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First Editions Post by :GaryB Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :3047

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First Editions

This is an age of great publicity. Not only are our streets well lighted, but also our lives. The cosy nooks and corners, crannies, and dark places where, in old-fashioned days, men hugged their private vices without shamefacedness have been swept away as ruthlessly as Seven Dials. All the questionable pursuits, fancies, foibles of silly, childish man are discussed grimly and at length in the newspapers and magazines. Our poor hobby-horses are dragged out of the stable, and made to show their shambling paces before the mob of gentlemen who read with ease. There has been much prate lately of as innocent a foible as ever served to make men self-forgetful for a few seconds of time--the collecting of first editions. Somebody hard up for 'copy' denounced this pastime, and made merry over a virtuoso's whim. Somebody else--Mr. Slater, I think it was--thought fit to put in a defence, and thereupon a dispute arose as to why men bought first editions dear when they could buy last editions cheap. Brutal, domineering fellows bellowed their complete indifference to Shakespeare's Quartos till timid dilettanti turned pale and fled.

The fact, of course, is that in such a dispute as this there is but one thing to do--namely, to persuade the Attorney-General of the day to enter up a nolle prosequi, and for him who collects first editions to go on collecting. There is nothing to be serious about in the matter. It is not literature. Some of the greatest lovers of letters who have ever lived--Dr. Johnson, for example, and Thomas de Quincey and Carlyle--have cared no more for first editions than I do for Brussels sprouts. You may love Moliere with a love surpassing your love of woman without any desire to beggar yourself in Paris by purchasing early copies of the plays. You may be perfectly content to read Walton's Lives in an edition of 1905, if there is one; and as for Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver and the Vicar of Wakefield--are they not eternal favourites, and just as tickling to the fancy in their nineteenth-century dress as in their eighteenth? The whole thing is but a hobby--but a paragraph in one chapter of the vast, but most agreeable, history of human folly. If John Doe is blankly indifferent to Richard Roe's Elizabethan dramatists, it is only fair to remember how sublime is Richard's contempt for John's collection of old musical instruments. If these gentlemen are wise they will discuss, when they meet, the weather, or the Death Duties, or some other extraneous subject, and leave their respective hobbies in the stable. Never mind what your hobby is--books, prints, drawings, china, scarabaei, lepidoptera--keep it to yourself and for those like-minded with you. Sweet indeed is the community of interest, delightful the intercourse which a common foible begets; but correspondingly bitter and distressful is the forced union of nervous zeal and pitiless indifference. Spare us the so-called friends who come and gape and stare and go! What is more painful than the chatter of the connoisseur as it falls upon the long ears of the ignoramus! Collecting is a secret sin--the great pushing public must be kept out. It is sheer madness to puff and praise your hobby, and to invite Dick, Tom, and Harry to inspect your stable: such conduct is to invite rebuff, to expose yourself to just animadversion. Keep the beast in its box. This is my first advice to the hobby-hunter.

My second piece of advice is equally important, particularly at the present time, when the world is too much with us, and it is this--never convert a taste into a trade. The moment you become a tradesman you cease to be a hobbyist. When the love of money comes in at the window the love of books runs out at the door. There has been of late years a good deal of sham book-collecting. The morals of the Stock Exchange have corrupted even the library. Sordid souls have been induced by wily second-hand booksellers to buy books for no other reason than because the price demanded was a high one. This is the very worst possible reason for buying a book. Whether it is ever wise to buy a book, as Aulus Gellius used to do, simply because it is cheap, and regardless of its condition, is a debatable point, but to buy one dear at the mere bidding of a bookseller is to debase yourself. The result of this ungodly traffic has been to enlarge for the moment the circle of book-buyers by including in it men with commercial instincts, sham hobbyists. But these impostors have been lately punished in the only way they could be punished--namely, in their pockets--by a heavy fall of prices. The stuff they were induced to buy has not, and could not, maintain its price, and the shops are now full of the volumes which, seven or ten years ago, fetched fancy sums.

If a young book-collector does but bear in mind the two bits of advice I have proffered him, he may safely be bidden godspeed and congratulated on his choice of a hobby, for it is, without a shadow of a doubt, the cheapest he could have chosen. Even without means to acquire the treasures of a Quaritch or a Pickering, he may yet derive infinite delight from the perusal of the many hundreds of catalogues that now weekly issue from the second-hand booksellers in town and country. He may write an imaginary letter, ordering the books he has previously selected from the catalogue, and then he has only to forget to post it to avoid all disagreeable consequences.

The constant turnover of old books is amazing. There seems no rest in this world even for folios and quartos. The first edition of old Burton's Anatomy, printed at Oxford in a small quarto in 1621, rises to the surface as a rule no less than four times a year; so, too, does Coryat's Crudities, hastily gobbled up in five months' travels in France, Savoy, Italy, Germany, etc., 1611. What a seething, restless place this world is, to be sure! The constant recurrence of copies of the same books is almost startling. Hardly a year passes but every book of first-rate importance and interest is knocked down to the highest bidder. No doubt there are still old libraries where, buried in dust and cobwebs, the folios and quartos lie undisturbed; but to turn the pages or examine the index of Book Prices Current is to have a vision before your eyes of whole regiments of books passing and repassing across the stage amidst the loud cries of auctioneers and the bidding of booksellers.

In the auction-mart taste is pretty steady. The old favourites hold their own. Every now and again an immortal joins their ranks. Puffing and pretension may win the ear of the outside public, and extort praise from the press, but inside the rooms of a Sotheby, a Puttick, or a Hodgson, these foolish persons count for nothing, and their names are seldom heard. Were an author to turn the pages of Book Prices Current, he could hardly fail, as he there read the names of famous men of old, to breathe the prayer, 'May my books some day be found forming part of this great tidal wave of literature which is for ever breaking on Earth's human shores!' But the vanity of authors is endless, and their prayers are apt to be but empty things.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: First Editions

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