These People Take Their ‘First Editions’ of the Iliad Very Seriously


In the latest Jennifer Lopez hate-watch masterpiece, The Boy Next Door, she plays a classics teacher who is seduced by her strapping young student, played by Ryan Guzman. In one particularly unfortunate scene, he comes by her desk to give her a Victorian-era copy of Homer’s ancient oral epic the Iliad that he bought “for a buck at a garage sale”; she gasps, “Is this — a first edition?!”

(Spoiler alert: It is not.)

The campiest moment in the film, first noted by our very own Alan Scherstuhl, later got picked up by other film nerds…and, later, even bigger film nerds.

But the plot thickens. There’s no extant true first edition of the 2,700-year-old Greek poem, initially passed down by musicians who performed the lyrics through song. But “first edition” is also a term book collectors use for the first commercial run of any publisher’s release of a book.

In other words — depending on what kind of “first” you mean, exactly, there may be many first editions of the Iliad, including first-runs of English translations by literary greats like Arthur Hall of Grantham, Alexander Pope, and George Chapman.

The annual three-day Greenwich Antiquarian Book Fair, held February 20–23 at P.S.3 in the West Village, was the place where people not only know that, but actually have their own favorites. They brought the Voice into their secret world of “gambling with books” as they wheeled and dealed in these paper scraps of history.

See also: The Boy Next Door Is as Nuts as You’d Hoped

Heather O’Donnell, Brooklyn (Honey and Wax Booksellers)

Favorite First Edition of the Iliad:
“My favorite is something I sold, by George Chapman. It’s $25,000. Part of what I love about Chapman’s Homer is he’s delivering the Ancient Greek with Shakespearean English. It’s doubly foreign to a modern reader. But there’s also the familiarity of the Shakespearean verse. The Elizabethan era was a great time for English poetry. It’s a really exciting book to have.

“I don’t read all the books in their entirety but…I collate the book, to make sure it’s complete, it’s all the same copy, it’s not a combination of different books, it has all the pages and there’s nothing wrong with it. Then I’ll read parts of it.”

On Her Other Favorite First Edition:
“A first edition I think is really cool is Sylvia Beach’s [1922] printing of Ulysses [by Irish writer James Joyce].

“There’s such a great struggle to get that book published. And this pioneering woman bookseller — I’m all about pioneering woman booksellers! — took on the task.

“America wouldn’t print it [a serial version of the story in Greenwich Village magazine Little Review had already been deemed obscene]. In Ireland they wouldn’t print it. And in Paris [Beach was the founder of Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company], she took it on and she printed a thousand copies.

“It represents an enormous struggle and effort from everyone involved to get that book to press.”

Jeffery Bergman, Fort Lee, New Jersey (Jeffery Bergman Books)

Favorite First Edition of the Iliad:
“Probably the [Robert] Fitzgerald translation. It’s very accessible. It made it easy for the layman to read — it’s a hard book. You almost need a master’s degree to understand where they’re coming from.”

On Living and Dying by First Editions:
“I wish people understood it more. Why collect first editions? Why collect stamps? Why collect anything? For people who read, people who love books, a first edition…is all about trying to preserve history, a history that is already evolving.

“Before these shows, a lot of the dealers buy from each other…It’s all gambling. It’s gambling with books. You learn what sells and what people want. In order to be successful, you buy a book for $50, it becomes $100, $1,000.

“My stuff is incredible.”

Bergman pulls a signed autobiography of Lyndon B. Johnson off the shelf. “You see that dot? That’s how you know his signature is authentic. He always dotted it. Without the dot, it’s suspicious.

“A doctor knows the human body. I know books. Left, right, forward. I’m a doctor of books.”

Mark Brumberg, Northampton, Massachusetts (Boomerang Booksellers)

Favorite First Edition of the Iliad:
“I would say the Leonard Baskin edition [printed in 1962]. I’m enamored with Baskin’s illustrations. It’s an artfully crafted letterpress book with letterpress type and etchings. The type is hand-set. The prints are printed from big blocks or steel engravings. He had an atypical view of the world. He was a master artist and engraver.”

On Selling Books in the 21st Century:
“I was a newspaper reporter when I got out of college. I grew up loving to go to bookstores on the weekend, and [owning a bookstore] is what I always wanted to do. I still remember giving my two weeks’ notice and telling my editor I was going to go open a bookstore — he was like, ‘Uhhh, oh-kay!’

“Booksellers never get rich, but we were able to make a living. I’ve had it in my blood since I was a kid. I closed my store…because Amazon cut into the market.

“Now I sell books online and at fairs like this.

“I’ve had people come up and ask me about the prices of a book. I’ll tell them, I price my books toward the bottom end of their value. And they’ll walk away and pull out their phones and go online and compare prices. Sometimes they’ll do it right in front of me.

“And now I sell books on Amazon. Because I have to.”

Sunday Steinkirchner, Manhattan (B & B Rare Books)

Favorite First Edition of the Iliad:
“We actually specialize in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, so I don’t think we have one.”

On Finding Books for “a Buck at a Garage Sale”:
“That’s actually how we started. We literally have that story. I moved to New York twelve years ago [with her husband, who was then her boyfriend] to go to NYU for clinical psychology and I was looking for a way to pay the rent.

“Three weeks in, we walked by people selling books…and we just said, ‘That.’

“We started with garage sales, estate sales in Long Island and Queens. We basically found the dealers we wanted to emulate. We took their catalogs and learned what different books were worth.

“We paid ten dollars for James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We got there late to the estate sale, and we see all these people getting out with these boxes of books, and we thought, ‘Oh, they’ve probably taken everything, but let’s just take a look.’

“And we walk in and my husband, he just sees this copy…and plucks it off the shelf.

“It was just run by an estate sale company. They were selling everything at a dollar a book. They must have known, because they see it and say, ‘That one’s ten dollars.’ And we almost didn’t buy it! We said, ‘That’s ridiculous! It’s a dollar a book!’ And it was the American printing, and Joyce was Irish, so we weren’t even sure it was a real first edition.

“It was worth $4,000.

“That put the wind in our sails. I’m glad it happened early on. If it hadn’t happened, we would have given up. New York City, the place of opportunity and dreams — we’d called each other all summer asking, ‘What are we going to do for money?!’ And when we moved here, we hadn’t come up with anything! Three weeks later we just…found it.

“I really owe it to New York. I get emotional about that.”


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