s fan website, epitaph to one of his former enthusiasms, is called simply “Done With Fish”. Mine could read “Done With SF” or “Done With Film”, since one set of shelves holds the remnants of a broad collection of reference books on the cinema, while another, equally the relic of an earlier obsession, is filled with science fiction.  First editions of Wells’s The Invisible Man and The War in the Air share shelf space with the sky-blue art deco cover of Huxley’s Brave New World, the more sober brown cloth of Richard Jeffries’ Wild England, or After London,  and  the flimsy paper-bound booklet that is the first printing of Robert Louis Stevenson’s  The Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 Inscribed books by Ursula LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Arthur Clarke, James Blish, A.E. Van Vogt and Robert Bloch recall  meetings – some pleasant, a few otherwise - in Italy, California, Britain, Australia. Ray Bradbury’s scrawled dedications appear in many of my books, including his first  (“this rare copy of  Dark Carnival”) and a pristine copy of Fahrenheit 451, with its firehouse-red cover of a burning man, drawn  by Joe Mugnaini.   And In a first edition of  Crash, a letter from J.G. Ballard asks his Danish translator to send him some “motor car pornography”, explaining “this is very important to me.”  He goes on, “What I need is not so much the kinky material as straightforward ‘middle-aged business man makes his sexy Nordic secretary in the back seat of the Mercedes’, ‘young couple can’t get a hotel room on their honeymoon night’ etc.”

In part because I now live in the building where Sylvia Beach and her lover Adrienne Monnier shared an apartment before and during World War II when they ran the twin bookshops of Shakespeare and Company and Le Maison des Amis des Livres, I mainly collect books by those expatriate Americans who, in varying degrees of penury, wrote and published  in Paris  during what the French call les annees folles – the crazy years - between 1918 and 1939. By rights, Paris should be the place to look for such books, but ironically, since most were often erotic or experimental in content,  produced in minuscule quantities, and aimed at wealthy foreign collectors, the bulk have settled in either England or the United States.

I've long since given up trying to explain or understand my collecting. It’s enough that it brings me into contact with those writers of the present that I like, and keeps me connected with those of the past I admire. The French, who understand obsession, don’t have a word for hobby. The closest is the phrase violon d’Ingres – Ingres’s violin. (The painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was an accomplished violinist and composer, as proud of his music as of his art.)  

Every visit to a collector's house must  include , as the price of the meal, a display of recently acquired treasures. So I make no apologies for detailing the following, the latest additions to my collection. Enjoy! Or, if you can't enjoy, endure.


(GOREY, Edward) JAMES, Henry. WHAT MAISIE KNEW. Doubleday, New York, 1954. One of the finest of Edward Gorey's covers. As Karen Wilkin noted in the New York Times, " the little girl depicted thereon is certainly one of the earliest, if not the very first, of his signature hapless children."  Asked by Dick Cavett during a TV interview what he thought of James, for whose Doubleday Anchor reissues he designed a number of covers, Gorey said "I loathe every word he wrote". "Yes," said Cavett judiciously. "I share your ambivalence."  Found in a pile of paperbacks in a Paris shop. 1 Euro.

HUART, Louis. PHYSIOLOGIE DU FLANEUR. Albert et Compagnie, Paris, 1841. Illustrated by Alophe, Daumier and Maurisset.
A curious little book about a pastime that has no Anglo-Saxon equivalent. The flaneur  was a fashionable loafer who found pleasure in wandering the streets, hanging out in cafes, chatting up women etc. He was a product of the re-building of Paris in the mid-19th century by Baron Haussmann, during which streets were cleaned up, sidewalks widened, and the city in general made more agreeable for pedestrians. Tiny and fragile, it's astonishing to find a copy surviving, even in this battered condition. Found in a French country book fair. 5 Euros.

Compliments card for the Hotel Restaurant "Le Parc", St. Jean Cap Ferrat., no date but 1920s. Something clicked when this card fell out of an old tourist guide and I saw the proprietor's name. "Captain" Powell was the father of film director Michael Powell, and this was the hotel where he grew up. Wandering into the nearby Victorine Studios, where the American director Rex Ingram had started an independent company, "Mickey"  got a job mopping up the dusty footprints that marred the glossy black floors of the set. After that, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and Peeping Tom were just a matter of time.

GALLANT, Mavis. PARIS STORIES. Edited and with an introduction by Michael Ondaatje. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 2002. Inscribed to me by the author.
Mavis Gallant is the doyenne of writers about Paris, with a dry and ironic view of the city that's particularly her own. Her eye is sharp, her aim unerring and unsparing. One discovery of this collection was the story Speck's Idea, about a shifty art dealer's attempts to resuscitate the reputation of a forgotten painter. The artist's widow asks if he's married. "Stepping carefully, for he did not wish to sound like a stage cuckold or a male fool, Speck described in the lightest possible manner how Henriette had followed her lover, a teacher of literature, to a depressed part of French-speaking Africa where the inhabitants were suffering from a shortage of Racine." 

WHARTON, Edith. FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING. Appleton, New York, 1919.
Simply for its appearance, this is one of the prettiest books ever written about Paris, with its  embossed colour boards and gilt lettering. The text is a little harder to appreciate, expounding as it does Wharton's passionate admiration of all things French, and accusing Anglo-Saxons of "taste-blindness". Found in a heap of books on a Montmartre brocante for 1 Euro.