Good morning, readers and book lovers, and welcome to—gasp!—still another open forum. Last week we had the unusual treat of reading a diary about a book that changed a reader’s life: this week it’s back to discussing something completely different.
This morning we’ll discuss first editions. Bibliophiles and certain antiquarians delight in first editions of books, spending time and money to acquire them. Other people simply require books to contain ideas, whether in fictive or nonfiction form, and if we acquire a first edition it’s quite unintentional.
But first, breakfast! In Texas the backyard pears have already been picked off the tree, so we’re having delightful Microwave Pear Crisp (recipe here).
This toothsome dish of just-tender pears with a crunchy oatmeal-and-walnut topping takes only minutes to make. Feel free to drizzle heavy cream or silky vanilla yogurt over your portion, if you like. We have strong hot coffee or up-and-at-‘em green tea with lemon juice and honey to accompany the crisp.
Now, if you’ve smacked your sticky lips in satisfaction, please follow me into the salon.
My late father collected books and there may well have been a first edition or two among them. For twenty-eight years after his death those books lined the walls of my living room from floor to ceiling: it did impress my resume clients, in the days when I was running a resume service from home. I housed the books partly because of their associations with my father and partly because I thought one day I might get round to reading the ones I hadn’t already read; however, in year 28 I began to realize that I would never read George Borrows’ The Romany Rye, nor Jefferies’ Bevis, nor Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million. In 2008, having had a New Vision for the living room, I kept a few books that had sentimental value and sold the rest to a store that purveyed used books.
Speaking for myself, I’ve never cared whether or not a book was a first edition, I’ve simply been interested in what the book contained. Yet collecting first editions of books is a worthwhile hobby, far better than some I can think of, and for the money-minded, it can be quite lucrative. The association of first editions of fine books and their value as an inheritance reminds me of a novel I once read.
China Court: The Hours of a Country House by Rumer Godden is a peculiar novel, told with the past, present, and future all mixed up. Some readers might find this irritating.
However, the point is that the nineteenth-century character Eliza—unloved, unappreciated, and on the shelf—needing some kind of solace after sacrificing her matrimonial hopes to care for her orphaned siblings—collected first editions not only for their value but for the poetry, philosophy, or plays they contained, as in this excerpt:
It is often dark when she comes in. Sometimes the servants are having their nine-o’clock supper, sometimes it is even too late for that. If Jared is at home a light will be burning in the morning room; another light is in the drawing room where Lady Patrick, alone too, sits with her embroidery frame, stitching, her needle making an even small plock-plock sound as it goes through the silk. At ten o’clock she will cover the frame and go to bed—alone. Sometimes, everyone has gone to bed and Eliza lets herself into a sleeping house, takes the soup or stew Cook has left for her on the range, and goes upstairs.After many years Eliza’s collection of first editions, ignored by Eliza’s family, finally come to the attention of the modern descendants. They sell the first editions, by now extremely valuable, to save China Court from being sold to pay death duties.
If it has been a blank day she blows out her candle at once, but if she has found something then, sitting up in bed, her red shawl huddled around her, the light of the candle throwing her shadow huge onto the walls, she will read and brood until the early hours of the morning. “’Too late have I loved thee, O Thou beauty of ancient days…’” croons Eliza or “’Man is a reed, but a thinking reed,’” or “’I have seen the thorn frown all winter long; bears yet in spring a rosebud on its top,’” or, because she is, as all single women are, deeply romantic,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night…
--and, as she grows older, what truly comes to pass, “’My mind to me a Kingdom is…”
She keeps these lines and many others in her mind all day, remembering them as if they were a nosegay and every now and then she could sniff their fragrance. No one seeing her going about the house, in her brown house frock and apron, silent or tart, fault-finding, would have guessed what beauty was in her mind. “Poor old Aunt Liz. She doesn’t have much,” and Mr. Alabaster opened the last book.
The ending of the book is guaranteed to outrage feminist sensibilities, so it’s just as well that China Court, published in 1961, is now out of print.
What about YOUR library? Have you acquired a first edition, either accidentally or on purpose? Will you try to get on “Antique Road Show” with it and make buckets of money, or are you keeping your first edition because you cherish the fine binding, the quality of the paper, or the perfection of the font used to print the pages? Do tell us about it!
The floor is yours.