Here Be Giants | Newberry

Here Be Giants

There are not a lot of guaranteed gilt-edged investments in the world of books. Sure, there are high points—the Gutenberg Bible, the First Folio of Shakespeare, Audubon’s Birds—but in the world of general used books, we have to make do with less obvious treasures. To find these treasures, we rely on what we know about books. Little clues are useful, if not infallible: the words “first edition” are helpful but no guarantee of profit, like the words “limited edition”. I look for the words “color atlas” on a medical book, or “catalogue raisonnee” on an art book.

There are some authors whose names alone are nearly as good. Two of these, near contemporaries, come very close in the dictionary though they wrote rather different sorts of books. What they do have in common is that each man is fairly rabidly sought after by collectors, so that even fairly recent paperbacks command prices higher than a similar paperback of, say, Peyton Place or Gone With the Wind.

Edgar Rice Burroughs did much of his early writing in Oak Park, Illinois. He wrote adventure stories and, while he was at it, set up the basis for much of modern science fiction and fantasy. His stories set on Mars or Venus or inside our own hollow planet had their followers, but he made himself immortal with his stories of a small child raised in the jungle and called Tarzan. He eventually left the Chicago area and moved to a place of his own in a town of his own called Tarzana, California, writing a hundred or so books and setting off many a career in illustration, movies. radio, and other art forms. (By the way, he had a lifelong competitor, Otis Adelbert Kline, who wrote rival novels about adventures on Mars and Venus and so on. Kline did most of his work in Evanston. What is it about the air in Illinois?)

Thornton W. Burgess was born in Massachusetts. He was the outdoorsy type, always out observing nature. He was about one year older than Edgar Rice Burroughs, and lived to be 91, which gave him time to produce 15,000 newspaper columns, write more than a hundred books, and perform a few thousand radio broadcasts. Most of his work was aimed at children, particularly his stories of Peter Rabbit and friends in the Green Meadow. Peter Rabbit was a grown-up rabbit, rather lazy but with a mischievous nature, based on Burgess’s impressions of rabbits in the wild. Not long ago, a Japanese animator made a series of anime episodes about Peter Rabbit and friends, so it seems that Mr. Rabbit is likely to prove as immortal as Lorf Greystoke (a.k.a. Tarzan.)

What these two authors have in common, besides heroes who live outdoors most of the time, is a fanatic following. First Editions are prized of course, and so are signed copies of their books. But even the reprints, ten to twenty years removed from the originals, command decent prices. And there are so MANY books to collect, some of them rather hard to come by. (The Burroughs estate tried to keep as tight a grasp as possible over reprints, so unauthorized and pirated editions were quickly shut down…making them that much more sought after.) There are some books available only in that rare first edition and a decades-distant paperback, raising the price of the paperback because collectors who can’t get the original have to have it. (Making the problem more serious is the fact that, even at a century old, the books are so readable.)

If you plan on running to your shelves to check on your treasure trove, keep in mind that this does NOT mean that any book bearing the name of Burroughs or Burgess must be locked at once in the bank. Their readability also means that a LOT of these books were read to the point where tape was no longer of use and rubber bands had to be used to hold the pages together. You must also remember one of our basic rules, “If there are twenty editions of this book and nineteen of them are collectible, I have the twentieth one.”

But it’s something to watch for. Both men liked to sign books, too, so at the next garage sale you visit….

Add new comment