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Lecture Notes: collecting by the book

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In John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, the character Paul wins the hearts of a wealthy art dealer and his wife by talking about books. He finds a reference point for the modern malaise in The Catcher in the Rye. Paul notes that three assassins--Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr., and an unnamed Long Island substitute teacher--all cited J.D. Salinger's book as their justification.

Throughout the history of the printed word, books have been the instigators of passionate (and sometimes irrational) acts. According to local book dealer Tom Joyce, the value of a book depends almost entirely on the buyer's personal stake in the material. He thumbs through a catalog of used and rare books that lists a copy of The Catcher in the Rye priced at $5,000. Big letters pronounce that the book is a first-edition copy, but a much smaller addendum--"later printing"--is not lost on Joyce. "And he still wants $5,000. That's not bad for a book published at about $7.95," he says. But for some people, it may be worth $5,000. We all have our reasons. "There are people who like to have things because they have it and nobody else does," Joyce says. "On the other hand, there are people who enjoy having something because it belonged to a particular person."

A connoisseur of rare books as well as stories about local bibliophiles, Joyce reaches for a second-edition copy of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1903. It has the same illustrations that appeared in the original printing. Almost every page has miniature pictures of Dorothy and her traveling companions, and the colors change to suit the narrative. Closer to the Emerald City, fields of green become interspersed with lines of text. The monkeys debut cloaked by enormous wings covered with flower petals; they are more angelic than frightening. Joyce contrasts this book with a 1986 edition illustrated by Barry Moser, where the winged monkeys sport leather flying caps from World War I. Obviously advancements in aviation (not to mention movies) have clouded Moser's interpretation of the story. "If you go out and buy the first edition, you're experiencing the book the same way somebody a hundred years ago would have experienced it. You're seeing exactly the same illustrations, exactly the same binding, the same paper. You have the same tactile experience, which is very different from reading it today off a computer screen."

Joyce, a book dealer for the last 22 years, has become intimately acquainted with the eccentricities of collectors, and he says bibliophiles display a lot of imagination when it comes to acquiring books. He tells of one collector who fancied himself to be an alchemist. The man was looking for a rare book on amulets. "He said, "I talked to my psychic, and she said you're going to get the book. The book I want is in this shop in England. They don't know they have it, but it's lying under a bunch of other books.' And I said, "Did your psychic happen to get the name of the shop?' He didn't get his book."

Although Joyce regretfully admits that he's no relation to the author of Ulysses, he says that James F. Spoerri, one of the first Joyce collectors in the world, was a Chicagoan whose collection is now at Northwestern University. Joyce says many notable Chicago collectors focused on early Americana and the settlement of the west, including Indian history, cartography, and anything dealing with Abraham Lincoln.

Once upon a time, no home was complete without a library. But is wealth necessary to satiate the chronic compulsion to establish one's own canon? Joyce is optimistic, pointing out that people collect odd books for odd reasons with ultimately surprising (and enriching) results. Lured by rave reviews on a book jacket, he once bought two copies of Cormac McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965, for less than $15 apiece. "Today those books are worth six to ten times more, depending on the condition," Joyce says. "Thirty years from now who will be the next William Faulkner?"

Joyce will give a free lecture recounting stories of our city's most avid bibliophiles, "Great Chicago Bookies, 1895-1995," at 11 AM this Saturday at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. For information, call 943-9090, ext. 233.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/David Schulz.

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