Sunday, January 31, 2010

Something for Nothing

During a recent trip to New Jersey to visit my brother and sister-in-law, I had the opportunity to visit some shops in the beautiful town of Princeton. “This is an Ivy League town,” my brother warned me, “so be prepared for massively inflated prices. They prey on people who have too much money and not enough sense.” Sure enough, one of the antique stores we went into seemed to have priced its eighteenth century books (mostly Americana) by simply tagging an extra “0” on to the actual dollar value of each book. But another, tiny bookstore located down in the basement of a storefront, was a different story. The range in the stock was rather narrow (perhaps a result of the small space), but the prices were reasonable. In fact, in terms of this week’s featured book, extremely reasonable.

This week’s book is a fragile, well-worn paperback of Edwin Booth’s Prompt-Book of Hamlet, as edited by the contentious Gloucester, MA-native author, poet, journalist, and drama critic William Mercutio Winter (1836-1917; shown here in 1916) (contentious because of his constant attacks on the realist movement within the modern theatre, a style that he saw as “rank, deadly pessimism... a disease, injurious alike to the stage and to the public”). As I’ve mentioned previously, these acting editions of modern productions of Shakespeare plays are useful for recuperating how previous generations have interpreted Shakespeare -- though they’re essentially useless as objects of textual study or for understanding their original early modern theatrical context.

Booth (1833-1893; an early photo of him in the role of Hamlet...sitting in the same kind of chair Winter posed in!) -- older brother of the more infamous actor John Wilkes Booth -- came from trans-Atlantic theatre royalty and was one of the most celebrated actors of the nineteenth century American stage; his performance in many leading Shakespearean roles helped crumble the British presumption that non-English actors could not grapple with the great playwright’s subtleties of language and nuances of character. In particular, his portrayal of Hamlet was lauded throughout his career, taking him to stages across the U.S. and U.K. -- according to most accounts, he played the role of the Danish prince more often than any previous actor on record. The relationship between Booth and Winter was professional (the latter wrote reviews of the former’s productions, but also penned a biographical article on him for Harper’s in June 1881 and, upon the actor’s death, published a book-length biography, The Life and Art of Edwin Booth for MacMillan and Company in 1893). More relevant for my purpose, however, was the series called The Prompt-Book, which Winter edited for the firms of Lee & Shepard (41 Franklin Street, Boston, and, at this time, still struggling to recover from bankruptcy following a calamitous fire in 1875 and the Panic of ‘73) and Charles T. Dillingham (678 Broadway, New York, formerly of Lee & Shepard). This series presented, in “uniform volumes”, performance texts of Booth’s most popular productions, including Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, and “Katharine and Petruchio” (Taming of the Shrew).

My copy is of the third edition of the Hamlet prompt-book; all three editions appeared in 1878, though -- unlike the previous two -- this one was published by the New York firm of Francis Hart & Company (63-65 Murray Street, better known as the publisher of Scribner’s Monthly). Subsequent editions followed from Penn Publishing (Philadelphia) in 1896 and 1909. Presumably Booth derived some kind of income from Winter’s editions; he certainly needed it, since in 1874 his custom-built theatre at 23rd Street and 6th Avenue was shuttered and his fortune essentially vanished with it (Booth recovered and continued playing to great success until his death; his last appearance in the role of the young prince Hamlet was in the age of 58). The copy is bound in paper covers with a cloth spine; the spine has faux stitching where it joins to the front and back covers, probably to imitate the look of the typical theatrical prompt-book of the day (the binding is actually held together with a series of metal staples). The front cover bears the title, along with a crest showing a raven on a branch; the back cover bears the Medusa-head logo of Francis Hart & Company. The pages are of a dull stock, though heavy enough to be written upon with ink and not show bleed-through; they measure 12cm x 17.25cm.

The text of the play itself only appears on the recto of pages -- a practice that essentially doubles the size (and hence paper and composition cost) of the book; the facing verso was perhaps left blank to allow space for amateur thespians to make their own notes for productions. The pagination starts on the title page and runs [1]-136. An unnumbered leaf before the title page is blank on the recto and bears a list of the other titles in the series on the verso; at the back there are three blanks (the pastedown on the back cover is coming up on my copy, making it seem as if there is a fourth blank leaf). The gatherings are in quires of eight, though I would hesitate to actually call the book an octavo. The condition of my copy is fairly poor; the interior state is acceptable, but the front cover is quite loose and most of the cloth spine is disintegrated. The only markings are some basic arithmetic, in a pencilled late nineteenth-century hand, on the verso of the second blank leaf at the back and a faint inked inscription on the recto of the first blank:

A. J. Hendrickson

From Ellis Archer

I’ve found a few matches to these names, but, regrettably, nothing with the two together and certainly nothing that absolutely confirms who these people might have been.

Besides the play itself, the edition includes a a number of epigraphic quotes about the play from various sources, a dramatis personae list and setting description, and a brief preface (pp. 3-5; dated “New-York, Feb. 7th, 1878) in which Winter explains some key points about the play (particularly the rich ambiguity surrounding Hamlet’s “madness”), about Booth’s cuts (he itemizes the major excisions and says a few things about why the passages were taken out -- usually being for purposes of clarity), and about the edition itself. At the back of the book, Winter includes an appendix of brief essays on the play for “theatrical students”. These include one by Winter on “The Character of Hamlet” (pp.127-8), another by him on “Facts about Hamlet”, mostly concerned with dating and its original theatrical context (pp. 128-30), a selection from Collier’s Shakespeare Library, Vol. I, providing an extract on “The Original Story of Hamlet” (pp. 130-2), a selection from Guizot on “The Madness of Hamlet” (p. 133), comments from Edward Dowden on the structure, “Incidents and Scheme of Hamlet” (pp. 133-4), two selections -- one from Coleridge and one from Ulrici -- on “The Key-Note of Hamlet” (that is, the most important qualities of his character; pp. 134-5), and finally another essay by Winter on “Time, Age and Persons of Hamlet (pp. 135-6; Winter notes that Hamlet is 30 years old -- which is debatable -- and at the time this book appeared Booth himself, still playing the role, was 45).

In terms of the text itself, one of the qualities for which Booth was celebrated was, unlike most contemporaneous performers, he largely stuck to the text of the play as it appeared in the early editions of the seventeenth century. This should be qualified, of course, by noting that he did so in comparison to his contemporaries -- many of whom made severe and grossly radical, unwarranted changes to the texts.

Booth’s text for Hamlet is not without its alterations: large portions are cut (about 1,000 lines by Winter’s count) for a number of reasons (“[they] might prove tedious in the representation.... [they] momentarily arrest the action of the piece....[they] are but the descriptive repetition of action that has already been shown...[they] do but amplify and reiterate ideas that have previously been made sufficiently clear for the practical purposes of the stage”). A few lines and passages have been shifted about or transposed and sometimes words have been slightly altered (“but never to the perversion of the meaning”, Winter somewhat idealistically observes). More subjectively, “[c]oarse phrases have been cast aside, or softened, wherever they occur” -- which sounds dangerously close to the infamous brutalizations of Dr. Bowdler and others. Perhaps the most substantive changes to the text appear, not surprisingly, in the way of stage directions -- this is, after all, a “prompt-book”. Booth’s directions are quite full and detailed, indicating precisely both the settings for the scenes and, down to their position on the stage, the movements and business of the characters. It would be quite a simple task for an enterprising director to re-create the Edwin Booth Hamlet from Winter’s edition of it (though one recurring direction, "Picture", appearing at the end of every act, might need to be puzzled out). If only one of the early seventeenth-century texts were so helpful in re-creating how Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet was staged!

To conclude this week’s post, I’d like to return to my trip to Princeton, to the underground bookstore where I acquired this piece of nineteenth-century American theatre history. The experience offered up one more reason I enjoy shopping in used book stores rather than new book stores. In new book stores, the price that is stamped on the book is the price that you have to pay -- even if you think it is an inaccurate reflection of the book’s value (which seems to be true more often than not). In used book stores, the price is almost always negotiable -- fine points such as the seller’s sense of the buyer’s interest in or commitment to the book, the seller’s compassion, the length of time it has been sitting on the seller’s shelf taking up space (one reason I like to return to some stores repeatedly) or, of course, the condition of the copy, can greatly shift the price because they do actually shift the book’s value (I’ve written previously on the three points that make up a used book’s value: importance, scarcity, and condition).

There was no price penciled inside the front of this copy of Booth’s Hamlet, so I presented it to the owner of the store and inquired as to what he thought was fair for it. He looked at it -- eyeing the extremely loose front cover and deteriorated spine -- looked at me and shrugged, “You can just take it. We can’t sell something in that condition.” I’m not sure who would absolutely demand that a copy of this obscure and somewhat unimportant book be in ideal condition, but for my own desires I recognized it as something that I wanted in the Bookcase -- despite its sadly drooping cover.

On the way out of the store -- as we walked past the antiques shop with the hyperbolic prices -- I thought of what my brother had originally warned me about shopping in Princeton. There's almost always a difference between the monetary value of a book and what it's worth -- in a non-cash sense. You don’t need lots of money to be a satisfied book-collector; all you need, really, is sense. Especially a sense of what is valuable to you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Special Election

To my regular readers (both of you): my regrets, but this week there will be no post as my time this Sunday has been swamped catching up with work.

To my Massachusetts readers: work or no work, come Tuesday there is ALWAYS time to get out and vote. And when you do, remember:


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Most Famous Book Auction Never to Be Held

Last week, for the first time, I obtained some books for my collection at a book auction. Up until now, I’ve always either bought my books retail or received them as generous gifts. Buying at auction -- even just attending an auction -- was quite a different experience: sometimes frustrating, sometimes heart-racing, always eye-opening. Before going, I picked up some practical tips (always sit in the back) as well as some buying tips (it’s easier to outbid a dealer than a collector, since the dealer will almost always drop out while the lot is still under retail value). Nearly 300 lots went in about two hours; I ended up with one lot of two books, but it was well worth it.

Rather than write about those books this week, however, the experience got me thinking about another, much more infamous book auction: the Fortsas Auction of 1840. The Fortsas Auction was famous because of the literal uniqueness of every item in its catalog; it was infamous because the event never took place. It is known to most book historians as The Fortsas Bibliohoax.

Here’s a succinct account of the story from the “Hoax Archive” at the Museum of Hoaxes:

Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, was a man with a singular passion. He collected books of which only one copy was known to exist [his fake silhouette is shown here]. If he ever discovered that one of the volumes in his library had a duplicate anywhere in the world, he would immediately dispose of it. So when he died on September 1, 1839 he possessed only fifty-two books, but each of them was absolutely unique.

His heir, not sharing the old man's passion for book collecting, arranged for an auction to sell off the library, and so a catalog of this small but highly unusual collection was mailed to bibliophiles throughout Europe [title page shown below]. The auction, the collectors were told, was to be held in the offices of Mâitre Mourlon, notary, 9 rue de l'Église, in Binche, Belgium on August 10, 1840.

When Europe's librarians and intellectuals received the catalog, they could scarcely believe their eyes. The books would have been valuable even if duplicate copies had existed, but the fact that each one was unique made them priceless. The catalog contained detailed descriptions of the books, as well as numerous comments. A typical comment read:

A manuscript note attributes this work to Pere Felix Grebard, private secretary to the noted Huet, bishop of Avranches. This Pere Grebard is likewise the author of a very rare tragedy, 'La mort de Henry le grand,' which I have had in my collection, but of which I rid myself, having learned that Mons. J. Ketele of Audenarde had another copy of it.

On August 9, the day before the auction, the collectors descended on Binche like a pack of vultures. The Belgian government even sent an official representative, believing that the collection was so valuable that it should be bought in its entirety and kept in the country.

But only disappointment greeted the hopeful buyers. Try as they might, they could not locate any street named "rue de l'Église" in the town of Binche.

Their spirits sunk even lower when they read an announcement in the newspaper informing them that the town of Binche had decided to purchase the entire collection for its public library.

Disheartened, some of the collectors returned home, but others stayed, curious to view the unique books in their new home. But although they searched and searched, they couldn't find the library anywhere. Only then did it gradually dawn on them. There was no Binche public library. There was no Comte de Fortsas. The entire auction and list of unique books had been an enormous, elaborately designed hoax.

The man behind the hoax was a local antiquarian named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon (1802-1889). The planning that had gone into the deception was incredible. He had carefully researched the interests of all the major bibliophiles in Europe in order to ensure that they would make the long and fruitless trek to Binche. And he had done all this merely for the sake of a practical joke.

The hoax proved not to be a total loss for its victims. The catalog they had received itself became a highly coveted collector's item. Within a few decades it had more than quadrupled in price.

There was such demand for the catalog, that the printer of the original catalog, M. Hoyois, decided to publish a few more copies of it. However, Chalon forbade him from doing so, leading to a legal battle between the two men. This dispute is described in The Bibliographer: A Journal of Book-Lore (June, 1884):

In 1855, M. Hoyois issued a prospectus for a reimpression of the Fortsas Catalogue, with the orders and correspondence of various bibliophiles with regard to the supposed sale, and a facsimile of a letter from the Count de Fortsas. M. Chalons forbade this re-impression, and a division arose between the friends. M. Chalons took legal measures to prevent M. Hoyois from reprinting the Catalogue, and also influenced the Societe des Bibliophiles Belges to refuse their subscription to the book.

The University of Delaware Library also has a brief account of the hoax that includes a short bibliography of works related to it. In August 2008, to celebrate the anniversary, Boston book-collector and librarian Jeremy Dibbell, at PhiloBiblios, marked the occasion by writing a blog post about the event and setting up a LibraryThing shelf of the Comte’s precious books. If they don’t exist in reality, I suppose, they can at least be seen in virtual reality.

Which brings us to this week’s book. This is a copy of the limited edition, 1986 revised and newly annotated version of bibliography, historian, and Sherlock Holmesian Walter Klinefelter’s The Fortsas Bibliohoax, of which only 378 copies were printed. The book was originally published by the Carteret Book Club of Newark in 1941 as a limited run of 128 copies, printed by the Press of the Woolly Whale. A reprint of 200 copies followed in 1942. The 1986 edition includes an unusually comprehensive colophon that provides a great deal of information about the book’s production: it was printed by Ward Schori of Evanston, Ilinois using artisan Rudolph Ruzicka’s Fairfield font (manufactured by Boston Linotype Composition, also of Evanston) on acid-free Brockway Text paper and bound by John LaRiviere of Chicago (whom Schori often used). Schori was a noted printer and journalist who specialized in highly-collectible miniature books from the early 1960s up until his death in 1995.

The book is bound in brown boards with a buckram spine bearing brown printed titling; in the lower outside corner of the front board there is a gilt imprint of the Fortsas family crest, which also appears on the title page (a mule treading on an open book over the motto “Secte des Agathopedes”, or “Sect of Saint Agathopus” -- Agathopus was a fourth century Thessalonican martyr who was drowned in the sea as a punishment for refusing to surrender his theological books to Roman authorities). It was published without a dust-jacket. The paper is a rich, soft stock with ragged fore-edges on every other page. It is in octavo format; the pagination runs 1-87 and begins with the usual preliminaries (a dark brown fly conjugate with the front pastedown and bearing a map of Belgium and description of Binche at the time of the Fortsas Auction; a blank; frontispiece illustration of the Comte de Fortsas in his bathrobe, reading a book in his library; title page with copyright information on the verso; and half-title). At the back is the colophon, a blank, and the same style of fly-conjugate-to-pastedown as at the front.

The contents provide, in a combination of reference work and historical narrative, most of the information a reader would need for a complete picture of the infamous prank. These include an account of the auction (copiously footnoted with enriching contextual and explanatory material), an annotated reprint of the auction catalog, and a concluding annotated bibliography of works (in a variety of languages) related to the event. Particularly fascinating, of course, is the reprint of the catalog and the accompanying annotation -- it offers a glimpse into the peculiar, particular, and often times ridiculously esoteric topics of interest, obsession, and even scandal for European book-collectors in the mid-nineteenth century. The bibliography of relevant works was prepared by Weber Devore. Klinefelter’s research on the auction was assisted by printer-publisher Gary Hantke and poet-printer Emerson Wulling. The frontispiece illustration of the Comte was done by Roberta Goforth and first appeared on the cover of the poetry chapbook Stepladder (Galesburg: Knox College, 1953).

In his book, Klinefelter details the mania that gripped a number of the more celebrated buyers who descended on Binche for the auction; he also shows how their deep sense of competitiveness was a product of both their keen desire, but also their high connoisseurship. It was a testament to the orchestrators of the bibliohoax that they were able to dupe so many extremely intelligent bibliophiles with their catalog. As I looked around the bidders at the auction I attended this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a prank would go over today.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

First Modern First for the First Post of the Year

For the first post of the new year I felt it would be appropriate to feature a new kind of addition to my collection and a good example of a very specific type of collectible book: a first edition of an important modern author, or, as the jargon goes, a “modern first”.

The term “modern” typically designates a work from 1945 to the present, though some collectors suggest a later date. “First”, of course, refers almost exclusively to the first issue of the first edition, though -- as Bill McBride points out in his essential guidebook Points of Issue -- for some books the later printings of the first are actually more rare (and, as noted on this blog in the past, sometimes second editions are actually more rare than their first counterparts). Sometimes book clubs will issue editions (BCEs) that are almost virtually indistinguishable from true first editions and which are, of course, essentially worthless (unless you collect book club editions); Craig Stark has a clear and comprehensive article on how to identify these particular books. For modern firsts, the ideal copy is in “as new” condition with the original dust-jacket (the jacket is so important to value that the practice of dealers surreptitiously adding later jackets to first editions or first jackets to BCE editions -- called “marrying” -- is criminally prevalent, particularly online). Even better, of course, is if it is signed by the author (that is, if it is an authorial association copy) and that author is important (either to literature, history, or one or more collectors). Such a book realizes the trifecta of book valuation: importance, scarcity, and condition.

This week’s book is a non-BCE modern first in as new condition with the original jacket and signed by the author, who was one of the most important American poet-novelist-short story writer-essayist-playwrights of the late twentieth-century. The copy is of Self-Consciousness, a collection of six memoir essays by the remarkably prolific Massachusetts resident John Updike (1932-2009). It is a Borzoi Book, published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York in March 1989; it was composed (in Janson), printed, and bound by The Haddon Craftsmen, Inc. of Scranton, PA. Technically this copy is of the “first trade edition”, as a leather-bound and signed private edition of 350 numbered copies from The Easton Press preceded it. The first trade edition retailed for $18.95 when it came out (about $33 in today’s currency). The first issue was followed by several subsequent printings in 1989 and a paperback edition from Random House in 1990; German and Spanish editions also appeared in 1990, followed by a French edition in 1992. American Audio Prose Library issued an audio version, read by Updike, in 1990. The New York Times published a review, written by Denis Donoghue, in the same month that the book came out in 1989; the book was again the focus of some attention following Updike’s passing in January 2009.

Given the overall soundness of this copy, it offers a good opportunity for me to take a look at the various elements that go into making a desirable modern first. For example, though there is a blind stamp in the lower inside corner of the back cover, it is not a BCE stamp but Knopf’s famed “Borzoi” dog emblem. Likewise, it is clear that the jacket was not married to the copy because the bottom of the back flap bears the dating imprint (“3/89”).

Also mitigating against the possibility that the jacket is from a BCE is the presence of a trade barcode on the back and a price listing on the upper outside corner of the front flap -- both of which would be missing from a BCE (sometimes the price will be clipped from the front flap if a book is being sold used; be wary, however, as many unscrupulous dealers will clip the corner of the flap to make it look like there was once a price there, covering up the fact that the jacket is from a BCE).

The book is paginated [i]-xii, [1]-257. Its contents include a foreword by the author and the following reminiscences from his youth and about his family: “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington” (pp. 3-41); “At War with My Skin” (pp. 42-78); “Getting the Words Out” (pp. 79-111); “On Not Being a Dove” (pp. 112-163); “A Letter to My Grandsons” (pp. 164-211); “On Being a Self Forever” (pp. 212-257). The opening of the recto of the front fly and the front pastedown show an old grayscale family photo (repeated in the back); this is followed by the usual preliminary material, including a list of other works by Updike, the half-title, the title page with copyright information on verso, the dedication (“to my grandsons / John Anoff Cobblah and Michael Kwame Ntiri Cobblah”), several epigraphs, and the table of contents. An internal half-title separates the foreword from the first essay. As with many modern writers, Updike has published some of the essays in this collection previously: “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington” had appeared in The New Yorker in June 1986, “At War with My Skin” in The New Yorker in September 1985, and part of “On Being a Self Forever” in The New Yorker as well; parts of “Getting the Words Out” had previously appeared in issues of Granta and Boston Review.

Updike’s impetus to publish a loosely-organized memoir is neatly summed up in his comments in the foreword:

Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed...I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography -- to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me! The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography.

When Random House released its paperback edition in 1990 it also provided the following summary of the book’s contents:

One of our finest novelists now gives us his most dazzling creation -- his own life. In six eloquent and compelling chapters, the author of The Witches of Eastwick and the wonderful Rabbit trilogy gives us an incitingly honest look at the makings of an American writer -- and of an American man.

Here is Updike on his childhood, on ailments both horrible (psoriasis) and hilarious (his experiences at the hands of a dentist), on his stuttering, on his feelings during the Vietnam War, on his genealogy. and on that most elusive of subjects, his innermost self. What emerges is a fascinating, fully formed portrait -- candid, often very, funny, and always illuminating.

As I noted above, what truly adds value to a modern first is an author’s inscription; the associational connection of such an autograph is important, but so too is the fact that such a mark quite simply makes the copy much more scarce. On the blank recto of page [i] (with the list of Updike’s works on the verso), my copy bears the following in blue ballpoint ink:

for Joe

Happy Birthday!

John Updike

This is probably the most important author’s autograph in my collection -- partially because author-signed copies are usually too expensive for my grad student budget (this one, fortunately, was a Christmas gift). And in a neat coincidence, the author’s photograph on the back of the jacket shows Updike happily engaged in precisely the activity that makes this particular copy of Self-Consciousness so important: signing one of his books.