Monday, February 17, 2020

'The Vast, but Most Agreeable, History of Human Folly'

"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.”

I know the value of a dollar as well as any man. As a boy I simultaneously had three paper routes. I got my first real job – in a car wash – when I was twelve. During a brief spell of unemployment in the early nineties, I took on any freelance work I could find – writing news items for a hospital, proofreading the libretto of an opera based on the life of Christopher Columbus, editing the memoirs of a dancer-turned-sociologist. My tastes are neither extravagant nor ascetic. I’m neither miser nor spendthrift, but I’ve never looked on books as an investment. The minds of some people are algorithms for monetizing the contents of the world.

A reader has written me twice, urging me to calculate the value of my personal library. “It sounds like you’re sitting on a fortune. You must have a lot of first editions,” he writes. “Maybe you could make enough money to retire.” That pitch was supposed to sound attractive. A few people have gotten wealthy writing books, and a few more from selling them, but I’ve never thought of all these volumes, some of which I’ve owned for sixty years, as liquid assets. I once paid $1.50 for a beaten-up first edition of On the Road that I found at a library sale, and promptly sold it for a sum many times that amount to a dealer I knew. I detest Kerouac, others adore him, my decision was obvious.  

The passage quoted at the top is from Augustine Birrell’s “First Editions” (In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays, 1905). Sentimentally, I do care for some first editions, in particular those inscribed by writers I admire – Steven Millhauser, Helen Pinkerton, Terry Teachout, J.V. Cunningham, Eric Ormsby, et. al. – though I’m not fond of Brussels sprouts. Birrell is coolly rational. He suggests we “never convert a taste into a trade,” and writes:

“The whole thing is but a hobby—but a paragraph in one chapter of the vast, but most agreeable, history of human folly.”

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