OF THE MAKING of books there may be no end, yet to the modern collector the supply always seems to be dwindling. Where are the First Folios of yesterday? Gone to institutions, every one. Collectible Books, a survey by several hands of "some new paths" in collecting, offers much needed inspiration for the perplexed amateur with modest, rather than mutual, funds at his disposal. Together with its slightly older companion, Book Collecting: A Modern Guide (1977), it forms a basic reference for both the novice and experienced collector.
In the early 20th century, figures like A. Edward Newton and A. J. A. Symons made the pursuit of books into a game or sport. In those heartier days 18th-century quartos seemed as common as paper backs -- and nearly as cheap. But nowadays, as William Matheson, chief of Rare Books at the Library of Congress, reminds us, one must "collect a traditional subject in a marginal manner or . . . make a central attack on a nontraditional subject." Traditional areas include incunabula, masterpieces of printing or illustration, the work of famous writers, the output from distinguished private presses and rare first editions. Because such books are increasingly hard to come by, bibliophiles have been forced to turn to greener fields.
Among the new fields expertly discussed in Collectible Books are: non-firsts, paperbacks, catalogues, books since 1960, imprints from a single publisher, early books about film and photography, decorated trade bindings and volumes in series like those of Everyman or Tauchnitz. A common theme to all these subjects is the pursuit of scholarly completeness. The random gathering of high spots or fine copies is scorned; what is wanted is to give book and author a context, to see them as part of some larger design. This "bibliographical" approach has led G. Thomas Tanselle, for instance, to gather all the printings of Main Street -- not just the first, but also the 21st -- so that he can study the entire publishing story of Sinclair Lewis' novel.
The modern collector, as all the contributors to these two guides make clear, is neither a shambling eccentric nor a rich Edwardian connoisseur with a lascivous eyes for leather-bound sets. He is instead a scholar in the making, "a preserver of the cultural heritage, a pioneer who recognizes neglected areas and assembles the materials for studying them." Consider what could be learned by having a copy of every title from a single publisher, which is what general editor Jean Peters has been aiming to do for the Hogarth Press of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Or how a thorough collection of the paperback editions of an important book would demonstrate the evolution of taste. Blazoned across the top of the first Bantam edition of The Sun Also Rises are the searing words: "Could he live without the power of love?" The back cover calls Hemingway the "master of unspoken secrets" who alone could "tackle this daring theme."
The scholarly skills required by the serious collector are laid out in Book Collecting, in which there are detailed chapters on buying from dealers and at auctions, organizing caring for and appraising a collection, using a bibliography. What's more, that guide concludes with a splendid annotated list of books about books (by Tanselle), so that the reader can pursue his own researches into "the literature of book collecting."
Collecting Books should prove stimulating even to the most jaded bibliophile, especially in its redemption of non-firsts from the limbo of the lost. All the chapters are fascinating, their authors equally authoritative. Peter Howard's long article on books of the 1960s is especially useful, as it treats the desirability of publishers' galleys, page proofs, film scripts, pirated printings and other special editions. In his charming portraits of four collectors, Howard also conveys the glamor and pitfalls awaiting those who collect a living, producing writer. Admirers of Thomas Pynchon, the never-seen author of Gravity's Rainbow, must be especially ingenious, since "to date, no one has been able to buy publicly, and no collector of our acquaintance has, a signed Pynchon book or a letter from Pynchon or a photograph of Pynchon." An advance copy of V, his first book, sells for $750-$900. One collector of the enigmatic writer has gathered all his dust jacket blurbs (eight so far).
Perhaps the only thing missing from these two fine works is the true reason for collecting. It is neither scholarship, sport, nor a desire to fill in the gaps of some predetermined patterns -- although all these drive the bibliophile. Collecting is an attempt to recapture the past, to become intimate with another mind or era. How many readers know Stendhal, Thoreau or Virginia Woolf better than they know their closest friends? One's preferred companions are seldom all among the living; though a passion for a writer or an age, one can inhabit any time. As cyril Connolly wrote, even more ferently, "The Past Lives. To love the past is a religion, collecting is a form of prayer."