Collecting Books

What is this compulsion to collect things? My wife doesn’t seem to have the same urge to collect, unless I count clothes. I, on the other hand, have at least started to collect many things, most of which are now long gone. My longest addiction in collecting involves books, with a special interest in first edition children’s books.

It started, like many things in life, quite by chance. I was beginning a career in teaching and was at the bookstore looking for something that the nine to eleven year old crowd would enjoy. I came across a thin volume by an author I didn’t know at the time. It was easy to read through Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ at the store. By the time I finished I was hooked. I bought it and read it to my students, who also found it wildly amusing. The following year I was in the same store browsing and came across ‘George’s Marvelous Medicine’, also by this quirky author Roald Dahl. I found it even funnier than ‘The Twits’ and again my students ate it up.

I began to wonder if Dahl had written anything else and started to do some digging. Research wasn’t as easy back before the proliferation of computers and the web. With the help of the library I found a treasure trove of Dahl’s previous books: ‘James and the Giant Peach’, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, ‘The Magic Finger’, ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ were just some of the titles that emerged. I found that Dahl had first made his career writing rather off-beat and sometimes macabre short stories. I decided it would be fun finding copies of the older books.

Over the years I found out a fair amount about collecting books and an enormous amount about Dahl’s books in particular. I eventually had a ‘Guide to Collecting the First Editions of Roald Dahl’ published in the prestigious U.K. ‘Book and Magazine Collector’ – but that was rather a few years later.

At first the only hurdle in collecting was finding copies. I spent a great deal of time browsing used books store with some success. The real collecting bug didn’t hit until I found out about ‘first editions’. Originally the term ‘first edition’ really meant the first print run of the first edition published (these days ‘first edition’ is a rather elastic term that has lost its meaning), and first editions seemed to be what a ‘real’ collector would want.

But if a book had dozens of printings, how could you tell if it was from the first print run? The revelation slowly sunk in that you needed to do a lot of homework, not to mention becoming part detective, if you didn’t want to face disappointment down the road, having forked out money for an incorrectly identified ‘first edition’.

There was a little help along the way – books or articles in specialist magazines written by book sleuths that gave first edition ‘points’ on many collectable books/authors, but these were often expensive and sometimes had incorrect information (we ALL make mistakes!). When I first started collecting there weren’t many titles by Dahl that were deemed ‘collectable’ by these sources. The possible exception was a mysterious reference to his first published book called ‘The Gremlins’. At one point I longed to find one.

But perhaps that’s best left for another blog.

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