Thursday, August 24, 2006

On Collecting a Collector

Thirty-Seventh Antiquarian Book Fair 1996
Introduction by Julian Barnes.
London: Antiquarian Booksellers Association, 1996.

Several years ago I became a collector of Julian Barnes books. I had read most of the novels and had acquired the standard set of Picador and Vintage paperbacks, but one act pushed me beyond the realm of mere reader and into the unqualified world of collector. It wasn't my purchase of a signed UK first edition of Staring at the Sun. It's a nice copy, I admit, with a loose and flurried signature by Barnes in blue ball-point pen to someone named Peter with 'best wishes'. I still remember the thrill of owning my first signed title and of wondering what Peter must have been thinking when he took his personalized edition to the used book store. Was he a graduate student, as I was at the time, struggling to pay his tuition? Had his horse come up lame at the track? Did he buy the book new at a signing and, upon flipping through a few pages, decide that Barnes wasn't to his taste? (Surely not!) Did he take trade instead of cash? What titles did he leave with? Did he read those books or leave them to gather dust on some forgotten shelf? I didn't have any answers, but I did feel, as I placed the book on a special shelf in my cramped apartment, that I had rescued this once-cherished book.

Still, despite the importance of this purchase, I can't claim it as the turning point to bibliomania. Closer to the mark was the purchase several weeks later of a signed copy of the UK "London Limited Editions" version of Talking It Over. Purchased at what is still a good price (£35), I remember cradling the book and carefully checking the limitation: 161 of 200 copies printed with a special, marbled binding. I was a graduate student, as I've mentioned, and this book represented improperly spent student loan money. It wouldn't be the last.

I should have seen the event coming, building its momentum with these first few unnecessarily specialized purchases. The Internet was still relatively new, and several key online databases of used books were soon receiving my daily visits. Bibliofind, which is now run by Amazon.com (much to its detriment), was one of my regular temptresses. Interloc featured mostly British book sellers, which was particularly destructive to my bank account, but it eventually morphed into Alibris and started raising prices with its 20-30% handling surcharge. Then there was abebooks.com -- the last of the great used book store databases. Abebooks.com continues to lure me with its stock and even sends me daily updates of newly added titles related to Barnes. Alas, none of these sources were responsible for the single act that placed me in the ranks of abashed "collector".

Pacific Book Auction ... How had I even stumbled upon the website? It was the summer of 1997, and I was finishing the last few classes required before graduation. In auction #138, (17 July 1997), PBA announced for sale the following:

    288. Barnes, Julian. Cross Channel. Gilt-lettered dark blue morocco, a.e.g. No. 18 of 50 copies. First Edition. London: Jonathan Cape, [1996]. Signed & numbered by Barnes on the title page. Fine.

I didn't even own the basic first UK edition of Cross Channel (strangely, I still don't), but here in front of me was the opportunity to acquire one of only fifty copies of a specially signed edition. I am still amazed at the absence of any hesitation as I dialled the listed number and placed my bid: $190. I hung up the phone and my stomach hurt. I had bid nearly a month's rent. To my surprise, I won the auction at $184, including auction fees (shipping and insurance were extra). Despite the shame I felt for having squandered so much money on a stack of paper, I had to admit feeling an undeniable satisfaction when I finally held the book in hand. I had managed to acquire a superbly rare book, the one item I was sure would escape my grasp for the longest period of time, the essential peak of any Barnes collection that strives for completeness.

What I failed to realize, of course, was just how wide the base collection had become. Beyond the first US and UK editions were the proofs, the advance reader copies, the books with contributed essays, prefaces, or introductions by Barnes, those in foreign languages, and the audio books (stretching here, I admit, but nonetheless). What I also hadn't realized was that this rare find, this limited edition Cross Channel, would eventually be usurped in my heart by other, equally wonderful Barnes books -- The first book personally inscribed to me, for instance, or the fantastically rare UK proof of Fiddle City, or the surprising bookclub edition of Metroland from 1980. There is also the feeling of satisfaction that resurfaces each time I sit before a new and unread work by Barnes.

And what about completeness? Ironically, despite the fact that several copies are for sale online for under $25, I still don't own a hardback first UK edition of Cross Channel ...

-- Ryan Roberts, May 2001

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