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Jewish World Review
June 6, 2006
/ 10 Sivan, 5766
First editions are not gold
A first edition is a rarity, not a work of art.
There's some tut-tutting going on in London over the Dr. Williams' Library's decision to sell its prize possession, an almost perfect First Folio of William Shakespeare's work. It is expected to fetch up to £3.5 million ($6.5 million) when Sotheby's auctions it on July 13. The library specializes in theology and the history of nonconformity, so the Folio has no obvious role on its shelves. Selling it will secure the library's future and save a good deal in insurance fees. But not everyone agrees that institutions have a right to sell off valuable items left to them in perpetuity by benefactors, and there is talk that this may be the thin end of the wedge. Dr. Williams' also owns the diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, one of my favorites, which gives splendid glimpses of Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, William Hazlitt and others as well as a fascinating manuscript of George Herbert's poems. These could also be sold. "So," ask the purists, "where will it end?"
I don't get worked up about the Folio. If I had one, I wouldn't know what to do with it, except gaze at it in awe and be terrified thieves would steal it. When I want to read Shakespeare, there are many more convenient texts. Scholars, of course, find work to do on this edition, but they can do it most comfortably at the British Library, the Bodleian, the Library of Congress or other similar caravanseries. The Folio is essentially a very grand first edition. Forty years ago I started collecting first editions, especially of Victorian novelists like William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens and, above all, Anthony Trollope. In those days some novels by Trollope were hard to come by except in their original editions. So I went around collecting them and acquired a dozen or so.
Eventually my zeal for first editions evaporated, and I gave away or sold most of those I possessed. I did keep a few, and the other day I picked up a volume of my first edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset. It was a bit crumbly, and I soon gave up reading it, switching to a modern edition. Unless you're a true bibliophile and care desperately about minor discrepancies, the first edition game is a lot of nonsense.
It's true that some first editions have a powerful presence. I'd like to own the original edition of Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World, which he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower of London by James I, who eventually had Raleigh executed.
I once came across a first edition of Pride and Prejudice in an Irish country-house library. Such private book rooms, found at their best in Ireland, are the perfect places for reading. Sir Harold Nicolson described the one at Clandeboye in Ulster as "the nicest room in the world," and the library at Tullynally in Westmeath is equally delectable. Anyway, I read Pride and Prejudice right through in its original edition and it was a special pleasure I'll never forget. I would certainly like to own a first edition of Emma, though if I had to choose between it and an original letter of Jane Austen's uncensored by her sister Cassandra or any other of her overprotective family members, I'd unhesitatingly pick the letter.
After all, a first edition is only another copy of a book that, no matter how famous, you may not wish to read, or reread. When I was 15, I read Wuthering Heights, and the next year Sons and Lovers. Both books bowled me over I was devastated and exalted by this double whammy (not an expression we used in the years 1943 44) of subversive genius. But nothing on Earth would persuade me to read either again, not even possessing the first editions. For me, once a book of a highly emotive kind has done its powerful work, rereading it is taboo. And really, how else do you make use of a first edition except by reading it?
Putting the Duke to Sleep
I love the story of the old 8th Duke of Devonshire and his library. He spent most of his life as the Marquess of Hartington (Harty-Tarty) and as a Liberal MP and Cabinet minister. He was a strong supporter of Prime Minister William Gladstone until they parted company over Home Rule and Harty-Tarty went on to found the Liberal Unionist Party with Joseph Chamberlain. I suppose that he was not as often at his Chatsworth estate as he would have liked and was therefore less familiar with its unrivaled collections as he ought to have been. Anyway, one afternoon (after succeeding to the dukedom) he wandered into the library and peered about. The librarian came up and asked if he could be of service. "Yes. Show me something interesting." The man came back with that great rarity, a copy of the first edition of Paradise Lost. "Ah," said the Duke. "This poem is very famous, isn't it? I've never read it. What a treat!" An hour later the librarian returned. The Duke was fast asleep. So the precious volume was gently withdrawn from the ducal hands and restored to its place. His Grace's inattention to John Milton is not as condemnatory as might be thought, since he occasionally fell asleep in Cabinet meetings, sometimes when Mr. Gladstone himself was expostulating.
A first edition, even a grand one, may put you to sleep. But not so a manuscript. That is a unique and living thing, not exactly a work of art but a prism of the creative act. Imagine, for instance, owning the original holograph of Madame Bovary (now in the Bibliothèque Nationale) with all of Gustave Flaubert's frenzied second, third and fourth thoughts scribbled all over it. Or better still, the complete manuscript of A Christmas Carol, now the pride of New York's Morgan Library, the writing and overwriting of which positively vibrates with Dickens' genius, throbbing away at top pitch. No chance of falling asleep over that, I'd say.
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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson