November 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

First Editions, Second Thoughts

By now many of you have read a bit about the ingenious "First Editions, Second Thoughts" auction scheduled for the evening of December 2 in New York (the New York Times ran an awesome spread of images). Seventy-five modern first editions were mailed out to their respective authors or artists with the request that they annotate, illustrate, extra-illustrate, or mark up the text in some way. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk filled his Snow with original watercolors, while George Saunders provides what resembles a crazed copyedit in various inks and highlighter colors in his CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Hosted this time by Christie's, the auction benefits the PEN American Center.

What might be news to you, however, is the participation of ABAA bookseller, Between the Covers, in this venture. The New Jersey-based antiquarian bookseller helped to choose the titles, tracked down many of the first editions, and sent them to the authors for annotation. According to Matt Histand at Between the Covers, a few of the authors were able to provide their own books, but "we provided the majority of the literary first editions." Some were already in BTC's vast stock, but Histand had to hunt for others, always looking for "the best copies I could find."   

The most difficult, he said, was Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). Children's picture books are often hard to locate in their true first edition, first state, with dust jacket--and in collectible condition too. In this case, he reached out to speciality children's booksellers, Jo Ann Reisler of Jo Ann Reisler, Ltd. and Helen Younger of Aleph-Bet Books, neither of whom had recalled seeing a first edition of this title in twenty years. Histand said to himself, "This is not going to happen," and considered settling for an early edition or a different Carle title. Then, by "pure, absolute luck," a book collector contacted him and said that he had, astonishingly, found one at a library sale.

articleimage_firteditions7.jpgHistand also communicated with many of the authors who invested so much time and energy in the annotating process. "Anything that you add will be of value," he told novelist Michael Cunningham, who then created a mix-tape to accompany the first edition of his Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner-winning The Hours.

Last year's auction of the same name in May of 2013, hosted by Sotheby's to benefit English PEN, raised about $690,000, headlined by a first edition of Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone, annotated and illustrated by J.K. Rowling, which sold for $228,600.
Image via Christie's.