Roger W. Smith, bibliophile

 

… I take pleasure from the fact that I can enjoy [books] when it pleases me to do so; my soul is satisfied merely with possession. I never travel without books, neither in peace nor in war. Sometimes whole days go by, even months, without my looking at them. But it might be at any moment now, or tomorrow; or whenever the mood takes me…. Books are, I find, the best provisions a man can take with him on life’s journey.”

— Michel de Montaigne

 

 

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I was watching a Ken Burns documentary the other day. There was a photo of FDR’s study in his home in Hyde Park, NY. The walls were lined with bookshelves. As often seems to be the case in such situations, the books were behind something or other: a mesh? glass?

J. P. Morgan’s library, in his residence (now a museum) on Madison Avenue in Manhattan looks just the same. Books everywhere. Many, probably all of them, priceless.

It looks, however, as if most or many of the books in such studies did not get read by their owners.

 

 

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I am definitely a bibliophile, but I do not collect books solely to be able to say I own them, or for money, as an antiquarian might.

If I “adopt” a certain author — add him to my all time favorites/must read list — I find that I then want to acquire everything by or about the writer that I can lay my hands on. This includes — with respect both to the acquisition of books and actually reading them — minor as well as major works.

I have found that sometimes, indeed often, reading a writer’s early works and ones considered to be minor can be very satisfying. And, I have found that works deemed “minor” can turn out to be among the author’s best and most revealing ones.

I am interested in the man and his life as well as the works. So, I will obsessively look for works of a biographical nature and books that provide ancillary information about the writer. It might be a book by or about someone with whom the writer was closely associated or by whom the writer was influenced.

I won’t stop once I have started. Which is to say, I will acquire every book by or about that particular writer that I can find.

This often seems to bear fruit. So that acquiring books as a sort of “futures contract,” based upon the idea that you may want to get back to the writer, seems propitious. This recently happened to me, for example, in the case of a Russian-American scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin, whose work I have long been interested in. I recently got an inquiry from a visitor to this site, based in Moscow, who was interested in my posts on this site about Sorokin. I was able to go to my storehouse of Sorokin books and found much valuable, pertinent information there to share with her. Many of the books are out of print, or hard to obtain even in libraries. Some of the out of print ones are obtainable on the internet, but at what are now expensive prices.

I can remember approximately what I paid for most of my books, going far back, and where and under which circumstances I bought them.

 

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I once remarked to a therapist I was seeing that I had acquired many books in the manner described in my comments above and that I was unlikely to read a majority of them. I was thinking, ruefully, that it was perhaps foolish of me to be buying so many books without the likelihood that I would ever get around to reading most of them.

The therapist, an intellectual and writer, who himself had developed a private library in similar fashion — and for the same reasons — replied by saying emphatically (in so many words), “you’ll get around to reading them eventually.” He dismissed my concerns that I was overdoing it.

His comment made me feel better and less guilty about my sometimes extravagant book buying. And, I do realize that just having certain books on one’s bookshelf makes one feel good. There is a sense of security about it. You know that certain books, especially those of your favorite authors, are there waiting to be read. It’s a nice feeling. (I have had similar experiences and feelings in compiling a classical music collection.) And, I do get around to reading many of them.

It also surprises me that I turn to books on my shelf more frequently than I would have expected, to look up something or other or to remind myself of what a writer said about something (sometimes unearthing a pertinent quote).

My therapist also made the point that there is something very pleasant and cozy about having a book lined study. I myself feel this way. It is pleasant to be able to contemplate and, indeed, to admire one’s own book collection; to view one’s bookshelves; to peruse them and think about authors and their works, as well as thinking about what one might like to read next.

I actually like to feel books, to have them in my hands.

 

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I have become a shrewd book buyer over time. You have to know when to “pounce.” If you see a book that you really want, and you can afford it, I have found that you should buy it without further deliberation.

An example of would be Walt Whitman’s Blue Book: The 1860-61 Leaves of Grass Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions. This is a two-volume boxed set that was beautifully and expensively produced. It was published in 1968 by the New York Public Library. It has tipped in pages which show revisions in Whitman’s own hand that he made in a copy of his of Leaves of Grass which he kept in his desk drawer while working in a government office in Washington during the Civil War. There is extensive editorial commentary as well.

I wanted to obtain a copy of this book, but they are quite rare. I found that there were — if I remember correctly — two copies for sale on the Internet, both priced at around $300 for two volumes.

Then, I saw that the Stand Bookstore in Manhattan had a copy. I went to the Strand to check it out — it was in their rare books department — and found that it was in perfect condition. The Strand’s price for the two volumes: ninety dollars. I bought the book without hesitation.

Another example is a monograph by Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law, Literature, and Empire in The Age of Johnson. I have wanted to obtain this book for some time — I read a previous book by Curley about Samuel Johnson and was greatly impressed. The more recent book by Curley — the one about Chambers (an acquaintance of Samuel Johnson) that I have been seeking — is for some reason very hard to find. If you look for the book from on line second hand booksellers, it is egregiously priced. The available copies that are in “good” condition (which means good, but not mint, condition) are priced at around $550 to $650 — this for a one volume book published in 1998.

I saw a copy on line the other day for around $200. I ordered it. I knew that I was not likely to find the book at this price again and that, relatively speaking, $200 — while it seemed very expensive — was a good deal. I know from experience that I will not regret the purchase.

The bookseller charged me over $200 for the book plus shipping. It never came. I had great difficulty with the bookseller, but was ultimately able to get my money back through arbitration. Then, I miraculously found an online bookseller who sold me the book — a beautiful edition, in mint condition — for $100 including shipping.

It’s like the eighteen dollars I spent during my senior year in college for a beautifully produced book comprising a facsimile of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The book seemed very expensive then, but I had to have it. It was solely a question of did I have the eighteen dollars, never a question of would I purchase it. I do not regret the purchase — it seems that you can’t find this particular edition anywhere nowadays. Nor can you find other editions that are so beautifully produced with magnificent reproductions of Blake’s color plates.

And, it seems that, for cherished books that I have paid a lot for, there are many others that I was able to buy cheaply.

 

 

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And, then you get lucky. On (May 7, 2017, for example, at the Strand Bookstore, I purchased An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer (1904). Forty dollars. Two volumes, illustrated. Over 1,100 pages. Nice wide margins typical of books of those days and splendid black and white illustrations — books were well produced a century ago! In very good condition. A serendipitous, unanticipated acquisition. I was looking for a different book in the social science section. It’s the sort of purchase one makes in used bookstores.

Worth reading? Will I? I’m not sure. Spencer was once a widely read and influential social scientist; his books were very popular among the general readership. I have run across books like this before and am glad of having bought them. Given the condition that the book was in and its rarity, I knew I was a good deal. But, I don’t purchase such books thinking of possibly selling them. Would not purchase if I didn’t think I might want to read them.

 

 

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You have to be persistent and continually on the lookout for books you want that may become available. An example is a nine volume work by Horace Traubel (sometimes referred to as “Walt Whitman’s Boswell”): With Walt Whitman in Camden. The book was originally published in 1906 in three volumes. Then, over the years, six more volumes were published posthumously, the last one in 1996.

I bought several volumes at random at the Stand Bookstore, whenever I saw one for sale. Then I bought the first three volumes, in mint condition, from an online bookseller for three hundred dollars. It seemed a lot to pay, but I was glad to have them.

I now owned eight of the nine volumes of Traubel’s diary cum biography. I checked an online global library catalogue, WorldCat.org, and it seemed that hardly any libraries — perhaps none — owned a complete set. I was missing only Volume 4. I found that only about seven libraries in the world owned Volume 4, including just one library in New York City: the Lehman College Library in the Bronx. They had two copies!

Finally, in June 2017, after several years of looking, I found Volume 4 for sale on line! I couldn’t believe my eyes. This completed my set of all nine volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden. Probably some Whitman scholar has them, but I doubt that a library anywhere does.

 

 

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An opinion I have long held is that books are a cheap commodity, comparatively speaking. When you consider how much pleasure you can get from them — their “entertainment value,” so to speak, compared to other things like movies — and how long that pleasure lasts (you can keep the book, you can reread it, often with profit and pleasure), they seem like an awfully good way to spend one’s money.

When you think of all the expense and effort involved in producing a book — research, writing, editorial, production, and so on — it seems remarkable to me that they are priced as low as they are. Yes, “expensive” books fifty years ago cost five or six dollars; now they cost thirty or thirty-five dollars, perhaps. But, when you consider their relative value, and how much prices have risen in other areas, the cost doesn’t seem prohibitive.

 

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   June 2017

 

 

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Addendum — Booksellers:

 

I have always had a nose for books and have made many serendipitous acquisitions. Among my best places to find books, currently, I would include:

(1) The Strand Bookstore at Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan. I have been going there since the late 1960’s. It seems to be one of the few used bookstores left in Manhattan. I keep making finds there. Everything is reasonably pieced — underpriced (almost always) compared to the online used book market; this includes books just off the press. The books they carry are in excellent condition — they don’t seem to acquire books that are not. A great thing about the Strand is that the books are very well organized, alphabetically by author.

You have to get a feel for their system, to know what section to look in. For example, if you were looking for a biography of Walt Whitman by Justin Kaplan, you have to know to look under “Whitman,” not “Kaplan,” and you would have to know that it would be in the literary nonfiction section. Books are rarely where they should not be. Plus, the Strand now had an excellent web site so that one can buy books from them on line. I often order on line from them. You don’t have to worry about getting a worn, beat up book delivered to you.

(2) Amazon.com is good for most book buying. I find their reviews quite helpful — I have written quite a few myself. Their books are reasonably priced, often at a discount. They seem to have most books that are in print. I find them less useful for used books. I would say, avoid buying (on Amazon) from secondary sellers.

(3) abebooks.com is, in my opinion, the best site by far for finding used books, especially out of print ones. If it’s available and for sale, the book will be there, or not at all.

The search engine is great. Just now, I was looking for a paperback edition of Platero and I, , a book by one of my favorite poets, Juan Ramón Jiménez. An English translation was published in paperback in 1962; it is virtually unobtainable now. It happens to be an edition I like because of the translation (among other things). I couldn’t find it anywhere until I went to abebooks.com. There were several editions available on the site. Quite a few were expensive. But, there was one in excellent condition that was reasonably priced.

You can sort the search results by price, date published, condition, etc. The booksellers are very accurate in describing a book’s condition.

I do not like to buy a book with a torn or tattered cover, underlining, crumbling pages, etc. — I don’t want someone else’s beat up book. I am willing to pay more to get a book that is in mint condition.

 

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Addendum:

 

Posts re books in my private library are on this site at:
https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/02/11/roger-w-smith-my-treasured-books/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/06/23/roger-w-smith-my-walt-whitman-book-collection/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/06/23/roger-w-smith-my-book-collection-of-samuel-johnson-and-james-boswell/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/09/23/inventory-of-dreiserana-books-etc-by-and-about-theodore-dreiser-in-roger-w-smiths-private-library/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/06/24/my-blake-books/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/06/24/my-henry-miller-books/

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/06/24/my-sorokin-books/

 

 

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Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway, New York, NY

 

 

 

Curley, 'Sir Robert Chambers' - book cover.jpg

Thomas M. Curley, “Sir Robert Chambers: Law, Literature, and Empire in the Age of Johnson” (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

 

 

 

'Songs of Innocence and Experience' - Orion Press.jpg

William Blake, “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (The Orion Press, New York, in association with The Trianon Press, Paris, 1967)

 

 

'Platero and I' (paperback) - cover.jpg

Juan Ramón Jiménez, “Platero and I,” Signet  Classic

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
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