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.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy snooping around in blogs such as this. I find that there is an excitement in the words written by the blog folk that I, at times, struggle to understand, particularly when discussing my grandfathers writing and in some cases, his personal life. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not you all find it appropriate and justifiable to assume the role of collector and distributor of John Updike memorabilia. As people who have collections of this particular nature, it would surprise me if I receive a response that did not condone this practice. Still, I am curious.