I like old books. Always have. All different kinds of them. I spend much of my time seeking them out, often in strange and remote places. Not everyone understands why. The questions come thick and fast.
Where do you buy your books? Everywhere.
Is there any money in it? No.
What are your favorite finds? They are legion.
Found at the bottom of a dusty box in a country bookshop: a royal binding from pre-revolutionary France, in wonderful condition and with spectacular provenance and rarity. Found at a “booktown” festival, an early Italian book on mathematics and magic, plus early editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
In a humble bookcase in a suburban bedroom: two 1625 George Chapman plays, quarto format, again in immaculate condition and bound by Riviere & Son, one of the world’s finest bookbinders. In a second-hand store: Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s luxurious catalog of Lord Spencer’s library at Althorp—the catalog in which Dibdin glamorized the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the “First Folio.”
From a trash and treasure market, the first Ace Books edition of Philip K. Dick’s Simulacra. Crisp, tight, unread. And from a college book sale: a fine copy of John Fry’s 1814 Pieces of Ancient Poetry from Unpublished Manuscripts and Scarce Books, one of six special copies reserved for the uber-bookmen from the golden era of English bibliophilia. More than any other, the discovery of that rare (and underpriced) book set me on the road to full-blown bibliomania.
Such finds, though, are not the whole story. There is a saying in book collecting: You only regret the books you don’t buy.
When I look back on my career as a book lover and book hunter, missed prizes stand out. A collection of early books on puppetry found in a charity shop—and left behind because their condition was questionable. Rare German books on papermaking and tin toys—left behind at a book fair because I simply couldn’t afford them. And a rare seventeenth-century book on costume, extensively decorated with elegant line drawings—left behind . . . well, I can’t really explain why. A moment of temporary madness.
One book, in particular, comes to mind.
A decade ago, in a small-town second-hand bookstore, I found on a bottom shelf a small volume that was almost falling apart. Published by the Fortune Press in 1925, it was a scarce edition: Only 225 copies were printed, on handmade Kelmscott paper. The printing was handsome, the paper thick and sumptuous.
The title page revealed the book’s title, New Preface to ‘The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde,’ and its authors, Frank Harris and Lord Alfred Douglas.
The subject of the book was fascinating, one of the most famous and tragic love affairs in literature: the story of Lord Douglas, known as “Bosie,” and his affair with Oscar Wilde.
Bosie met Wilde in 1891. A tempest followed. Bosie gambled and cavorted extravagantly. The pair often argued and split, only to start up again.
When Bosie fell ill with influenza, Wilde nursed him. When Wilde fell ill, Bosie partied on—and sent Wilde the bill. When Bosie gave his old clothes to gigolos, he recklessly left incriminating letters in the pockets.
Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, thought he knew what must be going on between his son and the older poet. He accused Bosie of madness and embarked on a public persecution of Wilde. The resulting trials bankrupted Wilde and deprived him of his liberty. He was sentenced to two brutal years of hard labor. After his release, he reunited with Bosie in France, but things could never be the same between them.
Years later, Bosie would express regret that the pair had ever met. He described their literary collaboration, a translation of Salome, as “a most pernicious and abominable piece of work.”
(Wilde left behind many wise words about books, including this test of what qualifies as literature: “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”)
After Wilde’s death, the Irish author and editor Frank Harris wrote Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, which was published in the US in 1916. Though the book was largely sympathetic to Wilde, Bosie regarded parts of it as libelous and defamatory. His threats of legal action prevented the book’s publication in England.
When Harris crossed paths with Bosie in the South of France, he distanced himself from the book’s offensive parts, and convinced Bosie that a new preface could set things right. The two men co-authored a preamble for inclusion in future editions of Harris’s book. Though initially, the pair agreed on the text, they fell out over subsequent edits and went their separate ways. The Fortune Press copies, all of them signed by Bosie, are based on his version of the preface.
Reginald Caton issued the book. A notoriously shady publisher—often in trouble for producing obscene, piratical, or homosexual texts—Caton published Kingsley Amis’s first book, and later appeared in several Amis novels as a rogue. More than one Fortune Press edition was pulped, and more than one burned.
In the small-town bookshop, I left the book behind on its sagging, particle-board shelf. Despite its colorful and romantic backstories, this particular copy was in terrible condition, the cover utterly broken and disintegrating.
But the book refused to be forgotten. The leaves, I later reflected, were in good shape. The binding, moreover, could be fixed or replaced. (Some modern booksellers, such as Peter Harrington of London, make good money by adding dazzling new bindings to first editions that used to have unattractive or imperfect old ones.)
I went back several times to the small town and its bookshop. Despite thorough searches on hands and knees, I never saw the book again.
Copies from the 1925 edition do come up from time to time online. Adrian Harrington currently has a copy for sale at a fine price and in a fine buckram slipcase.
Market value, though, was not a factor in my regard for New Preface. The book itself had a lot going for it. Almost everything, in fact, that a book lover could want: A great story, great associations, beauty, rarity, infamy.
Over the past decade, the copy I left behind has grown in my memory. The paper has become more luxurious, the printing more limpid, the associations more pungent. Only a little book, to be sure, but the gap it left in my library grows ever larger.