Let us start with a quiz. Can you guess from which book this illustration is taken?
I will give you some clues.
It is the frontispiece to a book first published in 1841.
If you hover your cursor over the image you will get a clue to the language in which the work was written.
The playwright was one of the leading dramatists of his day. He acted and sang too.
He has both a square and an U-bahn station named after him in the city of his birth.
I bought this book roughly 35 years ago. I paid if I recall correctly the then local currency equivalent of about US$18.
If you haven’t got it yet and why should you, here is the answer:
I have no idea what this first edition is worth today. Probably not a lot and it is not for sale. It contains manuscript entries including, I presume, the actors playing the parts at a performance in the Carltheater. I bought it because at the time I was studying the works of Raimund & Nestroy under Professor W. E (‘Gar) Yates. In that sense it is of some sentimental value. Sadly, knowledge of early 19th century Viennese drama has been of little practical use to me in my banking career.
I have a love affair with books. When we moved house 2 years ago I gave away many boxes of them. It was hard to do and I hope they went to a good home. Many of my books though are ones I have collected, never to part with. I started buying first edition New Naturalist books on E Bay. I have scarce books that I pick up and browse through occasionally simply because I feel a desire to re-acquaint myself with an old treasured friend. The Nestroy book is simply one of the oldest I have.
I rescued from my grandmother’s house a small blue book called “Harry Dangerfield”. The manuscript entry shows it was a Sunday School (Ysgol Sul) award to someone in 1897. Essentially it is a morality tale. You can buy copies on the internet for a few dollars. No great worth. But I feel attached to it and would never part with it. I have even read it. I am a better person for it, I hope, although I confess it is probably 45 years since I set foot anywhere near a Sunday School.
I am a big fan of e-readers. I was an early adopter of the Kindle and a primary use of my iPad is to read books. I see no conflict between the love of paper and the accessibility of books in electronic format. My iPad allows me to select a book on the go without having to think ahead or carry multiple, sometimes heavy ‘real’ books. For example the last few books on my iPad / Kindle are:
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
On China by Henry Kissinger
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
The Inevitable Milton Flynn by J H Bullock
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Each of these is a book well worth reading especially the Shamsie novel. There is no particular theme here and I believe people should read widely. I encourage mentees to read books that they feel beforehand will run contrary to their own views or are outside their sphere of interest. How else do we develop and grow but to explore new fields and outlooks.
Yet none of these has the smell of age, the foxing that comes with exposure to the elements over many years. I can imagine a prior generation, swallowed up in a comfortable armchair, absorbing, inhaling a new treasure, caressing the pages one by one, gluttonously devouring chapters, fashioned with love and purpose by an author of the day. No such sensuality with an e-reader. My weighty copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom would seem a much lesser experience in ether format.
Some of the New Naturalist series have been reissued, replicas of the first editions. Supposedly to satisfy the demand from those who could not get a copy due to the short print runs of some volumes. Would I want a new one at GBP50 or would I spend a thousand pounds for a true first British Warblers. Do I want a piece of history or a do I want to read the book for what it is? Do I want a first edition in near-fine condition or do I want a reading copy? One descriptor I saw recently described a book as ” suitable for a re-binding project”. That translates as falling apart!
There is no standard answer in my case. I do not buy to invest but for the pleasure of reading and owning. Reading is a passion. Writing is a frivolous time-filler to capture the stream of consciousness that meanders erratically through my mind. From the days when I would consume multiple Famous Five books in a day, through Jennings and Darbishire, Capt. W E. Johns and Frank Richards, I can not recall a time when I was not a devourer of books. I can not imagine a home without books. I hope that as today’s generation grow up they do not come to view reading and handling books as a relic of times past.
Go out and buy someone a book for Christmas whether it be Treasure Island, Pigs have Wings or Ring of Bright Water. You know it makes sense.