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Backing into Book Collecting

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book WorldUsed and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence Goldstone

Larry and Nancy Goldstone sort of back into collecting modern first editions, by way of a hilariously extended effort for Nancy to find Larry a birthday gift for $20 or below. They have a bet on; he is to do the same for her. In the end, Larry gives Nancy a bath brush. She gives him a copy of War and Peace. It’s a Heritage edition, the Maude translation, has maps of battles, fold-out illustrations and its own slipcase. Nancy found it for $10, and they spend three weeks talking about it. (She totally wins the bet, in case you were in any doubt.)

From that $10 copy of War and Peace Nancy and Larry embark on a grand tour of used and rare book stores, first in their west Massachusetts county and then expanding their territory to include neighboring states, New York City and Chicago, and then step up into book auctions. Along the way they meet a lot of characters, both in and out of books.

A bookseller tells them

Today, the autographs that are collected, the books that are collected…these are the authors that the collectors read in high school. They’ve always remembered them, they have a fondness for them*…of course, the people who were read in, say the forties and fifties are different than those who are read in high school today. Then we read Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner. I don’t know what they read today.”

We did. It comes from having a succession of high school babysitters dragging their bookbags into your living room.

“They read Margaret Atwood,” we said.

George stared at us. “That’s appalling,” he said.

Which gives you a pretty good idea what century most of the booksellers Nancy and Larry meet are inhabiting.

There are extended riffs on Anthony Trollope and Booth Tarkington and Sinclair Lewis and Charles Dickens and John Dos Passos, and for a book published in 1997 some jaw-dropping prices. Their education and expenditures proceed apace, until eventually they buy a copy of Bleak House for $700, with no second thoughts or buyer’s remorse.

Reads almost like a novel. Thoroughly enjoyable and very informative, and I might actually get all the way through War and Peace if I owned an edition like theirs. I don’t think I’d get through it on a Kindle.

*True. The only firsts I would even consider buying would be Shute, Heinlein and Heyer. I just checked Alibris, where I found a first edition of The Rolling Stones in a “fine” dust jacket for the bargain basement price of $2000. On the other hand, I found a first with dust jacket of The Unknown Ajax for twenty bucks. Couldn’t find a first of Trustee from the Toolroom. I didn’t have as much fun as Larry and Nancy did, though.
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