Prose & Poetry to Inflame our Imagination
Twain's The Prince and the Pauper
By Bruce McKinney
Literary firsts, poetry and prose, are a Venus in the Jupiter-sized world of literature. Every day, tens of thousands of books are sold, much of it fiction. A few examples, here and there, are collectible copies. Often they are first editions, some signed by the author, others signed by interesting owners. Another few otherwise insignificant examples, by luck and sometimes intention are preserved in perfect condition with pristine dust jackets. Such examples, the firsts, the signed copies and exceptional examples in time become the currency of collecting in the field of fiction.
The market is four sided: the academics that write about the authors and their works; the dealers who identify, describe, explain, price and sell; the collectors who acquire and accumulate, and the auction houses that disperse. As every individual owns, and every home contains, fiction there are no shortage of possibilities and hence the need for expertise to identify the occasional examples that cross the Gobi from readable into collectible, an always uncertain journey. To illuminate the path, the opinion of the masters in the field are sought, then valued and later repeated – adding word by word to the gathering history of specific books that, upon the shoulders of advocates can carry the once unsaleable at $2.00 to $30,000 and more. Such is the alchemy of fiction and its appeal to many quarters: material often more easily appreciated than understood. Thus many, attracted by the text and sometimes entirely by the form, find a vocation or career in this field that rewards the diligent.
For writers the path from draft to print is winding and uncertain, the path from print to immortality the stuff of legendary luck, perseverance and the complex interaction of a generation with the voices that put to paper what people come to know is true but can not express themselves. In every era a few giants roam while a thousand others express subjective truths that resonate with the Balkan states, if not the entire universe, of human emotion and experience. This is the essence of the statement "let me see your library that I may know you." Some may believe that you are what you eat. The better informed know you are what you read.
In the discovering and unearthing of the voices that speak of and for a generation dealers and collectors find common ground to fend, weed and garden, to unearth the undiscovered authors, to champion by their selection voices not yet appreciated and to locate all the posters, papers, mimeographs, drafts, marked and signed copies and other paraphernalia of those selected. In fiction, much more than in non-fiction, the cult of personality, the alter ego and the reflected life all permit and encourage the reader and collector to acquire the debris and the building blocks that comprise a life or the story. The beauty of this approach to collecting is that its limits are both as clear and uncertain as the perimeter of a rainbow and hence such collections can both grow and morph with the collector's changing perceptions, understanding and needs. For many, the reading if not necessarily the collecting, of fiction is both the cheapest and most enduring therapy for coming to grips with life's challenges. The great books inevitably engage the great issues. For some, life's answers are on Dr. Phil, for readers they lie between the covers.
Prose & Poetry to Inflame our Imagination
In this field, as in all others in the works on paper area, collectors and sellers divide the chess board. Collectors search for and purchase, dealers locate and acquire, describe and later sell. In the selection of material to acquire the dealer's judgment comes into play. The entire field most easily sees what is already recognized. For the dealer the challenge is to see the crocus in February, the first robins in April.
Some collectors define their own collecting space. For them the world of a single author, the works of a specific school, place or era is the stuff of deep personal interest that makes the reading of an arcane journal article by a not-yet-famous author an engrossing experience. For others it is the feelings evoked, the ability of a story and a writer to pluck the strings of memory that remind us that we are of one piece with the person we were forty years ago, still alive, still feeling the pulls and exhilarations of life.
I recently asked Mark Alexander, the Vermont dealer in poetry and prose, for his perspective on collecting.
"To me it's about learning. When collectors like, and sometimes love, an author the impetus is there to learn more, read more and to find additional material by and about this person. For some this drive is a very powerful thing. I enjoy collecting and dealing in poetry in no small part because poetry collectors, possibly because there are so many poets, schools, movements, isms, etc., seem to know a great deal more about the poets they collect than I do."
This month the Comet offers the suggested readings and purchases of books all memorable and valuable in their way. Among them are anchors to collections whose building is a future enterprise. Others are interesting examples of material within the standard and known collecting concepts current today. And then there are the gems, not always expensive but always special, the type of material that demands to be read and more than that, to be understood.
Now spend some time to find some interesting material. Along the way you may also find a dealer with whom to have an enduring relationship. In the book business knowledge is precious.