For Sale: Great Book, Never Read

In Plain Words

Two years ago, I started working at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. When a friend of mine told me of a bookseller looking for an assistant, I imagined weekends spent caressing first-edition copies of “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land.” To my mind, books and literature were metonymically linked, and I couldn’t imagine that “books” would entail anything other than great works of literature.

A week later, Google searches revealed that the bookseller specialized in maps and prints. I was instantly reminded of the time I applied for work experience at Bloomsbury Publishing, only to be transferred to A&C Black, a subsidiary company that specializes in sports and ornithology. That week went down in my life’s history as one of the worst ever: I spent interminable hours doing mindless data entry and compulsively making myself cups of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. A disappointing omen, but, for once, precedence was not prophetic.

Antiquarian book dealers are a strange, eclectic group of people. Some are dour and serious and have the air of a Victorian schoolmaster or governess; others combine business and pleasure, spending book-fair weekends in hazes of inebriation and fine dining—either in celebration of a lucrative sale or purchase or as distraction and consolation for slow business.

Most of them defy definition and description. All, however, are walking, breathing variorums of hundreds of books but sometimes have little interest in the content of the book itself. Their concern is commercial, and the monetary and objective worth of a book often has little to do with its emotive and subjective value.

Working at the Antiquarian Book Fair, I was told many wonderful stories about books. I heard about the first-edition of “Finnegans Wake,” sold with a letter from the printers, reassuring the bookstore clerk that the book was not full of typos and misprints, and the first sentence of the book was indeed supposed to read “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s….” Or about the 1931 booklet of “Haveth Childers Everywhere” printed by Criterion Miscellany, in which Dudley Fitts (Harvard student, poet, critic, translator and friend of Robert Fitzgerald) had diligently annotated the changes made to the text when it was eventually published as “Finnegans Wake” in 1939.

In our world of cheap paperbacks and e-readers, hardcover books are rapidly becoming artifacts of a bygone era: we’ve come a long way from the individually hand-copied vellum manuscripts of pre-Gutenberg times, and perhaps we’ve lost something in the process. There’s an additional dimension to old or rare books, because they have their own stories that run parallel to the narratives they contain.

But these are ultimately superficial stories. Those very books—priceless, fascinating, and delightful though they may be—lose all their worth and vitality if they are not read. And too often, their monetary value renders them unreadable, as we fear damaging the precious objects themselves. What we love about novels, poems, and plays are their narratives and characters, the text itself; stories and ideas do not care what form they take, what vessel they are poured into—the words easily transcend the object that contains them.

In an English literature seminar last year, I fondly remember my professor disseminating photocopies of “Anna Karenina” from a copy he owned decades ago, eulogizing the benefits of cheap paperbacks which allowed him to scribble impulsive exclamations of wonderment (“Superb, so unexpected!”) in the margins. Ultimately, perhaps, this personal touch is infinitely more important than the impersonal histories of the objects themselves. Books are not collector’s items like any other: They’re not pages of stamps that chart the evolution of philately; they’re not diamond-encrusted Fabergé eggs; they’re not Damien Hirsts adorning the walls of a hallway. Books have to be read: Their potency comes from our reading of the text, their significance from our memories of reading.

In “Time Regained,” Proust writes: “A thing which we saw, a book which we read at a certain period does not merely remain for ever conjoined to what existed then around us; it remains also faithfully united to what we ourselves then were and thereafter it can be handled only by the sensibility, the personality that were then ours.”

Walking around the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair in 2010, I saw many first-edition copies of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” guarded behind the glass of display cases. Perhaps one day, I’ll own my very own first edition, but for now I’m content with my battered $20 paperback copy. Its edges are frayed, whole chapters have detached themselves from the spine, and most pages are filled with my inane thoughts and observations—but I can carry it around with me everywhere, and it’s filled with the same wonderful words that were there when I first discovered Joyce.

Columnist Yi Jean Chow can be reached at yjchow@fas.harvard.edu.

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