History must be constantly corrected and moderated by the seeing and handling of things.
There are many reasons to collect books: admiration for an author, fascination with a subject or time period, love of the physical beauty of specially printed or “press books.” There are scholarly reasons, too. The discipline of “critical bibliography” is the study of material books themselves, the history and vagaries of given texts. The premise of the discipline is that the physical book and all the elements comprising it—editing, printing, binding, illustrating, indeed all the “book arts”—can effect the transmission of the intellectual content, whether intentionally or accidentally. In previous eras, it was book collectors—amateurs, and often very learned amateurs—who, through intelligence and diligent sleuthing, acquired and eventually bequeathed to scholarly posterity the physical objects, the artifacts, of the scholar’s task.
My own collecting began when, as a young man, I first read Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis. I was a young fundamentalist Christian, and when Lewis showed me that as a believer, all great literature—and all truth, beauty, and goodness—was mine, I was transformed. Or at least, potentially transformed. I needed “eyes to see,” so I compiled a list of works based on what Lewis read and determined to read them all.
G. K. Chesterton especially fired my imagination. He turned the world upside-down—and as he writes somewhere, what better way to see the world in all its wonderment than upside-down. I started with his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and then his magical collection of essays, Tremendous Trifles—titles I found in a local used bookstore. After that I couldn’t get enough Chesterton. I scoured used bookshops, Salvation Army stores, Goodwill, and all varieties of thrift shops, antique shops, library sales, junk shops—these were the hills in which I searched for gold.
Over time I’ve compiled a fairly respectable collection of Chesterton first editions, many in dust jackets, some of them signed or inscribed. Recently I acquired a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill inscribed by Chesterton to a man named Hubert Paynter, someone he met in 1916 when Paynter was recovering from war wounds. Chesterton later served as his godfather upon his reception into the Roman Catholic Church. That touches me. The book is an artifact of friendship and conversion.
A favorite of mine is a wonderful first edition of Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi. I found it while studying at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., some 40 years ago. On Saturdays I worked in a downtown secondhand bookstore. I found this copy on the shelf and it was inscribed “For my dear Lizzie / from Aunt Marie.” There was a name, “L. Firmin,” at the top of the front free endpaper. I knew exactly who that was: Chesterton’s childhood friend, Lizzie Firmin—mentioned in the second chapter of his Autobiography. “Aunt Marie,” I knew, was Chesterton’s mother! And it found its way here because the Firmin family had eventually moved from London to Vancouver, B.C. I showed my discovery to the bookseller, who promptly doubled the price, putting it well beyond my reach. Some days later James Houston, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, visited the store. When I showed him the Chesterton volume, he looked at it, and said, “Steve, you should own this book. I want to buy it for you.” So for me, this is an artifact rich in associations—with Chesterton and his childhood and his family, and with the sweet generosity of a holy man.
As you can see, books can be artifacts of relationships, events, or intellectual influences. An interesting example is a book I found locally. It was a copy of Anthony Powell’s Agents and Patients (1936), inscribed, “For Scott Fitzgerald / from /Anthony Powell / Hollywood / July 20th 1937 / with admiration.” This book turned out to be an artifact of the only meeting between the two authors, Powell being at the time one of the very few British admirers of Fitzgerald’s work—especially The Great Gatsby, which he read every year. It happened at the commissary at MGM studios where both were employed writing screenplays. In Powell’s autobiography he says that after their meeting, he sent Fitzgerald a copy of his book, From a View to a Death. But he mentions nothing about the gift of Agents and Patients, dated the actual day of their lunch, which leads me to wonder if he forgot about it or perhaps was slightly embarrassed by his presumption and invented a different account.
Until about a year ago I was acquiring some extraordinary books from the library of Julian Jebb, a grandson of writer and controversialist Hilaire Belloc. Julian rejected his Catholic faith, resented his grandfather, and chose a life of worshipping “beauty and beautiful people.” Sadly, he killed himself at age 50 in 1984. But he was greatly loved by a lot of eminent writers and artists, and was himself somewhat accomplished as a journalist and filmmaker. I acquired a lot of interesting items from his collection inscribed or signed by Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound (“From Ezra Pound!! A Slave is a man who waits for someone to come and set him free!”), Truman Capote, and more.
My favorite item from his library is a remarkable artifact, a record of a hilarious exchange between the 28-year-old Jebb and Evelyn Waugh. In April of 1962 Jebb interviewed Waugh for The Paris Review, one of the few cooperative interviews the often cantankerous writer would ever give. In the letter he wrote in advance, Jebb promised that he wouldn’t bring a tape-recorder, imagining from what Waugh had written in his highly autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, that he had a phobia of tape-recorders. They met in the lobby of a London hotel, and the first thing Waugh asked was, “Where is your machine?” Jebb explained that he hadn’t brought one. Waugh proceeded to needle him as they headed toward the elevator: “Have you sold it?” Well yes he had, but three years earlier. “Do you have shorthand, then?” Jebb answered no. “Then it was foolhardy of you to sell your machine, wasn’t it?” The interview began after Waugh changed into pajamas, lit up a huge cigar, and got into bed. It turned out to be a brilliant, if short, interview, and it’s clear from Waugh’s letters and subsequent meetings that he was fond of Jebb. He later signed a copy (the copy in my collection) of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for Jebb and inscribed it, “You sold your machine because of Gilbert! Too bad! Best wishes, Evelyn Waugh 10/11/63.”
There are, of course, pitfalls to collecting books, moral and otherwise: greed, idolatry, debt, boorishness. But I think book collecting in itself is a good thing. It’s not about mere accumulation, but the disciplines of taste, technique, and study. And it’s about passion, and love, and imagination. The key to good collecting is a guiding idea or principle rooted in a passionate interest and an intelligent understanding. Any one of us, on almost any financial level, can participate in curating a small portion of civilization.
Steve Ayers writes from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.