The Perfect Gift?

Many of us know that books make great gifts, and that there is something very special about that perfect book for an important person in one’s life. Yesterday at the shop, I heard perhaps the greatest story in my career to date, illustrating this very concept.

One of our regular customers, who I have seen before, but with whom I had not had a chance to converse at length, came to the counter with her selections. An inquiry about which hardcover copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot she should buy turned into a discussion of the advantages of different translations from the Russian. To borrow a phrase from Elaine on Seinfeld, yada yada yada… the customer ends up telling me that, on one of her first trips to the store, she saw that we had two copies of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

She returned later to purchase one as a gift for her husband, who had been with her during her first visit. Fast forward to their anniversary: he hands her a gift to unwrap, and it’s… the other copy. These two must be a great match for one another, because they both went to some trouble to acquire that perfect gift, and it turned out to be the same book. It is as poignant as The Gift of the Magi, but without the sacrifice. Although they were stuck with an extra copy (I don’t recall either of them returning to attempt an exchange), I imagine they did not mind, because they had, in those two simple objects, an affirmation of their choices more real than they ever could have created on purpose.

The story made my day (alright, let’s be honest, my week – I am certain I will repeat this to anyone who will listen, and probably to many who would rather not, for years to come), and immediately an idea gripped me. I walked to the poetry section and grabbed a postcard edition of Ginsberg’s The Rune, one of two versions I had purchased several years back. The other (better) version, which included Ginsberg’s handwritten version in holograph on the reverse, sold quite some time ago, but this one had been living at my shop for long enough that I decided it was time that it put a smile on someone’s face.

Arriving back at the counter, I handed it to her and said, “This is yours now, too.” I told her about the other version, and suggested that perhaps it would be fun for her and her husband to track down that one together.

She insisted on hugging me in thanks, but I refused to take anything beyond that. Because, after all, owning a bookstore is about stories. Not just the stories contained in all the volumes that cross my desk each day, but the stories of the people I meet, come to know, and in many cases befriend. I am lucky to be in a profession that allows me occasionally to glimpse the effects of the ripples that I send out into the world. So, to everyone who plays a part in making that possible: Thank you. It is the perfect gift.

Published in: on February 6, 2015 at 1:17 PM  Leave a Comment  

On First Editions – A Commentary on the Recent ‘Iliad’ Debacle in the Latest J-Lo Film

In the interest of furthering knowledge about books and book collecting, I feel obligated to comment on this story, and on some of the discussion it has created. For those who have not read the story, there is a link to the article below.

First of all, yes, The Iliad is several thousand years old, meaning that a modern volume such as the one pictured cannot possibly be the first edition. And many have, quite rightly, blasted the scene as ridiculous and ill-researched. So, why do we see some people stepping up in defense of the film, saying ‘Maybe it was a first printing of that edition?’

It seems we need to define our terms here, because what we have is a classic example of equivocation:

The first group takes ‘first edition’ to mean the first appearance of the book in print (and, more specifically, the first print run of that appearance, not a subsequent reprint of the identical text).

The second group is apparently interpreting ‘first edition’ to mean the first printing of any unique version of a text. So, if Little, Brown takes a book published by, Harper, uses the exact same text, but puts it in a new binding with new jacket art, boom – there’s another first edition.

It’s easy to see how anyone but an expert would get confused at this point. But it gets worse.

The bibliographic definition of a first edition, which is accepted by many scholars, states that as long as the original text is not altered, technically any subsequent reprinting of that text is still the first edition.

This stands in contrast to the antiquarian booksellers’ definition, which is the one referenced above by the first group; i.e., when a rare book dealer states that something is a first edition, they mean it is part the first printing of the first appearance of that work in print. For anything subsequent to that, a conscientious seller must use some sort of modifier; e.g., ‘First illustrated edition’; ‘First American edition’. These latter examples all fall under the blanket term ‘first thus’, which is an abbreviated form of ‘first example of the book in this form’, often used in print catalogs, and should not be confused with ‘first edition’. Many traditional booksellers dislike this term, though, because it causes the very sort of confusion we are discussing here. After all, a reprint is a reprint.

So, long story short, yes, the movie did make an error. But it is one that is being made frequently in the world of books, and is more difficult to recognize when there isn’t a glaring discrepancy in publication date, as with this example. This error is one of the many reasons it is important for book collectors (or buyers of the occasional gift for the family bibliophile) to deal with knowledgeable merchants who understand these distinctions, possess the proper references to discern and describe these characteristics for a wide range of books, and have the experience to determine how the edition of a book affects its value.

Published in: on February 5, 2015 at 12:45 PM  Leave a Comment  
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