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Richard Hell: Confessions of a Book Collector

A book is unrivaled as human information formed for maximum delectation — knowledge and beauty made manifest


I went up to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair the other week. I’ve collected books since I was a teenager. When I was a little boy I collected birds’ nests. There’s something about collecting that’s connected to childhood — amazement at the world, maybe, generating a desire to possess it…in acts of undercover self-definition. It’s the classic need to own “pure” beauty and so be reflected there, subtly sabotaged by the realization that nothing is owned that isn’t internal. One does want one’s books to love oneself only, but they never do; they’re available to all.

Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay about book collecting, “Unpacking My Library,” which is what he’s doing in it. He’s drunk from his books and the essay is daffy (“I’m unpacking my books. Yes I am.”), while still seeming (mostly) sincere, and he remarks on the connection to childhood, though he saw it differently. He looked at the collector’s acquisition of a book as its “rebirth,” as, for children, “collecting is only one process of renewal: other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals….To renew the old world — that is the collector’s deepest desire,” which is plausible, but I think every true collector has unique motives. Because a collection is a mirror, a self-realization, one’s inner life made visible. You are what you love, and what you know, and a book collector’s library makes those things material.

I’m glad I grew up before the internet, because, as we all know, the web has devastated brick-and-mortar bookstores. When I was a teenager in New York in the late Sixties, Fourth Avenue for five blocks below 14th Street was practically nothing but used-book stores, and the new-book stores in the neighborhood kept smudged and curled, overflowing sections of consignment small-press publications, mostly local. My favorite recreation was to systematically investigate the shelves of all those stores. In the poetry sections I would look at every single book I didn’t already know. Being penniless, I took joy in finding something that was way more valuable to me than to the bookseller. I hardly ever bought a book that was presented as a collector’s item. I still feel that way — part of the pleasure of finding a book is that other people don’t particularly want it — and it’s a reason I buy fewer old books than I used to.

Now everything that’s old or rare is a collector’s item, thanks to reality TV (Antiques Roadshow, American Pickers, Comic Book Men, etc., etc.) and because dealers can consult the web. There’s no more rooting around through dark, dusty shelves and boxes (half the pleasure of the hunt is simply being in the woods). It’s true that, strictly in terms of convenience and availability, the web is a great market for lower-end first editions — if you know the right questions to ask of sloppy, unregulated dealers. Brian Cassidy, an enthusiastic, soulful young dealer of my kind of material (Sixties mimeo poetry, for instance), has a booth at the annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair — where the dealers are regulated and rarely sloppy. At the Fair two weeks ago, he described to me how book collecting seems to be following general economic trends in that the finest examples of the higher-end things are becoming more and more expensive, while simple, clean first editions, without any extras (such as author inscriptions, say), are cheaper and easier to find than at any time in decades. It’s not the same, though, to be staring into the glare of shifting screens and ordering books from unknown merchants whose stock may not be exactly what you expect once you can examine it. And nothing costs $1 anymore.

What is the appeal of a first edition? I can explain what it is for me. First of all, a book is unrivaled as human information formed for maximum delectation — knowledge and beauty made manifest. Proust liked books more than people; in fact he wrote that a good book is the only way to know another person, another person’s world. Conversation with a friend is superficial by comparison. That’s fair. But I’ve forever sought books desirable for another quality, namely, ones that look exactly how they mean. For me, that meaning, “content,” tends to be poems. There are a couple of modern books I know that come close to that, to being deployed language reified, ur-books, paradigms. But I have once held in my hands a volume that fully attained that object. Don’t scoff at its obviousness. It was a book so rare that very few have been lucky to leaf through it, and there’s no other way to understand. Namely, an original printing, hand- colored on paper printed from his own etchings by its author/printer/publisher: Songs of Innocence and Experience. The poems seem swirled up on the water colored face of the deep itself, by William Blake, lamb and tyger. It proves there’s some hope. (Modern examples of this ideal, for me, are Ted Berrigan’s Many Happy Returns and Bill Knott’s hardbound Nights of Naomi, though perhaps the recent volume that’s the closest example of one that, like Blake’s, merges visual art with words is Berrigan’s lyrical, barbaric, modern American reconstruction of Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, drawn and hand-lettered by Joe Brainard.) Of course, my real hope, more than to acquire such books, is to make one myself before I die; sometimes I think I’ve come close. (Benjamin: “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”)

But I was talking about the mystique of the first edition. For me, it’s a time-space gestalt centered on the writer: I love the original printing for everything it says about its moment — its moment in culture, but more specifically the moment when the writer him- or herself first received and reacted to that public realization of a work. It’s the most intimate display of its being — more so even, for me, than the book’s manuscript. A first edition collapses time, or it transmits an instance netted by its hollow facets. The first edition is the absolute context, in time and intent, for the pure sequence of spaces, letter forms, and punctuation (and/or graphics, maybe) that is its pretext. That context being such elements as dust-jacket subject and design; the book’s means of reproduction; its dimensions and its format; typeface; the tone of its author bio; innumerable, sometimes unforeseeable or even invisible variables; and everything they suggest: the time and place of publication and its temper, the genre of the book, what can be surmised from the identity of the publisher. Like everything human, books happen in time, and they almost always are consistent with their era. By relishing the specifics that “date” first editions, you can feel both the curious fascination of another moment and its larger irrelevance, that time is not much more significant than a hairdo, even while we revel in the hairdo because it belongs to the author in the picture on the dust-jacket flap.

I did once take a stab at switching roles and going pro myself. When I was about twenty-one, my best friend was working for a specialized bookdealer and had become expert in literature in translation to English. I was crazy about my favorite nineteenth- and twentieth-century French writers, and we decided to borrow a couple hundred bucks and a car and do a two-week Midwest biblio tour, routing ourselves via the best used-book stores out to Indiana and back. We’d home in on Apollinaire and Rilke, Cossery, Hamsun and Vallejo et al.,  to catalog for mailing to all the university libraries and bibliophile mailing lists we could muster. It was one of the greatest non-sexual road trips I’ve ever taken, and we returned with cartons and cartons of fantastic books. We typed up the listing and printed it on a cheap old desktop offset press I had in my apartment. Then we realized we’d rather keep the books. So we divided them up between ourselves and set about working to repay our investors.

As much as I miss the sweetness of afternoons browsing low-rent used-book stores, I do invariably get a rush of happiness and anticipation simply from seeing somewhere a wording that refers to my fetish: Triolet Rare Books, Caliban Book Shop (“Used & Rare Books Bought & Sold”), Thomas A. Goldwasser Rare Books. The stock of such shops is carefully curated and priced accordingly, but there are still books in them I want more than other people do, and it’s sweet to find one. I also love the sellers who are bibliophiles more than they are salespeople, who want the books to find a good home—and such dealers do still exist. Many of the stores do half their yearly business at fairs, with the New York Antiquarian weekend often enough representing half of that. Most of them bring their very best things. Those coveted items when out of reach can be painful, but the pain is worth it. There’s pain built in to the whole enterprise, most profoundly in that futility of “ownership,” to say nothing of the impossibility of completion (as in being a collecting “completist”). But as I sit here, in the midst of my library, I feel again what I’ve often felt before. I love my books. Sometimes I need courage to look at them because they’re so good.

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