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The Name Game: Collecting Signed First Editions

A Bibliophile's Tales of Collecting Signed First Editions
Lawrence Grobel
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Some years ago I stopped at a used bookstore that was going out of business and came across a fine first edition of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye behind a locked glass case. The penciled price was $750, which meant it could be had for $375, since everything was half off. I held the book in my hands and remembered the first time I had read it, when I was 11 or 12, and the second time, 15 years later. I was sorely tempted to buy it, but it still seemed like a lot of money to lay out for a single book. I put it back on the shelf, got in my car and started to drive away when a little voice in my head said something like, 'Hey, jerk, that's one of the seminal books of the post-war era. You're not going to find it any cheaper, so go back and buy it. Consider it an investment." I listened to that voice and returned to the bookstore. The Catcher was gone. Someone smarter than I knew what he had and, without procrastinating, grabbed it.

Today, whenever I go to an antiquarian book fair or browse some of my favorite rare book stores in New York or Los Angeles, I get this incredible pang of regret whenever I come across that Salinger book and see how the asking price has continued to increase, from $1,250 to double that to around $3,500 today. I remember how my father always talked about how he could have retired on Easy Street had he acted on a tip and bought Polaroid stock when it first came out. And I think of how fishermen all have stories of the one that got away. The Catcher in the Rye is my big fish story. Every book collector's got one.

The thing is, when that book was in my hands I wasn't a collector. I instinctively knew it was something valuable, but I was more into paperbacks than hardbacks.

And who knew about first editions? I think back now to the time I interviewed Joseph Heller for a magazine in 1975. Catch-22 was one of my favorite books, but it never even occurred to me to locate a first edition and have him sign it. Twenty years later, when I had another opportunity to get Heller's signature, that first book of his was difficult to find, and if one was available it usually sold for $1,000. My neighbor and fellow collector had a copy and I had to trade eight valuable books to get him to part with it (Jack Kerouac's Big Sur, Robert Owen Butler's Wabash, Alistair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone, Vincent Patrick's The Pope of Greenwich Village, an inscribed copy of Avery Corman's Kramer vs. Kramer, a signed Stephen Wright's M31, Terry Southern's Magic Christian and Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, which, along with Michael Herr's Dispatches, was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket). But it was worth it, because I asked Heller to write something about the fact that the book was originally called Catch-18 (and was changed when Leon Uris came out with Mila-18) and that it had been rejected a number of times before finding a publisher. Heller wrote: "This novel that was accepted for publication, as Catch-18, three years before it was completed, and was never rejected." The stock price of the book soared with his signature, and I knew I had a unique copy of one of the most important books of the 1960s.

I really didn't start collecting modern first editions until 1982, when I was interviewing Truman Capote for a book of conversations. Once he agreed to see me at his Sagaponack, Long Island, home, whenever I came to New York I searched used and rare bookstores for first editions of his work. Capote wasn't very prolific and eventually I was able to locate most of his works; each time I saw him I'd whip out a few and have him sign his name in the very small print that was his trademark. But when I brought his favorite book, The Muses are Heard, which described his adventures in the Soviet Union with a black Porgy & Bess troupe, he was in a puckish mood (after five hours of drinking vodka) and inscribed a small one-page play:


Inquisitor: 'Ha! Ha! You liar, Grobel! Now tell us the truth! Why you have invaded the Soviet Union with air spy Capote?'

Capote: 'Oh please, please, don't lash him again. He is an innocent American. I am the spy.' "

I paid $12.50 for that book and I wouldn't sell it for a hundred times that. I know a truly rare book when I see it.

After Capote, I interviewed Norman Mailer for the Playboy cable channel. I took along six first editions, including his first and most celebrated novel, The Naked and the Dead, for which I had paid just under $200 and which is worth $500 today. During a break to change videotape, I pulled out the books and he said he'd inscribe two and sign the rest (an inscription is worth more than just a signature, and one having to do with the book itself is worth more than just "Best wishes" or "Merry Xmas"). Because fewer copies of an author's earlier books are printed than his later works, they are often the ones collectors most value, even if a fifth or sixth novel is the breakthrough or masterpiece. (Take David Foster Wallace's 1996 best-seller, Infinite Jest, or Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, which established them as major writers--first editions of Infinite Jest are not worth nearly as much as Wallace's first hardcover book, The Broom of the System, which goes for over $400 and rising; and while All the Pretty Horses is valued at around $300, McCarthy's earlier works go for up to $2,000.)

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