December 2010 Archives

It was announced yesterday that Ellis Gene Smith, the Utah native who had the largest collection of Tibetan books (outside of Tibet), died in New York City. Smith was also the executive director of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. Here’s his obituary from the New York Times and another from the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this week, we were also saddened to learn of the death of professor Denis Dutton, who had been running the Arts & Letters Daily website for twelve years.
Mendelsohn_Vatican_009 this week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn writes about the Vatican Library’s treasures. Only an excerpt is available online, so if you’re not a subscriber, pick up a print edition. A short slide-show of Vatican manuscripts is, however, available for browsing online. Pictured here is “a scene from the Urbinate Bible, which Federico di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, commissioned from Vespasiano da Bisticci, a renowned fifteenth-century Florentine bookseller.
Hear ye, dealers and curators: Booklyn is looking for a buyer. The Booklyn Artists Alliance has finished organizing a ten-year archive of correspondence, book mock-ups, artist’s proofs, prints, invoices, etc. and is looking to sell to a public collection. You can download a PDF of the archive (twenty boxes of book arts history) from this page. Looks like an excellent collection!
possession-page-combo.jpgDevoted blog readers may remember that last year I received one very special two-volume set of Thoreau’s Cape Cod for Christmas (No? You missed that one? Read it again here.) This year another beautiful book was added to my collection, this one a slim fine press edition from Oak Tree Fine Press. FB&C did a short article on Oak Tree back in March, and I was so impressed by their books and their vision. All of the money publisher Bruce Howard raises with these editions is donated to African children with HIV/AIDS. He has persuaded authors like John Coetzee, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood to ‘donate’ a chapter of their work to this cause. The volume I received is part of Oak Tree’s First Chapter series; mine being the first chapter of A. S. Byatt’s Possession (you might have guessed!). It is a signed, limited edition featuring original artwork by David Royle. It is a treasure. Thank you, Santa! 
oldest-christmas-card-lg.jpgMass production of Christmas cards ramped up in the 1860s in Britain, although this hand-colored beauty from 1843 is believed to be the oldest example of a commercial card. It’s at the Bridwell Library at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. Here’s what they say about it:

Approximately 1,000 copies of the card were printed but only 10 have survived to modern times. Bridwell Library acquired its copy in 1982. The card was designed for Henry Cole by his friend, the English painter John Calcott Horsley (1808-1882). Cole wanted a ready-to-mail greeting card because he was too busy to engage in the traditional English custom of writing notes with Christmas and New Year’s greetings to friends and family....[More]


How about Charles Dickens’ old pet cat’s paw mounted to a letter opener? Look no further!
Moby-Dick-Arion-Press.jpgWith nothing in the top ten under $14,000, it was a good year for AbeBooks. ABE has posted its ‘Most Expensive Sales’ list, with an Islamic manuscript at the top and political commentary at the bottom. Goodies in between include a facsimile Book of Kells and the super deluxe 1979 Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick (pictured here), with engravings by Barry Moser. The list is then broken down into different categories -- children’s, art, modern firsts, ephemera, etc.

The top 30 signed books list is also available, with Franzen’s Freedom in the no. 1 spot.
Two weeks in a row, CBS Sunday Morning has had great book segments. Last week, they did a short piece on birding and the recent record sale of Birds of America. This week, we were treated to a short history of book covers and dust jackets, including interviews with major book jacket designers (Chip Kidd, needless to say), as well as a curator at NYPL to talk about fifteenth-century book covers. It runs about eight minutes and is great fun to watch. Check it out.

It’s no secret that the state of many small-town and county archives (and even many small colleges) is dire. The Society of American Archivists made lemonade of out lemons when it announced on Wednesday the winner of its “Worst Archives” contest: The Houston County Archives in Tennessee. According to an email sent out by the SAA, “The entries were judged on current storage conditions, funding needs and the urgent action required to preserve the collection.” The winner received a $250 gift certificate from Gaylord, an archival supply company, to make-over its archives.

Runners-up included the Gooding County Historical Society and the Destroyer Escort Historical Museum.
Jane Austen.jpgIn honor of Miss Austen’s 235th birthday today, take another look at some of our Austen coverage over the past year or so...

Our recent auction report on P&P in original boards:

Not a beautiful object to behold, I grant you, but a copy in the drab boards in which it was first issued by Egerton in 1813 is something beyond the reach and ambition of almost all devoted and determined Austen collectors - even assuming they have the necessary funds.

Our interview with the editor of Quirk Books, the mastermind behind the bestselling mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. From the piece:

Rekulak says the overlap between Austen aficionados and horror/fantasy devotees has been greater than he imagined. He estimated that 80 percent of Austen readers have enjoyed the new violent version of the text.

“What I find is that most Austen fans are so fed up with all the Regency Pride and Prejudice sequels ... they appreciate the originality of this idea,” Rekulak said.

Our coverage of the Morgan Library’s  2009 exhibit on Jane Austen, A Woman’s Wit.

Only a relatively small number of Austen’s personal letters have survived. The Morgan is a major repository of her correspondence, with one third of all surviving letters held in the department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. These materials--from correspondence to her beloved sister, Cassandra, to a letter to her niece in which all the words are spelled backwards, to “crossed letters” (also known as “cross-hatching,” in which Austen, to save paper and reduce postal charges, wrote across the horizontal lines of text at right angles)--offer a remarkable glimpse into Austen’s everyday life and relationships, as told in her characteristically witty and confident voice.

What else? How about a Jane Austen finger puppet? Or action figure?! She is omnipresent, and that’s pretty wonderful.

This is the infamous John Gilkey, convicted book thief and subject of last year’s book THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH. According to colleagues Gilkey has been spotted in several shops in the San Francisco Bay area.

If you enjoyed our December feature on comic book collecting (“Super Prices for Superheroes” by Jonathan Shipley), here’s some neat background he wrote about the origins of collectible comic books.

The greatest hero the world has ever known was born in Cleveland. “I hop out of bed,” remembered Jerry Siegel. It was 1934. “I hop out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two hour intervals.” The sun came up. He ran over to his pal’s house, Joe Shuster. They had been friends since their teen years at Glenville High School. Jerry shows Joe his writings. “We just sat down,” Shuster later said, “and I worked straight through.” Thus began the life of Superman.

It took years for the two men to find a publisher for their comic strip hero, but they did. In 1938, the editor of National Allied Publications, Vin Sullivan, chose Superman as the cover feature for National’s Action Comics #1. It sold for a dime. Fast forward to 2010. Siegel is now dead (he passed away in 1996 in Los Angeles). Shuster is, too (the penciler died in 1992 at the age of 78). Arguably the most famous fictional character ever created, Superman heads to the auction blocks. Action Comics #1 sells for, in March 2010, $1.5 million, making it the most expensive and valuable comic book of all-time.

In early 1939, the comic book industry was abuzz with Superman and his success at selling comic books. Editors were eager to find the next superhero that would make it big. Again came Vin Sullivan. The editor of National Allied Publications, the future DC Comics, approached Bob Kane on a Friday. He asked Kane to come up with something. Kane agreed to have something back to the editor on Monday. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s role as Zorro, Da Vinci’s drawings of his omithopter, and an unheralded 1930 film, The Bat Whispers, he came up with a red-dressed hero with mechanical wings. Bird-Man. Kane showed his friend and fellow comic book cohort, Bill Finger. They collaborated and toiled throughout the weekend. What if he was darker? More nocturnal? What if he wasn’t in red, but in grays and blacks? What if he had a cape and a cowl and no one would be able to see his eyes? What about Bat-Man? They handed their work to Sullivan. Batman first appeared in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in Detective Comics #27 in May, 1939. Batman was a hit. Selling for a dime, Batman received his own solo title in 1940 (his loyal sidekick Robin joined him in April of that year). Fast forward to 2010. In February Detective Comics #27 sold at auction for $1,075,000.

Now it’s 1962. The Fantastic Four, the comic book heroes, are extremely popular. Marvel Comics editor and head writer Stan Lee wants to create a character that teenagers can relate to. He wants to combine a powerful hero with deep vulnerabilities. He corrals artist Steve Ditko to come up with something. Lee said once that the hero “would lose out as often as he’d win - in fact, more so.” It was unheard of at the time for a superhero not to prevail time and time again. To test his hero out, in the last issue of a science fiction title that was slated for cancellation, Spider-Man appeared. The character quickly became the most influential superhero since Superman. The book, Amazing Fantasy #15, sold at auction recently for $280,000 - the highest auction price at the time for a comic book created in the 1960s. -- Jonathan Shipley

You might also like Ian McKay’s auction report on Batman v. Superman at auction, or Jonathan Shipley’s blog on Batman from earlier this year. 
The main Books and Manuscripts sale at Sotheby’s New York on Thursday made a total of $2,239,188, with 75 of the 115 lots selling. The top lot was Bob Dylan’s lyrics for “The Times They Are A-Changin”, which made $422,500. The first edition presentation copy of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia ([Paris, 1785]) sold for $362,500. An Alberto Giacommetti letter to Marlene Dietrich fetched $266,500 (well over the estimate of $18,000-25,000), while the Second Folio sold for $194,500. The Curtis North American Indian volumes failed to sell, as did the Nuremberg Chronicle, the inscribed copy of A Christmas Carol, and the first edition Book of Mormon.

When it came time for the big single-item sales, however, the bidders were there. “Custer’s Last Flag,” a guidon from the Little Bighorn battlefield, consigned by the Detroit Institute of Arts, sold for $2,210,500 to an American private collector. Robert F. Kennedy’s copy of the Emancipation Proclamation set a new record for a presidential document, fetching $3,778,500. It was purchased by an anonymous telephone bidder.

And then were James Naismith’s original typescript rules for the game of basketball, which set a new record for sports memorabilia at auction, making $4,338,500. That lot went to Austin, TX money manager David Booth, a native of Lawrence, KS who hopes to see the rules find a home at the University of Kansas (he says he will challenge the university to “provide a suitable venue”). Proceeds from the sale go to the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, a charity.
800px-PowellsBookstore.jpgTo celebrate the indie bookshops that are still alive, today the Huffington Post posted its readers’ twelve favorite bookstores. Powell’s made the list. So did City Lights and the Strand. Admittedly, I have not been to all twelve of these locations, but I’m surprised not to see the Harvard Bookstore here; it’s one of my all-time favorites. Take a look at the top picks and tell us what YOU think, dear readers!
First editions are the word today in the Wall Street Journal, with our very own Nick Basbanes being featured. It’s a good basic history, noting the ups and downs of first editions at auction, with great interviews. Here’s a snippet:

But while Shakespeare, Audubon and the Gutenberg Bible, which in 1987 netted around $5.4 million, are the top highlights of the trade, prices for most other books are performing reasonably. This may be because “collectors tend to buy the books because they love them, not so much with an eye to investment,” Mr. Sellsey says. “Compared to works of art, which can be displayed, books tend to be a solitary pleasure.” [Read more]
As if Charles Dickens could use the publicity boost, Oprah announced on Monday that not one but two of his novels have made her coveted list. She picked Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations; odd when one considers the season, for A Christmas Carol is just about everywhere, in any form. Want to see the original manuscript? It’s on display now through 9780141195858H.jpgJanuary 9 at the Morgan Library & Museum. Want to buy the handsome new Penguin classic edition (seen here, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith)? Perhaps you’d like to catch Gerald Charles Dickens, his great-great-grandson, on stage performing the Christmas classic? Wander the streets of a Victorian-ized San Francisco at the Dickens Fair? Tuck into minced pie at the Charles Dickens Museum? Ponder the V&A Museum’s recent plea to save Dickens’ rotting manuscripts? Book a stay at Dickens World?!

Of course, you could also read FB&C’s neat feature from last December on Dickens’ prompt book, “On Stage With Charles Dickens.”

It seems Dickens’ great expectations have been realized and then some.
Today’s sale of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures at Sotheby’s London made £2,897,250, with all but two of the 36 lots selling. The Rochefoucauld Grail shined as expected, selling for £2,393,250 to London dealer Sam Fogg. None of the other lots broke £100,000. The Northern Italian Book of Hours (est. £200,000-250,000) failed to sell.

But the big action of the day came in the Hesketh Sale, Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick 2nd Lord Hesketh, which brought in a grand total of £14,971,950, with just 9 of 91 lots failing to sell. The major items from this sale were the complete Audubon Birds of America (which sold for a record-setting £7,321,250/$11,544,553 to London dealer Michael Tollemache, setting a new auction record for a printed book) and the First Folio (which sold for £1,497,250/$2,360,947).

The ~1508 Plutarch illuminated manuscript on vellum, once in the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps and the 11th-century commentary on Matthew each made £505,250, while thecollection of letters written to the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots (including four by Elizabeth I), fetched £349,250. A 1613 Ben Jonson folio sold for £103,250.

The second edition Catesby made £121,500, as did a collection of natural history watercolors ; and all fifty-two of the original watercolor roses for Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Les Roses (sold in separate lots) found buyers, with prices ranging from £25,000 to £265,250. 
penzlerxmas.jpg‘Tis the season for this collection of mystery stories edited by Otto Penzler, editor, collector, and longtime owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop contains seventeen zippy tales by the likes of Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) and Mary Higgins Clark. For lovers of mysteries, or just bookshops, this is a top-notch set of stories. Manuscript dealers are murdered, collectors take hostages, and authors kill for a good story. “The Theft of the Rusty Bookmark” by Edward D. Hoch is a fun read in which a murder weapon is lost when the deceased’s personal library is sold. “My Object All Sublime” by Anne Perry is full of tingling tension, as a rejected writer confronts Penzler in his private study. “The 74th Tale” by Jonathan Santlofer is a genuinely creepy account of a loner who buys a mystery and uses it as a manual.

For collectors, there is an interesting backstory to the book. Every holiday season since 1993, Penzler has commissioned an original short story from a leading mystery writer. The only directive: some of the action in the story must take place in the Mysterious Bookshop. Penzler printed each story in pamphlet form, limited to 1,000 copies, and mailed them out as gifts to customers. A hot ticket for mystery collectors today! All of these tales are collected in this volume.

And if you are simply dying for a signed edition, there’s a holiday party this Thursday (Dec. 9th) at the Mysterious Bookshop (now located downtown at 58 Warren St.) at which Penzler and many of the authors in this anthology will be present to autograph copies. 

Mounseer Nongtongpaw

The New York Public Library has animated the first book Frankenstein author Mary Shelley ever worked on. It’s a kid’s story, published by Shelley’s anarchist philosopher dad William Godwin in 1808. Shelley was ten.

Thumbnail image for Pat.JPGMy Reading Life, by Pat Conroy; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 333 pages, $25.

One of America’s truly great storytellers, the incomparable Pat Conroy, is also a determined bibliophile--indeed one of the first signings of this delightful paean to reading was held last week at the Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, NC--so it is no big surprise that he has written a number of essays over the years about his particular passion for books and authors. The fifteen pieces gathered here form a whole of Conroy’s reading life thus far, and are a joy to pick up at any point. “Books are living things, and their task lies in their vows of silence,” he writes in one chapter that will be of particular interest to collectors, his association with the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. (He admits to having bought up to five thousand books there.) “I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish,” he writes in a tribute to the librarians of his early childhood. Everything this man of the South writes, he writes from the heart. The bookish drawings by Wendell Minor that garnish these lovely ruminations are a pleasant plus to one of the outstanding books about books of the season.

Jazz.JPGJazz; photographs by Herman Leonard; Bloomsbury, 303 pages, $65.

The black and white jazz photographs of Herman Leonard, shot during the 1940s and ’50s have become the stuff of legend. Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clark, Stan Getz, Modern Jazz Quartet--they’re all here in this definitive collection, a veritable feast of musical images. “He was a master of jazz,” music historian K. Heather Pinson wrote earlier this year on the occasion of Leonard’s death at the age of 87, “except his instrument was a camera.”

Ellis.jpgFirst Family: Abigail and John Adams, by Joseph J. Ellis; Alfred A. Knopf, 299 pages, $27.95.

Give Joseph Ellis all the credit in the world for committing his considerable skills to a fresh evaluation of the correspondence exchanged between John and Abigail Adams over the course of their marriage during what we can all agree were eventful times, and for demonstrating how the 1,200 surviving letters of theirs constitute “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor, more revealing than any other correspondence between a prominent American husband and wife in American history.” David McCullough made full use of these same letters in his magisterial biography of John Adams a decade ago, though the canvas there was monumental. Here, it is focused strictly on the remarkable relationship as revealed through the letters. The writing, of course, is superb, as always, and a joy to engage.

Morris.jpgRobert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, by Charles Rappleye; Simon & Schuster, 625 pages, $30.

Collectors of Americana know Robert Morris as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and covet examples of his autograph accordingly, but chances are that few know much about the Philadelphia entrepreneur’s role in the founding of the Republic. According to historian Charles Rappleye, Morris was unsurpassed in his efforts to fund the rebellion; after the war, he served in the Continental Congress and United States Senate, and was the first Superintendent of Finance, or treasury secretary. His methods were not always above reproach, however, and a dramatic downfall led to a resounding fall from grace. All in all a ripe prospect for a modern biography, which Morris gets in this thorough examination of his life.

Madison and Jefferson.jpgMadison and Jefferson, by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg; Random House, 809 pages, $35.

Dual biographies can be problematic undertakings, but Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, both respected historians and the authors separately of other books on early America, have combined here to produce a most readable account of a fifty-year friendship, perhaps one of the most consequential acquaintances in American history. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Virginians who each served as President of the United States, we all know that, but their relationship, as profiled here, was as much symbiosis as it was mentor-protégé. Burstein and Isenberg had made a significant contribution to the literature of our Founding Fathers.

Beetle.jpgBeetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith, by D. K. R. Crosswell; University Press of Kentucky, 1,008 pages, $39.95.

You could almost regard this huge biography as a bookend to the Morris volume cited above in that it looks at a significant player in American history who pretty much excelled away from the spotlight, in this case as Chief of Staff during World War II to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the consummate military man, Ike was legendary for delegating authority to key officers, and the aide who rode herd on all of them was Walter Bedell Smith. In 1950, Smith was Harry Truman’s choice to head the CIA in 1950; three years later, his former boss, by then president, named him Undersecretary of State, in which capacity he oversaw the partitioning of Vietnam into two nations, and implemented a plan for a coup d’etat in Guatemala. This is the first biography of his life, one long overdue.

exquisite.pngEncyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins; Nan Talese/Doubleday, 311 pages, $27.95.

No big surprise that Jessica Kerwin, writer for Vogue, thanks “legions of librarians” in the acknowledgments she appends to this charmingly eclectic compendium, given the wealth of arcania on subjects ranging from the balloon adventures of the Montgolfier Brothers in the eighteenth century, to the history of women’s lingerie, to the tradition of dining outdoors known as alfresco. It is, in short, an encyclopedia of very interesting things, and the documentation is impressive. The writing is elegant, the style accessible; altogether a fun book.

Two important sales at Christie’s New York this week:

Yesterday afternoon saw the sale of Beautiful Evidence: The Library of Edward Tufte, in 160 lots. Of those, 127 sold, bringing in a total of $1,817,187. Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius (1610) was the highest seller, making $662,500. The rest of the major lots failed to sell; the next-highest seller was Newton’s Opticks (1704), which made $60,000.

Today’s Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, Including Americana, in 569 lots, made a grand total of $6,608,688. A good chunk of that was from one lot alone, the New Jersey Historical Society’s copy of the famously rare Abel Buell map of the United States (1784). The map was estimated at $500,000-700,000, but that proved way too low: the final price was $2,098,500.

A rare copy of the first printed edition of Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”, estimated at $200,000-300,000, also did much better than expected, fetching $506,500. A copy of Hayden and Moran’s 1876 color-plate book The Yellowstone National Park ... sold for $218,500, while an inscribed copy of the first printed edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates made $182,500. A first edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations made $122,500, and Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition ...  (1814) sold for $116,500.

Among the Declarations of Independence up today, the 1833 reprint of Stone’s facsimile made $20,000 and an 1846 anastatic reproduction copy sold for $35,000).

The Abraham Lincoln manuscript letter to the Army of the Potomac following the debacle at Fredericksburg failed to sell, as did the first British printing of the Declaration of Independence.
fitzgerald.jpgFew writers understood better the limit of their talents than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the marvelous new HBO documentary, “Public Speaking,” the writer and professional “famous-person” Fran Lebowitz is interviewed by the Nobel-laureate, Toni Morrison. When the subject of the conversation comes to Fitzgerald’s work, Lebowitz mentions that his talent pretty much ended with “The Great Gatsby.”

Morrison slips in a mention of “The Crack-Up.”  Lebowitz ignores the interruption and is already onto her next bon-mot.

Morrison was right to mention “The Crack-Up,” as it is perhaps the most honest cri de coeur any writer has ever issued about the panic he felt when his talent had failed him.

Fitzgerald was in Hollywood, struggling with alcoholism and his inability to understand how one wrote a screenplay. He was fairly desperate, because his wife was in a mental institution in Asheville, NC,  and he had a child to support.  The light at the end of the dock was real, and haunting, to him.

How many writers have simply stopped writing? (Eventually, all of them.) We never hear why they stop creatively.

Fitzgerald tried to to continue. “The Last Tycoon” is considered his final work, although it was never finished.

“The Crack-Up” is actually his last great work. He explains, in the most searing self-indictment possible, how he failed - as a writer and a human being.  

He already knew it was time to stop typing.

And yet he beat on ....

Available now on the Bridwell Library site is an audio recording (crystal clear) of Michael Suarez’s lecture, “The Codex, the Digital Image, and the Problems of Presence.” As Daniel J. Slive, head of special collections at Bridwell, wrote in an email today, “Originally delivered on October 28, 2010 at Southern Methodist University, the lecture considered how digital surrogates are changing the ways we think about books and what the implications of these changes might be. In turn, the lecture asked how books and bibliographical reflection might usefully change the ways we think about ‘books’ delivered to us as digital images. Insights from art history, philosophy, and anthropology were adduced to enrich our thinking about this timely subject.”

Three other lectures are also available, including Mark Dimunation’s “Forged in Fire” from last April. Happy Listening!
Auction Guide