Superlatives I | Page 73 | Newberry

Superlatives I

People ask about some of the notable and exciting items we’ve had come into the Newberry Library Book Fair.  I assume they don’t mean customers, so here are a couple of notes from the Newberry Book of Book Fair Records:


Of course, the very oldest thing we ever had come into the Book Fair is probably one of those pebbles we find in the bottoms of boxes that have been in the garage a while. But there’s no need to be so literal

The oldest book we ever had come in was something I mistook originally for two volumes of that edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which appeared in large battleship-grey volumes, utilitarian and unattractive. I expected I’d have to throw ‘em away, since two volumes of a set don’t amount to much. Opening them, I found myself looking at the 1521 edition of a standard Greek-Latin lexicon, a dictionary for translating Greek into Latin and vice versa. It was at least as unattractive inside as out. The paper was cheap enough that the ink had soaked through, and the ink was aggressive enough that it had printed off the page onto the facing page. This allowed as many as three pages of text on one page, an economy that somehow publishers never picked up on.

No, it wasn’t wanted for the Newberry collection. The Newberry had the 1516 edition, the 1518 edition, and the 1520, 1522, and 1524 editions.

“What?” I said. “You don’t want to complete your set?”


Well, it wasn’t the Greek-Latin lexicon, friend, which retails for about sixty bucks. Barring some items which were unique and went into the collection anyway and thus don’t count as well as some items which the donors asked to have back when they found out what the books were worth, the most expensive item we ever offered at the Book Fair was one of the most famous books produced by the Limited Editions Club.

A lot of book mavens mock outfits like the LEC for taking safe, dependable literary works and getting safe, dependable artists to illustrate them, and then printing a mere 1500 copies of the result. (1500 is not that small an edition. My first book…well, never mind that now.) But many of their productions turned out quite lovely, if not wildly valuable: isn’t that the point? And there are four or five of genuine collectible value.

The one you really want, of course, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, the one where Joyce got into an argument with the publisher and wouldn’t sign all the copies and Henri Matisse apparently thought he was illustrating another book entirely, and so if your grandfather bought the deluxe edition of that, with the extra portfolio of prints, your price may start around $25,000. We didn’t get that one.

We got the Lysistrata of Aristophanes. Aristophanes didn’t sign any copies, being centuries dead, but all copies were signed by Picasso, who did the illustrating. Oddly enough, the Book Fair has received, over the years, no fewer than four Picasso autographs, but this is the best one until somebody hands us a nice oil painting. The asking price for this (without the portfolio of signed prints, which the donor didn’t pass along) ran between $4,000 and $5,000 at that time.

We asked $4,500 and eventually settled for $4,200. I kind of felt the customer had earned the discount, since we held the book for a few days while the customer’s spouse was talked into the proposition.

Those are just two superlatives from our 25-year history.  What do you want to hear about in Superlatives II? The heaviest thing we ever got handed us, the biggest library ever turned over to us, or the most illegal items we ever received?  I wish people would stop asking for the weirdest thing.  It’s embarassing to the donor of that rubber squeaky toy of Michelangelo’s David.

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