Saturday, July 1, 2017

Book-collecting advice from 1928.

Way back in 1928, only one year after The Complete Sherlock Holmes was first published, a fellow named A. Edward Newton had some advice for aspiring book collectors, in a tome called The Book-Collecting Game.

"Anticipating the further question, 'What novels shall I collect?' I have with the advice of several eminent writers of fiction, and with the suggestions of many friends and the aid of a bookseller or two, prepared my list of . . . ONE HUNDRED GOOD NOVELS."

Novel number one on the list: Adam Bede by George Eliot.

And then it gets weird. Novel number two is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Newton, a book collector with at least two books under his belt on the collecting of books, spends a page and a paragraph talking about novels, and then tosses a short story collection in, right off the bat.  Since most definitions of "novel" I can find just define it as a long narrative published as a book, I suppose one could consider a dozen separate stories connected with a couple of ongoing characters as a novel, and 1928 . . . who knows what they were thinking back then?

"The novels I have selected have at one time or another enjoyed great popularity or had some special significance. I include Uncle Tom's Cabin and omit Old Town Folks, which is a better novel. The thoughtful reader will soon discover why I have included Conan Doyle and Joel Chandler Harris, and omitted Poe and O. Henry."

Interesting that Newton puts Doyle and Harris in the same category, as Joel Chandler Harris is also best know for a collection of stories as well: Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. And if that rings a bell at all, it is probably for that one Disney movie that went into the vault never to return, The Song of the South. Harris is probably not going to see a surge in popularity due to a BBC modernization anytime soon like Doyle did. Time and writers is a mix that has always fascinated me.

Most devout Sherlockians know Winwood Reade better than Charles Reade, I'd wager, even though Charles was Winwood's more popular uncle and the writer of The Cloister and the Hearth, which is also on Newton's list. Sherlock Holmes never recommended The Cloister and the Hearth to Watson as "one of the most remarkable ever penned," as he did The Martyrdom of Man, so celebrity endorsement has helped Winwood, along with the fact that atheists look to his book as a classic work in their field.

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is also on Newton's list, a book which many an older Sherlockian owns due to the connection to Morley as the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, but once discovered, has a bibliophiliac core that deepens any booklovers mythos for their addiction. Like Charles Reade, however, Morley is a writer that was of his time, and society as a whole seems to have moved past. His part in Sherlock Holmes fandom would seem to be the thing for which he will be remembered the longest.

But as A. Edward Newton's advice for collectors from 1928 shows, books can be as much of a dice roll as the stock market. Book collecting for pleasure is a deeply personal thing, building a library that is often a weird solid extension of one's brain, and quite satisfying. Book collecting as an investment strategy? Well, I don't think anyone's retiring off Reades and Morleys, and even Doyle's Adventures are worth more in their original magazine form. (And yet we're not in love with magazines like we are books due to their lack of shelve-ability.)

The best collection is just the residue of a love of reading, and there is where Sherlockians tend to show their true colors. Whatever path one takes to get to a book, unless it is read at some point, there is no real value in it, and the game we play isn't just a book-collecting one. Yet occasionally . . . and maybe more than occasionally . . . our love of books themselves takes us down an odd old road as mine did today with A. Edward Newton.

(And luckily, didn't put me on a Harold Bell Wright digression. H.B.W. is the Ozymandias of my book-collecting journey. But that's for another day.)

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