Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Books of Jane Austen

The Books of Jane Austen

18th July 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. We now take for granted the almost universal popularity of the six mature novels and have a seemingly insatiable appetite for film and TV re-interpretations of the plots and characters. It is easy to forget that the popularity of the books was not instant and that for a long period of time, following the author's death, they were actually out of print.

The early writing history of Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775, at the vicarage at Steventon in Hampshire to the local rector, George Austen and his wife Cassandra Austen nee Leigh. She had six brothers and one sister, named Cassandra like her mother, who remained her closest friend and confidant during her lifetime.

Jane Austen started writing for her own and her family's amusement at about the age of 12. Later in life, she made fair copies of these early writings, now called her 'Juvenalia,' in three notebooks that she labelled with mock pomposity 'Volume the First', Volume the Second' and 'Volume the Third.' These three volumes were eventually published many years after her death.

In around 1793, at the age of 18, Jane, or Miss Jane Austen as she would have been known by her friends and neighbours, began to write more mature and longer works with a view to eventual publication. Between 1793 and 1795, she wrote Lady Susan, a short novel written in the form of letters, which we call an 'epistolary' novel. She then started a longer novel that she called 'Elinor and Marianne', also as an epistolary novel, that was finished by 1796. She then embarked on 'First Impressions', another long novel that she completed in mid 1797. After this had been read to the family, and much enjoyed, her father wrote to the publisher Thomas Cadell in London to try to interest him in publishing 'First Impressions'. The letter was returned marked "Declined by return of post."

From late 1797 until mid 1798, Miss Jane Austen reworked 'Elinor and Marianne', changing it from an epistolary novel to a plain narrative form.  At some time in mid 1798, she embarked on a gothic romance that she called 'Susan', that she completed by mid 1799. Her brother Henry Austen sent the manuscript of 'Susan' to another London publisher, Benjamin Crosby, in 1803. Crosby paid ten pounds for the copyright and promised to publish the novel, but nothing happened.

George Austen retired as the Rector of Steventon in December 1800 and moved his family his wife and two daughters to Bath.  The Austen family lived in Bath from 1801 until 1805 when George Austen died. Miss Jane Austen wrote very little during that period and was not happy to have been moved from Steventon. For the next four years, after the death of her father, the three Austen women led a peripatetic, unsettled and uncertain life, until Miss Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight, who had been adopted by a rich relative and had inherited large estates, offered his mother and two sisters the use of a cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, that was part of one of his estates, Chawton House. The three women moved into Chawton Cottage on 7th July 1809, and Miss Jane Austen resumed her interrupted writing life.

Jane Austen the first published text

We know that Miss Jane Austen revised the text of 'Elinor and Marianne' during her first year at Chawton. 
In early 1811, acting as his sister's literary agent, Henry Austen, now living in London and working as a banker, offered the revised manuscript of  'Elinor and Marianne', now retitled as 'Sense and Sensibility' to the London publisher Thomas Egerton,  Egerton advertised himself as 'Thomas Egerton of Whitehall', but his offices were actually around the corner from Whitehall in St. Martin's Lane.

Miss Jane Austen retained the copyright to 'Sense and Sensibility', and agreed to pay for the printing and publishing expenses of the book. A first edition of between 750 and 1000 copies was published by Egerton in October 1811. The title page famously reads:













by C Roworth, Bell-yard, Temple-bar



The text on the title page reveals several interesting aspects of this publication. 'Sense and Sensibility' was published in three volumes in a duodecimo format. This was the standard way of publishing novels at the time, and the so-called "triple-decker" lasted in England until the 1880s. The circulating libraries, such as Mudie's, were the main drivers of this phenomenon. The libraries would charge their subscribers about 6d (sixpence) per volume and would lend out their triple deckers one volume at a time, hoping that the reader would get 'hooked' by the first volume, and so would then pay another two sixpences to complete thier reading of the novel. 

The first edition of 'Sense and Sensibility' was priced at 15 shillings retail. If the libraries paid the full retail price, they would then recoup their investment after ten readers had borrowed all three volumes. In fact, the circulating libraries paid a generously discounted price for their books, and probably were in profit by the 6th or 7th reader. It has been estimated that half of the first edition of 'Sense and Sensibility' was bought by the circulating libraries.

The by-line was famously "by a Lady". This is because it was not felt to be proper at the time for a 'gentlewoman' to be identified as a published author of a novel. As the daughter of a country rector,  Miss Jane Austen would certainly have been regarded as a gentlewoman,  In fact, Jane Austen was not identified as the author of any of her six mature novels until after she had died.

The phrase "Printed for the Author by ..." signifies that the author has retained the copyright and has agreed to cover the cost of the printing, advertising and publication. Even the printer is of interest, as often the three separate volumes of a "triple-decker" could be printed by different printing firms. If a printing firm was sufficiently small or busy, it might not have enough type to have the whole of the volume, let alone the whole of a novel, 'set up in forms' for the entire print run. This means that the first impression of the first edition is the only possible impression, and that the next printing will be a second edition, with all of the type reset. This was the case for the first edition of 'Sense and Sensibility', although in this case the printer was C. Roworth for all three volumes. In these "triple-decker" volumes, the printers name usually appears on the verso (reverse side) of the title page, or of the half title page, or at the end of each volume. It is unusual for it to appear on the title page.

"Published by T Egerton, Whitehall" indicates that Egerton takes the legal responsibility for the printed text, even though he didn't hold the copyright. Egerton was probably chosen because Henry Austen had previously had magazines that he had written at Oxford distributed in London by Thomas Egerton.

 Egerton would have engaged the printer, Roworth, and we know from surviving letters that Miss Jane Austen was staying in London at her brother Henry's house in Sloane Street during the process of reading and correcting the printer's proofs, which would have been delivered to Sloane Street by Egerton. Early stages of the process of proof reading was taking place in April 1811, and Miss Jane Austen reported in a letter of 28th April to her sister that she despaired of the book being ready until after June of that year. In another letter dated 28th September 1811, Miss Cassandra Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Knight asking that Fanny did not reveal to anyone that Aunt Jane was the author of the soon to be published book. 
In the event, the first trade advertisements for the book appeared on 30th October 1811 and continued through November. It is generally thought that publication coincided with the first advertisement.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Interesting books of Yesteryear: 

Peter Mayle: A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence

First published 1989
First published 1991

The whole phenomenon of British people buying and renovating properties in Provence, particularly in the Luberon region, that sits between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence really kicked off following the publication of Peter Mayle's "A Year In Provence" in 1989 and "Toujours Provence" in 1991.

Mayle was an advertising man who had published several humorous sex education books in the "Willie" series. as well as a book "Up the Agency", which somewhat trashed the world of advertising. The decision that he and his wife took to give up their previous lives and move to Provence with their two dogs is vividly described in a series of vignettes of life in the Luberon, which make up the two books.

The first book takes the reader through their first year in 12 chapters, one for each month, where some of the trials around buying and renovating their farmhouse, which sat between Menerbes and Bonnieux, are described, along with lively portraits of some of the charctors who make up their friends, workers and neighbours. We get to meet the pessimistic M. Faustin, who farms some of Mayle's land, the hermetic M. Massot, ever hoping to sell his dilapidated and unattractive property to some rich Anglos, the philosophical plumber M. Menicucci, who eventually installs central heating into the Mayle farmhouse.

Mayle gives some stirring accounts of some of the gastronomic bounty of the region, and gives in a quirky and affectionate style, a very approachable evaluation of the contrast between living a la Provencal and regular middle class English life and expectations.

The second book is less structured and in some ways less appealing, although it does have some wonderful highlights and anecdotes... the fiftieth birthday picnic above Buoux (sadly the Auberge at Buoux, which was so wonderful in these books, is now a sad shadow of its former self, and rather a tourist trap) was for me the highlight, and I also enjoyed the heroic gastronomic event at Chateauneuf-du-Pape, that Mayle very vividly describes in the chapter 'No spitting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape'.  His account of attending a Pavarotti concert in the Roman theatre at Orange is also memorable... one can well believe that Pavarotti ate his way through the concert and had extra need of the famous large white hankerchief/napkin.

One of the sad events that followed on from the two books was that Mayle and his wife were so hounded by tourists and admirers that they eventually abandoned the region and somewhat fled to North America. Happily there was a happier ending as there is a third book in the series, 'Encore Provence', published in 2000, which describes Mayle's return to live in Provence, this time in the region of Loumerain, a little to the south east of his first house. 

However, it is the first two books which led to the epic explosion of interest in English and other northern European people following in the footsteps of Mayle and in due course, as Mayle himself predicted, destroying some of the ambiance that attracted people to the region in the first place. The desire for luxury living with swimming pools and tennis courts, and a failure to bend to the traditional, season-driven lifestyle of the Luberon in many of his compatriots clearly saddened Mayle. People seemed to have read the books but not apprehended the message.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Interesting books of Yesteryear: Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming

This is the first of a series of blogs on interesting, out of print and hard to find books. They will mostly be more than 20 years after their first publication.

'Invasion 1940' by Peter Fleming


'Invasion 1940' by Peter Fleming was published by Rupert Hart-Davis in London in 1957.

An American edition of the book was published in the same year by Simon and Schuster as 'Operation Sea Lion.'

The book is an account of the invasion plans that Adolf Hitler and the German military high command prepared for an Invasion of the United Kingdom following the fall of France in June 1940. The book also documents British preparedness, or the lack thereof. This was the first published account of these events, predating the Official War History account, Basil Collier's "The Defense of the United Kingdom" by five years.

 Historical background

 The order to prepare the first plans for a cross-channel invasion was issued on 15th November 1939 by High Admiral  Erich Raeder, the senior commander of the German navy. At the Nurenberg War Crimes trials, Admiral Raeder said that he did this as a precautionary measure, in case Hitler suddenly demanded such a plan from him.

The first discussion on the topic between Hitler and Raeder was initiated by Raeder on 21st May 1940, during the German army's successful armoured thrust into France, which had commenced on 10th May 1940, and just before the successful British evacuation of some 338,000 troops from Dunkirk, which took place between the 27th May and 4th June1940. France collapsed and surrendered on 25th June 1940.

The outcome of the discussion between Raeder and Hitler was the issuing of Directive No. 16 on 16th July 1940 by Hitler. The beginning of Directive No 16 is quoted by Peter Fleming thus:

As England, in spite of the hopelessness of her military position, has so far shown herself unwilling to come to any compromise. I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion of England.
This operation is dictated by the necessity of eliminating Great Britain as a base from which the war against Germany can be fought, and if necessary the island will be occupied.
I have therefore issued the following orders...
 The invasion plan was given the code name Operation Sea Lion, 'Unternehmen Seelöwe'.

An outline of the book

Fleming gives many details of the plans for Operation Sea Lion in the book and documents much of the information he uses. He gives many logistical as well as strategic and tactical details of the invasion plans. In two fascinating chapters, he explores what the German military intelligence knew of the British military forces, and vice versa. He also gives an excellent account of the English response which went from apathy through denial to preparedness and resolve, catalysed by the crucial change of leadership from Chamberlain to Churchill on 10th May 1940.

He start with a very brief account  of the opening military actions of World War II in Poland, Norway, Belgium and Holland and finally France. This approach somewhat assumes that the reader is already familiar enough with this (to the author) very recent history. While this attitude was probably true for his readership in 1957, I doubt that this is so today.

Fleming does give the reader much more detail of the attitudes of the English up to May 1940, and includes this wonderfully complacent quotation from Britain's then leading military historian: secure than ever before against invasion.... There is sound cause for discounting the danger of invasion.

                                              from 'The Defence of Britain' by Basil Liddell-Hart. July 1939

A fairly full and satisfying account of the naval and air situations is presented and a full and detailed account of the crucial failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain is also very well presented by Fleming.

There is quite a lot of speculation about how seriously the Germans really contemplated an invasion, which, while planned as if it was an extension of a military crossing of a large river while under enemy fire, was clearly going to require an operation of a much larger order of magnitude. No modern amphibious operation on this scale had ever been contemplated, involving 9 army divisions in the first wave and requiring close co-operation of land sea and air forces.

 It does seem that Hitler was hoping for a British capitulation or, at least, a willingness to negotiate a position of armed neutrality, while agreeing not to interfere with the German military activities in continental Europe, particularly looking to the East. Fleming suggests that, probably, no-one in the senior German military leadership was really keen to commit to the scheme due to its inherent riskiness.

From the outset of the planning, the following prerequisites were identified:

  • Elimination or sealing off Royal Navy forces from the landing and approach areas.
  • Elimination of the Royal Air Force.
  • Destruction of all Royal Navy units in the coastal zone.
  • Prevention of British submarine action against the landing fleet.
Fleming describes how the German Navy was very concerned by their large losses after the campaign in Norway in 1939 and could not neutralise the Royal Navy. This, coupled with the Luftwaffe's failure to eliminate the RAF, left all four of the pre-requisites for invasion unmet.

 Ultimately, the invasion plan was formally abandoned on 17th September 1940. Interestingly, Fleming tells us that, although Hitler joked about the invasion in a speech given on the 4th September, he had probably already decided that the invasion was impossible. Fleming also reveals that some of the units that, were earmarked for the invasion of Britain, were not released for other action or theatres of war until the spring of 1942.

The book also gives an interesting account of the German plans for the governance of a successfully defeated and occupied Britain, including a reproduction of four pages of the famous 'Black List' of leading Britons to be 'neutralised.'

The book is illustrated by contemporary black and white full page photographs, that are of mainly very high quality, and also has many vignettes of contemporary cartoons which underscore or lampoon the history and politics of the time.

I can thoroughly recommend this book as a well written interesting insight into what might have been, two generations ago. Fleming's writing style is lively and relatively undated.

About the Author

Peter Fleming 1907-1971

Peter Fleming was essentially a travel and real life adventure writer who was initially far more famous than his now illustrious younger brother Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!).

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) was one of four sons born to a World War I hero and victim, Colonel Valentine Fleming MC, MP (1882-1917). 

After his education at Eton and Oxford, Fleming first came to fame after participating in an intrepid journey through the Amazon basin, that had been undertaken to search for the lost British explorer, Colonel Fawcett. The subsequent  book that Peter Fleming wrote about his experiences, his first, 'Brazilian Adventure', was published in 1933 and made his name. It is still in print.

His next two books 'One's Company' (1934) and 'News from Tartary' (1936) documented his rail journey from Moscow to Beijing and then his overland trek from China to India, in the company of a French female travel writer who he met along the way.

In 1940, Peter Fleming published a light-hearted novel 'The Flying Visit' , with illustrations by the celebrated New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low. The book describes an accidental visit to wartime Britain by Adolf Hitler. It eerily foreshadows the real flight of Rudolf Hess to Scotland in 1941.

After distinguished service in the Second World War, where Peter Fleming served in the first commando unit in Norway, and was involved in intelligence and deception of the enemy in South East Asia, he continued his writing career, producing another dozen or so books of travel, essays and novels, but became completely overshadowed by the growing fame of his brother Ian through the late1950s and 1960s.

 Peter Fleming was married to the famous British actress Celia Johnson, imortalised by her starring performance in the film 'Brief Encounter.' They had three children.

The official biography of Peter Fleming was written by his godson, Duff Hart-Davis, the son of the publisher of 'Invasion 1940', Rupert Hart-Davis.

Further reading

'Brazilian Adventure' by Peter Fleming, Alden Press, (1933)
'One's Company' by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1934)
'News from Tartary' by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1936)
'The Flying Visit' by Peter Fleming, Jonathan Cape, (1940)
'Peter Fleming, A Biography' by Duff Hart-Davis, Jonathan Cape (1974)


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Works of Shakespeare in Penguin

Penguin B3 April 1937

The complete works of William Shakespeare were published by Penguin books in 37 volumes between 1937 and 1959, with a long hiatus between the 18th and 19th volume caused by the Second World War.

The first six volumes were published in April 1937 and were numbered B1- B6, even though the Shakespeare series predated by one month the start of the Pelican series, which had been given the A numbers. The whole series was edited and prepared by Dr. G B Harrison, who also provided the notes for each volume.

The first 21 volumes were published in red covers designed by Edward Young, who had designed all of the original Penguin covers. The front cover was decorated with a black and white woodcut of Shakespeare by Robert Gibbings. This was the first series published by Penguin to have an image on the front cover rather than pure typography. The first 18 books were published in dust jackets in three blocks of six each in April 1937, August 1937 and April 1938. The last three books with the original red covers, B19, B20 & B21, were published without dust jackets after the war in September 1947.

The series was renewed and completed by the publication of volumes B22 to B37 in a new black and white cover, designed by Jan Tschichold as part of the Penguin renovation project. These volumes carried a new wood engraving of Shakespeare by Reynolds Stone on the front cover, which was repeated on the title page. Volume B22 was published in October 1951 and the series ended with volume B37 which was published in September 1959.

Volumes B1 - B18 were priced at sixpence each (1937 - 1938). 
Volumes B19 - B21 were priced at 1 shilling each (1947).
Volumes B22 - B25 were priced at 2 shillings each (1951 - 1954).
Volumes B26 - B37 were priced at 2 shillings and sixpence (1955 - 1959), with the exception of volume B36, Henry VI, parts 1, 2 & 3 which was published in March 1959 and was priced as a double volume at 5 shillings.

My list of the Penguin Shakespeare series B will be found here. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Books about Penguins and Penguin collecting

I have just created a new page with the list of the books that represent my reference collection about Penguin books. The page can be found here or in the page list in the right hand column.

I hope to add some descriptions and small reviews shortly to make the whole thing more useful.

I am always on the lookout for useful reference material on Penguin books so any suggestions would be very welcome.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

What makes a book collectible?

I am often asked by non-book collecting friends what makes a book collectible and how can you tell if a book is valuable. Here are some thoughts on these matters.

Firstly, for a book to be collectible, there needs to be someone out there in the world who desires to own it! That may seem obvious, but really is the sine qua non of any collecting. Similarly, one may ask what is a particular book worth, and one rather obvious answer is "Whatever someone in the marketplace for books is prepared to pay for it!"
For instance, a book dealer may have a rare volume displayed in his or her shop with a price tag of say $500 on it, but if the book has been unsold in the shop at that price for 5 years, then who is to say that it is worth the price on the tag?

If we dig a little deeper into these issues, the four major determinants of "worth", which may not be the same thing as "value" or "price" are form, content, rarity and condition. Lets consider these four issues in turn.


By form, I mean the physical presentation of the book. Is it a hardback or paperback? Is it a first edition or a reprint? Is it printed or published by a desirable firm? Is it in an attractive or elegant binding? Is it illustrated? Is it signed by anyone special, such as the author, illustrator or a significant previous owner?
Does it have an interesting, well designed or famous bookplate? Some of these issues is worthy of some consideration.

Hardback or Paperback

Generally speaking, hardback, or more properly, 'cased' books are more collectible than paperbacks. There are many reasons for this. Most books are first published in a fully bound and cased format, at a relatively higher price, before they are then reprinted as a less expensive paperback in card covers, often with the gatherings of the pages glued to a back-strip, in what is misleadingly called 'perfect bound'. Most paperbacks that one sees are perfect bound. In recent years, in an attempt to contain costs, large format first edition 'trade paperbacks' have been published at the same time as an equivalent fully cased hardback first edition. Here in Australia, for instance, in the 21st century, most first edition novels are only available as trade paperbacks, when in the UK and USA they are often published as both hardbacks and trade paperbacks. Often it is then only the trade paperback that is exported from the UK to Australia for retail sale.

Cased books for the last almost 200 years have been bound within board covers that are covered with a substance that can be labelled or decorated. The coverings were traditionally types of animal skins, leathers of various types, or vellum. In the early 19th century, book cloth was popularised as a cheaper and durable alternative to animal products.

Since the later part of the 19th century, cased books have also been covered by paper wrappers called a dust wrapper or dust jacket. These were initially disposable, plain paper covers to protect the printed pages before they were cased by a book binder, or to protect them on the journey between the publisher and the retail bookseller. As the years went by, the dust jackets were seen as a useful, if perhaps ephemeral part of the book, which could also be decorated and so be useful in the marketing of books. For the collector of Modern First Editions (however defined), the dust jacket is a highly desirable if not essential component of the book for it to be deemed complete and collectible.

Some paperbacks are highly prized and collectible, particularly certain books which were only published in paperback format, or books from certain paperback publishers, such as Penguin, Albatross, Tauchnitz and Pan.

First editions

Everyone knows that first editions are very collectible and are often highly desired. But if you give this a little thought, it does require some explanation. One thing that you can be sure of is that every book that has ever been published has existed as a first edition. Indeed, the vast majority of books, once published in their first edition, have probably failed to sell sufficiently well, and so have never been  reprinted or re-issued! So why the importance of first editions? 
Collectors will generally say that the first edition is the first appearance of the book and as the initial form of the book that the world ever sees, it has a particular power and importance beyond the raw text. They will also say that the first edition also represents the authors freshest and new ideas and inventions. However, the first appearance of a book, which is strictly the first state of the first impression of the first edition ( I will explore these terms more in a following blog) in the original publisher's binding and dust jacket will often contain errors (known in the book collecting world as points) that are most commonly introduced by the printer, but sometimes by the editor or the binder.
Thus the earliest form of the book may not represent the author's true intentions, and it may be later states that correctly reflect the text as presented in the author's manuscript.


Generally, the original publisher's binding of  a book is the most desired form. However, from the earliest times, it has been quite common for books to be given different bindings after their purchase, that are often more ornate and attractive than the publisher's binding. Sometimes, particular book buyers or collectors had a preferred or personalised form of binding that they always applied to their books. Some private, public and school libraries also adopted this practice.

From  early Victorian times, it was quite common to replace the publishers cloth binding with a half or quarter bound casing that used different leathers and boards, often with marbled end papers. On occasions, the publishers themselves produce a limited number of copies of a book that are bound in higher quality, more expensive bindings. 

In mid to late Victorian times, many publishers adopted more highly decorated cloth styles, with the use of impressed or embossed gilt designs or coloured cloth decorations, sometimes on beveled or more elaborately incised boards. All of these superior Victorian cloth bindings are very collectible in their own right. In addition the cheap 'yellowback' bindings of crime and sensational novels of the late Victorian and Edwardian age are also now highly collected.

From the early years of the twentieth century, books were mostly bound in cloth which had become very plain and undecorated, particularly after World War One. As the cloth became plainer, so the dust jackets gradually became more highly decorated. In the Art Deco period, from the early-1920s until the end of the thirties, an expectation of elegantly decorated dust jackets began to become the norm for high quality books. For some crime fiction and thrillers, some of the dust jacket decorations became quite lurid and sensational. There are collectors out there for all of these. A few authors even designed their own dust jackets, Evelyn Waugh with 'Vile Bodies' and Ian Fleming with 'Moonraker' are two famous examples, and Len Deighton designed a few decorated Penguin covers in the 1960s.

Signed books

Names or signatures in books can add to their desirability. However, it does matter whose name and signature it is. " To little Freddy  from Auntie Nell, Xmas 1984, XXX ", scrawled across the title page of any book with purple broad tip Texta pen will almost certain detract from the books desirability. 

However, a copy of the James Bond book 'Dr No', neatly signed "Ian Fleming" on the end-paper would be desirable. If it were inscribed "Peter, here is my latest book; your brother Ian" it would probably be more desirable. If it were to be signed "to Sean Connery from Ian Fleming, loved your performance", it would be very highly desirable. I'm sure that you get the idea. 
Certainly a plain signature, probably written en mass for a bookstore appearance, is probably less desirable that a dedication to an unknown person, and certainly less desirable that a dedication to a famous person or a person who is significant to the book. 

Ownership signatures from famous, previous owners of the book, neatly written on an end-paper are also highly desirable. In this regard, a copy of Hitler's "Mein Kamf", with Sir Winston Churchill's ownership signature would be desired by all collectors of war books or Churchilliana.


Book-plates are the often decorative labels pasted onto the end-papers of books to assert ownership. Many people had personalised book-plates designed for them and the presence of a discrete and tasteful book plate does not generally lessen the desirability of a book; if the book plate is particularly well designed, or sufficiently grotesque  and unusual, or if it belonged to a famous or significant person, then it probably adds to the desirability of the book.


Content is a fairly straight forward matter to consider in book collecting. By content, I mean the text and the illustrations (if any). 


If the book is a classic or prize winning or ground breaking work, then it will be intrinsically more desirable. For most authors, there are one or a few stand-out titles which are the most collected. For George Orwell for instance, I think that everyone would identify "Animal Farm" and "1984" as his most desirable books. On the other hand, almost anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or the Brontes would be very desirable.
The nature of the text is also important. Most collectors prefer the detective fiction of Dorothy Sayers to her religious works; similarly, the Narnia books and the three space fiction novels of CS Lewis are more collected than his academic or religious books. Most collectors would rather have Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" or "She", rather than his scarce first book, "Cetewayo and his White Neighbours", or his later books on Farming. 

Charles Darwin's "On The Origin of Species" probably is a unique book in its profound impact on human ideas and life. Any copy of this text has some interest to collectors, from the first edition of 1859 down to the many modern reprints that have appeared since.


Illustrated books also have a content collectibility over and above the written text. Many books have been published in un-illustrated first editions, which, after the book's success as text has been established, get re-issued in lavishly Illustrated and finely bound editions that many collectors crave. For collectors of English books, the golden age of book illustration is generally held to be the period 1875 to 1914.

I personally have collected editions of the Alice books of Lewis Carroll illustrated by many illustrators over the last hundred years or so. Although the original illustrations in the first editions of 1865 and 1871 were famously and iconically created by Sir John Tenniel, many famous illustrators have produced wonderful illustrations since then. In a future blog, I will discuss these books and illustrations.


Rarity is determined by a number of factors. Age is certainly one, and although old books are not necessarily highly collectible, there is no doubt that age will have an affect on survival of any book, and so will effect rarity.

The size of an edition is also a key factor. The first edition of the first book by an unknown author is usually published in very small numbers, as the publishers want to limit their risk of losses. If the book is successful, then the publisher can print more copies and issue new editions, according to the book's popularity. Nowadays, if a film is made of the book, new editions are published to take advantage of the marketing of the film.

In interesting recent example of the first book phenomenon is offered by the Harry Potter books of J K Rowling. The first book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's stone" (1997), as the first book by an unknown author, was published in a standard small first UK hardback edition of 500 copies in laminated boards, along with a paperback edition of a few thousand books. 300 of the 500 hardbacks were sold to the English School Library system, where they will have been read to destruction,  leaving only 200 copies for book collectors. These now attract massive prices, around $50,000, in specialist book auctions. Copies signed by Rowling will cost even more.

The second book "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets(1998) and third book "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Astraban" (1999) were both published in UK hardback first editions of about 10,000 copies each. These are also highly collected and quite expensive, generally costing around $1000 , depending on condition and issue, rising to $7500 if they are signed by the author.

By the fourth book "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", (2000), the Harry Potter phenomenon had well and truly taken off. The first UK hardback edition numbered 1 million books! Although these are still collectible, they are easy to find, and not very expensive. The same is true for the last three books, published in massive first editions and therefore relatively common and easy to find.
Interestingly, the first UK hardback edition of the first James bond book "Casino Royale" (1953) is also very rare and highly desirable, due to a small edition being printed (about 4500 books), of which half went to the UK Public Library Service and were read to destruction... a similar story to the first Harry Potter book.

In a parallel story,  the first edition of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", was published by John Murray on 24th November 1859 in a first edition of only 1250 copies of which 1170 copies were available for sale. 500 of these were purchased by Mudie's Library and all of the rest were pre-sold before publication, mainly due to the intense interest in the subject at the time. Many ended up in institutional libraries, so that the number of copies in private hands, which are those that tend to become available to the rare book trade, was very limited. A first edition can still sometimes be offered for sale in 2015, but it will cost around $250,000. A copy famously sold for around this price on the 150th anniversary of its publication in 2009.


Condition is the final consideration that I will consider here. Book collectors want the best possible condition of any book that they want to collect. The book should ideally be complete, in the original binding and dust jacket, with no marks, tears, scribblings, sticky tape scars, water or light damage, library detritus or stains. It should ideally look like a brand new copy of the book on the day of issue, before it has been read.

This Ideal is not always attainable, and so the more scarce and desirable a book is, the more collectors will compromise on condition. Small stains and small repaired tears and creases in the dust jacket are often acceptable. All illustrations must be present in an illustrated book, but looseness of tipped in illustrations can be acceptable and can be repaired. The title page must be present and all of the text must be present, but some people will accept the loss or disfigurement of the free front end paper (the blank page often found at the front of a book, before the title page). Looseness or defects in the binding, usually found in the "gutters", the region where the pages are attached to the boards, are grudgingly acceptable to most, and the absence of protective tissues from illustrations, particularly frontispieces are common and also generally acceptable.

Foxing, the appearance of brown stains due to a mould within the paper is common and also acceptable if not too severe. (A well known comical book on book collecting, illustrated by Ronald Searle, is famously titled "Slightly Foxed, but Still Desirable", echoing the description often given in book dealer's catalogues.)

Not surprisingly, the older a book is, the more damaged and worse for ware it is likely to be. Most collectors will accept this and take a pragmatic view to this issue. Thus I expect a much higher standard for my Terry Pratchett first editions, all of which were published after 1983, than my Charles Dickens first editions, all of which were published between 1834 and 1870.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Starting at the beginning.

Chris's Books

This is a first attempt by me to create a web presence about Old and Rare Books and Book Collecting. It is an entirely personal viewpoint and represents my own views and tastes, and so will reflect my own collection and collecting interests. I will try to link to useful resources and devise original posts that may be of interest to some book collectors out there.

My collecting tastes are very catholic but are generally in the area of English and children's literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. Wow, (I hear you say), that's a huge scope. Yes it is, but I narrow it by collecting authors who I enjoy and like, books that I admire for their form as well as their content, and some particular areas of English writing, including some travel writing by favourite authors, and detective and crime fiction by authors who use this genre to explore particular times, places and cultures.

I am also an avid collector of Penguins, now going for 80 years. I will try to gather together here some useful information, ideas and sources for Penguin collectors.