Saturday, July 11, 2009

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition?

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened. 
(T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”)

I’ve been reading Nicholas Basbanes’s collection of anecdotes, biographies, and stories from book-collecting history A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), and this week’s book was chosen to highlight one of Basbanes’s main points: the often bizarre and sometimes personal idiosyncrasies of book collectors can translate into extremely particular metrics for value. Sometimes these metrics are useful (the collection of first editions of books later revised by their authors, for example, provides a useful tool for scholars to study the creative process of these writers) and sometimes these metrics are actually damaging (such as the mindless mania for “perfect” copies that resulted in “preservationists” of the nineteenth and early twentieth century literally bleaching the margins of old books to “clean” the pages of early readers’ marginalia). In this case, the idiosyncrasy in question is that of issues.

Most successful books printed in the modern era (an era that for bibliographers begins in 1850, with the introduction of the machine press) are actually issued in several different printings over the course of a single “edition”. If copies sell well, the publisher may decide that the print run should be extended to meet the unanticipated demand. Most die-hard collectors of first editions that appeared in this kind of multiple-issue printing process are only really interested in the first issue of the first edition (the "first state", “first first”, or “true first” as it’s called). This predilection can do incredibly inequitable things to the assessed value of a book and many nascent collectors fall into the trap of buying a “first edition” at what seems like a fantastically low price only to find that it’s not a “true first” (a pitfall all too easy to stumble into when buying in an environment in which there is limited information or access to the copy...such as eBay). Always research in advance the “points” (that is, specific identifiable features of the printing) of a true first and compare them rigorously to the copy you are considering purchasing before you make an offer or pay.

One of the easiest points to find in a modern book is the printer’s code -- the sequence of numbers, and sometimes letters, that appears near the publisher’s imprint (on the verso of most title pages), used by the printer to identify the print run to which the copy belongs. This week’s book is a good example of the difference a printer’s code can make in the value of a book.

This is a first edition of the landmark collection of four poems Four Quartets by the enormously influential (and conservative) Nobel-winning dramatist, literary critic, and poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965; shown here in one of his rare cheerful humors), published by Harcourt, Brace and Company of 383 Madison Avenue, New York, in 1943. The four poems, which explore(mostly Christian) theological and philosophical themes and which Eliot wrote over the course of six years between 1936 and 1942 , are “Burnt Norton” (first published as the final poem in Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909-1935), “East Coker” (first published in America in 1940 in The Partisan Review), “The Dry Salvages” (also first published in The Partisan Review in 1941), and “Little Gidding” (making its first appearance in print in this book). The book sold for $2.00 in 1943 (the equivalent of approximately $24 today). 

My copy has no marginalia (usually something in its favor in terms of collector's value... depending on the collector), though it does have an elaborate bookplate on the recto of the blank flyleaf: a man holding a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a book in the other, stands in profile, with a city in the background and stars above; beneath the picture is the name “Barbara Grigsby Brady”.

The pages measure 14cm x 21cm and are bound in a simple black cloth with gilt lettering on the spine; the dust-jacket has a simple three-toned design on the front and advertisements for other Eliot books on the back (the front flap summarizes the book’s contents, the back flap is blank). The collation may be expressed as 8o: [#] [A8-C8] [π]. None of the pages are signed; the initial leaf and final are flies conjugate with the paste-downs on the inside of the front and back covers. Pagination begins with the “Burnt Norton” interior title page [A5r] and runs [1]-39, ending on the final page of “Little Gidding” [C8r]. The contents include a half-title [A1r] with a list of other works by Eliot [A1v], the title page [A2r] and imprint [A2v], the dedication to John Hayward [A3r], a table of contents [A4r], and the poems (their pagination, including their individual interior title pages: “Burnt Norton” runs from pp. 1-8 [A5r-A8v]; “East Coker” from pp. 9-17 [B1r-B5r], “The Dry Salvages” from pp. 19-28 [B6r-C2v], and “Little Gidding” from pp. 29-39 [C3r-C8r]). The book is in good condition, with very minimum moisture damage and foxing; the dust-jacket is also good, with only minor chipping and creases.

Though I normally try to avoid directing my readers to Wikipedia, the entry for Four Quartets is actually quite good at summarizing the poems and their history; it is also, importantly, thoroughly documented with citations and references. Rather than be redundant, I will simply suggest glancing at that page for more information on the poems themselves.

But back to the reason I chose this book this week. My copy has almost all the aspects (good condition, original dust-jacket, no markings in the text) that would make it worth well over $4,000. That is, if it were a true first...of which Harcourt only printed 788 copies and which are labelled on the copyright page as “first American edition”. But even if it were a second printing of the first edition, identifiable as such because it would lack a printer’s code entirely, it would be worth over $600. My copy, however, does have a code: [d.7.43]. I’m not entirely certain where this falls in the print run of the first edition; one dealer claims that this code indicates the third printing of the first edition, but there is another code on some copies that would seem to precede this: [c.6.43]. In either case, because my copy is not a true first it is worth only $30-$80; in other words, though it is still considered a first edition, my copy is worth only about 1% of a true first. 

Nonetheless, considering that this is another one of those books that I rescued from our local transfer station’s free book shed, and because I’m not one of those compulsive collectors who will only own a book if it’s a true first, I’m perfectly happy with my copy of Eliot’s Four Quartets -- both as an investment and, perhaps more importantly, as a good copy of an essential book in the history of English poetry.

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