I went down to the Oregon Antiquarian Book Fair in September hoping to meet some book dealers who could answer two questions. One, what makes first editions so valuable? Two, are any of my old books worth any money?
Actually I had already been to the fair just to look around. Friends of mine had been touting it for months. It was going to be a big deal, they said--the first major show of rare books ever held in Oregon, with dealers from all over the United States, Canada and England.
They were right. I found more than a hundred exhibitors jammed into a cozy hall at the Lloyd Center Red Lion Inn. There were some genuinely rare antique books inside the glass cases, with five-figure prices to match. But from the sheer profusion of stuff it was clear that collectibility is in the eye of the beholder.
Consider what caught my own eye. An anthropological monograph by A.L. Kroeber, father of Ursula K. Le Guin. A sumptuous book of art by Ludwig Bemelmans, illustrator of the Madeline children's books. A 1950s photography book about North Africa, with text by Paul Bowles.
Meaningless to you, perhaps, wonderful to me. Why would anyone collect old appliance manuals? Or the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Or Tom Clancy's first techno-thriller? But they do. Clancy's first books have gone through the roof, in fact. There are entire international fan clubs devoted to L.Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books. I saw Oz books in at least ten different stalls.
Then I saw what I was really looking for: Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series.
I have to emphasize here that I do not collect. I've never given a damn about owning a first edition. I've always taken the view that books are for reading, not hoarding. Most of my 500 or so books are paperbacks, the best ones warped from being dropped in the bathtub or left out in the rain. Louisa May Alcott once wrote of hoping to arrive at the distinction of finding the covers of her books "the dirtiest in the library." I know what she means.
No, my secret wish was to discover that the few old books I do own were worth a lot of money. My Tarzan of the Apes, for example. It looked like a first edition to me. "Copyright A.C. McClurg & Co., 1914," it said. "Published June, 1914." I'd found it at a yard sale for fifty cents. I had three other promising books, too, every one of them an apparent first edition, and reasonably clean. One even had its dust jacket. And I hadn't paid more than a dollar for any of them. Maybe I could sell them and buy a house or something.
So I stuffed Tarzan and the others in a Meier & Frank bag and headed back to the fair. Later I found out that the security guards were supposed to stop all incoming books at the door. It was just dumb luck that no one accused me of stealing a book from one dealer and trying to sell it to another.
To my embarrassment, Tarzan of the Apes turned out to be a ringer. The first dealer I met lost interest the minute he picked it up. "Too light," he muttered. "Cheap paper." Then he looked at the binding, which said "Grosset & Dunlap" at the bottom. "That's a reprint house, you see. Cheap, mass-market reprints." He looked inside. "You see, it's copyrighted in Great Britain, but made in the United States. Dime a dozen."
Next up was Heart of the West, by O. Henry, a book I'd "borrowed" from a local tavern and never returned. (If it was worth anything, I figured I'd buy a round for the house.) Heart of the West had some heft, and a copyright date of 1907. "Nothing doing," said the dealer, turning to the next page. "It's published by Doubleday, Page & Company for Review of Reviews Co. 1912. Another reprint."
The next book I handed him, 1066 And All That, turned out to be a real first edition, published in 1931. 1066 is a lovely parody of English history books, "Comprising all the parts you can remember including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings and two genuine dates." I had bought it because I was torching for a guy who once mentioned in passing that he had enjoyed it as a child. So much for romance. The dealer had never had a call for 1066.
I was getting desperate. I pulled out my trump card, Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, a scholarly work about satanic exorcism in a 17th-century French convent. It had a copyright date of 1952. It had a sinister black-and-orange dust jacket. Ken Russell had made a wonderfully lurid movie of it called The Devils back in 1971. Surely Huxley cultists would clamor for my copy of The Devils of Loudun.
Wrong. "This is an American edition of an English book," said the bookman impatiently. "Furthermore, there's no price on the dust jacket. It's just a book-club book."
I stuffed the useless books back in their bag and wandered down the aisle again, wondering if I'd simply been talking to the wrong dealer. What the hell was so important about owning a first edition? I could see the prestige attached to owning a book I'd purchased before the author achieved critical acclaim, or something. I suppose it would suggest I had good taste. But what prestige is there in owning a first edition that has already changed hands six or eight times?
Simple, said the next book dealer I talked to. It's not just an author's reputation that drives up the price of first editions, it's scarcity. First editions usually are printed in small numbers, perhaps 5,000 copies or even less. If books are popular enough to warrant subsequent editions, they tend to be in larger printings. By the time a book is printed up for a book club, or sales overseas, it's no longer rare.
Having digested that elementary notion, I walked up to Brian Berger, a partner in the Webfoot Bookman, which was hosting the fair. I showed him my Aldous Huxley. He said it wasn't necessarily worthless just because it was an American edition. Nor was it necessarily a book-club book just because there was no price on the jacket. "Sometimes the book-club editions have a dot on the back of the book, at the bottom," he went on. "You know, I have one of these at home, but the binding is a different color."
Anyway, there was no dot. He said I would have to get an official Antiquarian Bookman bibliography of Huxley's works and all their "points of entry," whatever those are, before I could really assign a dollar value to my copy of The Devils of Loudun. He also agreed that 1066 And All That is a charming little book.
I may get around to looking up the value of The Devils of Loudun some day. It's kind of a dull book anyway, and I could use the money. As for 1066, I think I'll just go on reading it till it falls apart.