I made my way through the abebooks list of the twenty most expensive items sold through their website in 2017. Nothing I have listed QUITE made the list. (I have one or two things listed which would qualify, but they need to SELL first. There’s always a catch.)
When studying a list like this, a person who sells books has to recognize the difference between daydreaming and research. Research is recognizing something on that list that you might have or are likely to get. Daydreaming involves things like the first item on their list: the publisher’s file copy of J.D. Salinger’s second book: Nine Stories. There IS only one such copy, and that is the reason the selling price was so high. The chances that the Newberry will ever be in danger of selling one are nil.
The next few items on the list are similar: there COULD be another copy of this rare poster made still rarer by being signed by the two artists involved. I MIGHT get a copy of the early nineteenth century travel book, but the chances of a copy with a letter from the author tucked inside…. And if I DID get a copy of that fifteenth century encyclopedia, the Newberry would probably keep it. (Even if they already have it—which I bet they do—they’d keep another copy just to compare the two.)
You’re nearly out of the top ten before you find a book that someone might conceivably have walked into a bookstore and bought for reading purposes. That’s where we start to hit the first editions of The Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye. The Book Fair actually HAS had those two: although these folks had first printings and we did not (I mentioned that bit about there always being a catch, didn’t I?)
None of this is real research, though. I know enough to keep an eye out for first editions of Tolkien or Salinger or Raymond Chandler, who also makes the top twenty list. Reading this list switches from “Gee, I wish” to “Gee, I wonder” when I notice that John Wyndham, like J.D. Salinger, made it onto the list twice.
John Wyndham’s first editions are rare for pretty much the same reason Raymond Chandler’s are. They were mere genre fiction: Chandler writing what would one day be known as landmark detective novels, and Wyndham producing science fiction tales which became landmark movies before anybody really started to consider the books themselves worthy of collecting. (Day of the Trifids, The Midwich Cuckoos, a.k.a. Village of the Damned.) These are the kind of thing Newberry book donors have sitting in boxes in the attics. Sure, they were fun to read at the time, but why, barring an accidental showing on Antiques Roadshow, would you ever look through them again?
It’s like that copy of Fire and Ice we found last week. We get a lot of books by Wallace Stegner—he seems to connect with the Newberry crowd—but it’s always the later books, the Pulitzer candidates: Angle of Repose, Big Rock Candy Mountain. This skinny little thing was unknown to me, as was the author shown on the back cover: a brash young man who looks like he just took off his cap and gown from graduation to have his picture taken.
Fire and Ice was only his third book, and his least familiar. Only about 2500 copies were printed, and twenty percent of those were pulped. So the lowest price I could find online for a nice copy in an excellent dust jacket (a couple of those catches I’ve been mentioning) was $880, and the next lowest was $1,400.
Oh, yeah, it would have been nicer if this had been, say, J.D. Salinger’s copy, or signed by Andy Warhol. But now we’re back to daydreaming.