Friday, September 18, 2009

Tarzan Goes to War

Browsing in bookstores can be an enjoyable way to pass the time (though one risks ending up with a permanent crick in the neck from turning one’s head to read the titles on the spines). But never forget that looking at a book and handling a book are two very different sensory experiences. Even the simple act of picking up a book can reveal something about the story it has to tell.

This week’s book is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic adventure novel Tarzan of the Apes, in its first American edition. The story first appeared in the October 1912 issue of the pulp All-Story Magazine and was published in book form by A. C. McClurg & Co. in Great Britain in June 1914. Later, the New York firm of Grosset & Dunlap -- which did not actually publish its own first editions until the 1960s -- released the first American edition. I suspect that my copy of this edition, wherever it falls in the lengthy sequence of issues of this incredibly popular book, appeared considerably later than McClurg’s first edition (perhaps as much as three years later) for reasons I will explain below.

The title page of this copy includes a black-and-white illustration of Tarzan riding a lion and carrying a spear in one hand. The illustrated dust-jacket, which includes the publisher’s advertisement of nine forthcoming titles (including another Tarzan novel), is missing and seems to be (judging from dealers’ descriptions online) very rare.

The book is bound in firm red cardboards with ornate black lettering. The paper is a fairly flimsy stock that has faded with age; it was printed in duodecimo and the pagination runs [i]-vi, 1-314. The pages measure 13.5cm x 19.5cm. A slightly heavier and less faded paper was used for the flyleaves. It was clearly machine-pressed quickly and cheaply, in large bulk quantities. In some places in this copy, the binding has split slightly and one page has a slight tear in the lower edge. There are the usual marks of wear, including bumping and chipping to the covers. Otherwise, the copy is in good condition. The only reader's marks are a series of gray pencil underlinings of some words in Chapter II; the words are mostly long or complex ones, suggesting that the markings were a guide to troublesome vocabulary (at least one, however, points out a misspelling -- the word "indiffrent" on page 15).

Burroughs’s novel, relating the trials and perils of the orphaned John Clayton Lord Greystoke as he is raised in the wilds of Africa by apes (his name, “Tarzan”, means “White Skin” in the language of the apes), needs little explanation. It was so remarkably popular that over the thirty years following its publication Burroughs wrote 24 sequels. Since 1918, when it was first adapted as a silent film, the story and its spin-offs have also been much-loved fodder for Hollywood (Tarzan figures in the titles of 116 films).

Certainly the publisher of this first edition had a prophetic understanding of just how popular the book would be: in the lower margin of the final page of text (just after the end of the story, which it is connected by an asterisk, and the ultimately “The End”) there appears a brief advertising note.

The further adventures of Tarzan, and what came of his noble act of self-renunciation, will be told in the next book of Tarzan.

To return to my initial statement, however, I was most struck by the weight of this book when I picked it up. The volume is a svelte 1.25 pounds; a comparable modern book of 13.5cm x 19.5cm and approximately 300 pages weighs in at a more tubby 2.25 pounds.

The sylphlike quality of this book, which strikes me as a testament to the graceful and efficient use of materials in the manufacture of the book, also stands as evidence to a more grim and unhappy fact: the volume was printed sometime after the United States had entered the brutal conflict of the First World War and after the federal government imposed strict rationing on materiel with a potential military application (such as paper). On the title page, Grosset & Dunlap have inserted an assurance to the reader:

This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials, is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.

It’s a testament to the printers employed by the firm that they were able to ensure that the book’s content would not be physically reduced in the process of reducing the book’s material cost. To comply with the restrictions, the printer used a paper size that was smaller than the original first edition and of a lighter stock (hence the flimsiness), but they also used hollowed cardboard covers for the hardcover binding. Combined, these two efficiency measures shaved 1 pound's worth of unneeded weight from the volume's heft.

The United States did not enter the War until after April 1917 (the hostilities in Europe began in June 1914, the same exact month McClurg first published the book in England). Because this is clearly a war-time publication of Tarzan of the Apes, I presume, therefore, that it appeared much later than the date printed in the colophon of the copyright page. All you have to do is pick the book up in your hands to realize this.

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