Sunday, October 11, 2009

Beautiful. But Worthless.

A professor of mine who specializes in the history of the book once mentioned an important tip for book collecting: if a book is sold by its publisher as a “collectible”, it usually isn’t. Sure, these volumes may be beautifully executed, gorgeous folios with craft paper, rich cloth bindings, and exquisite accompanying illustrated plates... but they’re not really worth anything as collector’s items.

This week’s book falls into this category. This is an edition of the classic Old English epic Beowulf, translated into verse by University of Wisconsin poet and literary scholar William Ellery Leonard (1876-1944) and illustrated with sixteen lithographic blue and brown ink by Lynd Ward (1905-1985), on whom I’ve written previously. Leonard’s text of the poem had been previously published in a neat little octavo by Century Company of New York in 1923. My copy was published by the Heritage Press in 1939; for the edition, John Fass took charge of designing the text and layout.

While there are some dealers selling Heritage Press books for high prices online, don’t be fooled by their over-zealous estimations (even if the book still has its dust-jacket and slipcase box). As Craig Stark points out in his excellent primer on buying and selling books from the Heritage Press, the series was purposefully designed by its founder, George Macy, to manufacture high quality editions in such high numbers to make them affordable to anyone. The result, of course, is that they are essentially worthless (monetarily speaking) on the market.

My copy does not have the jacket or slipcase, but it is in excellent condition, with no markings inside or out (many boxed books suffer from a faded “back strip” where the exposed part of the spine discolors from light; mine does not have such a strip, suggesting it lost its box early in its life); it is worth probably $10-$15.

The binding is a rough binder’s linen cloth of off-white speckled with brown flecks over heavy boards. A rich blue foil label with a stamped gilded title is on the front board and spine. The pages measure 19cm x 26.5cm and are of a heavy rag stock from the Collins Paper Company; there are no watermarks. The pagination runs [i]-ix from the title to the end of Leonard’s introductory note (a half-title, with an illustration on the verso, precedes the title page) and 1-120 in the text of the poem itself. The type is a 12-point Garamond cut by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1917.

The epic is broken into forty-three sections, each of which begins with Leonard’s commentary notes (which had appeared as “jolly and encouraging” [to use the publisher’s terms] annotations in his 1923 edition) and ends with a black and white illustration by Ward. At the end there is a fragment from the lost ballad “The Fight at Finnsburg”. The verse lines are set with a gap in the middle of each line, typographically marking the caesura in the meter of each line. Ostensibly this was done to make it easier to read aloud (in his introduction, Leonard, who takes the poem’s music as the heart of the epic, suggests that readers chant the work out loud).

In the back of my book, the original owner has inserted a copy of “Sandglass” (Number 5K), the monthly newsletter publication of the Heritage Club. This issue relates to the Beowulf edition and offers a summary of the poem’s highlights, bibliographic notes, biographies of Leonard and Ward, and some intriguing notes on the book’s printing.

For example, on the selection of Mergenthaler Garamond for the font: “[T]he type has a smooth quality of French elegance; and when printed in a mass, the type has a rich black color which is necessary in order that it may properly harmonize with the drawings made by Lynd Ward.”

About Ward’s art, the newsletter states: “We believe that he has admirably caught the fine masculine sweep of the figures of Beowulf and his fellows, he has poured into the backgrounds of the pictures the frighteningly icy weather in which Beowulf and his fellows disported themselves; he has caught some of the antique charm of the poem and all of the rich narrative power.”

1 comment:

  1. I own this book as a result of inheriting my mother's collection of books. I'm sorry to see it's not worth much, simply because the linen covers and beautiful label(s), not to mention the fine font and printing are that of a very fine book. I do have the slipcover, which has been well kept and also the Sandglass insertion.
    Thank you for bringing me up to speed on the monetary value. I will keep it, as $15 is not enough to make me want to part with it. Thanks for your information! Very dramatic presentation of the work, don't you think?
    Jeaneene Nooney