More Stories in Books

Of course, it’s not always jusr about the book. What’s been written in the book can be as interesting or as valuable.

I’ve told the story elsewhere about that copy of the cheap one volume edition of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History. The Outline of History was a nonfiction bestseller, and is regarded as one of the great works of nonfiction by those who like it, and as H.G. Wells trying to show off by those who don’t. Anyway, it takes a certain attitude as well as ability to pull off a history of the whole world, and it continues to sell.

This doesn’t make it terribly valuable, especially with all the different publishers who brought out this two volume best seller in cheap editions on bad paper, one volume editions with cheap bindings, and cheap one volume editions with very few production values whatsoever. That copy I found, years ago, was neatly but thoroughly underlined, with marginal notes. It was on its way to the garbage as I flipped through it and found an old report card, decided to save it, and then looked at the name on the report card. Only then did I glance in the front and see that the lad had written his name inside the front cover.

Orson Welles’s copy of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, as well as his report card and the little card notifying him that he had made it onto the Dean’s List that semester, were sold to the Lilly Library. I have nothing but respect for the Lilly Library, but I do sometimes wonder what the book might have fetched in these days of eBay.

So I look a bit more closely at what people scribble in their books. At the moment, I have a vast collection of books inscribed as gifts between a husband and wife over a period of thirty years. No one inscribing a book is under oath, but the story the inscriptions tell is of a couple who had a vast enjoyment of life, and of each other. The inscriptions don’t enhance the value of the books—they wrote, as they lived, large—but it’s a story that’s fun to read.

And someone dropped off a book by Meyer Levin, an author with a couple of perennial bestsellers on his record—Compulsion, The Old Bunch—as well as a goodly number of other books which made him a name to be reckoned with. The book dropped off is Eva, a novel about a Jewish girl who made it through the Holocaust by pretending to be a Christian Ukrainian servant named Katya. The book deals with her struggle to be a convincing Katya while remembering she was Eva. This is not widely collected; signed by Levin, it fetches about twenty bucks.

This copy is not signed by Meyer Levin, but by Eva. A little clipping is tucked inside about a lecture being given by the woman whose life was the basis of the novel; no doubt the original owner took a copy of the book to the lecture and got it signed. I have not found a sale record yet to tell me if her autograph beats that of the author.

And just last week, we had a two-volume edition of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History arrive. Lightning seldom strikes twice, even at a Book Fair, but I do check this book more carefully than others. It was a cheapish edition of 1929, and the first owner bought it for his wife on their fourth anniversary, and said so, in a not terribly original inscription wishing her a happy fourth anniversary, 1929.

I almost never find two volume works in which both volumes are inscribed. Even the author seldom bothers to write in volume 2. But I happened to look, and in the second volume, he has written, “I hope we have a lot more than four anniversaries, 1929.”

No, sweet doesn’t raise the value of a book. But even Book Fair managers are human, and it MIGHT raise the price.

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