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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