How I Built My Rare-Book Connection

Lots of lurid stories have been written about how hard it is

to get into college these days. Excuse me, but when I was applying to schools a

generation ago, Harvard wasn’t exactly giving away free cruises or tote bags to

anyone who would consider spending the following four years in the frozen

wastes of Cambridge, Mass.

In fact, my father-who had immense confidence in me, but not

in my high school transcript’s ability to articulate what was so special about

me-decided, astutely, that I didn’t stand a rat’s chance of getting into any

reputable college without a gimmick, a hook, to distinguish myself from all the

other parvenus with B averages and 1200 SAT’s who had the balls to believe that

they, too, merited admission to the Ivy League.

So he turned me into a rare-book collector. I’ll admit that

doesn’t sound as sexy as if I’d driven a bookmobile around poor neighborhoods

or gotten my Adagio for Strings performed by the New York Philharmonic before I

reached puberty, or lettered in basketball, lacrosse and wrestling while

isolating anti-matter in my high school physics lab-as the average Ivy League

hopeful does these days.

But at least there was some precedent and logic behind the

ploy. My father didn’t play ball or take me and my brothers fishing (or

whatever conventional dads do), but he did collect books himself. In fact, he

was the country’s leading authority on Horatio Alger.

Some people may not be aware that Horatio, as he was known

at our house, wasn’t a character in somebody else’s novel-such as Ishmael or

Huck Finn-but rather the author of dozens of 19th-century novels for young

people that depicted the “rags to riches” stories of newspaper boys and boot

blacks who, through luck and pluck, managed to overcome adversity and marry the

boss’ daughter.

In fact, my dad wrote the definitive biography of Alger, Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era

(Amereon). So it seemed quite natural when I started accompanying him to

rare-book auctions at Parke-Bernet on Madison Avenue. I must have been around

15 or 16 at the time.

Back then, you could still get first editions by some of

America’s most famous writers for a few weeks’ allowance. My father taught me

how to bid and, on one of our expeditions, I picked up a first edition of

Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms -with

its original Art Deco dust jacket, no less. On another trip, I was the winning

bidder on a box of Steinbeck first editions, including The Grapes of Wrath .

But my greatest coup came on a visit to Princeton, N.J.,

where I had an interview scheduled at the admissions office. I paid 10 bucks

for a first edition of The Great Gatsby

that I found gathering dust in the recesses of some antiquarian bookstore off

Nassau Street.

Unfortunately, that discovery was as close as I came to

becoming a member of Princeton’s intellectual community. While my father

proudly trotted me over to the Firestone Library, introduced me to the head

librarian and hit him up for a letter of recommendation-I suspect I was the

only teenager from that psychedelic era whose professed passion wasn’t drugs or

sex, but bibliography-it wasn’t enough to persuade the spoilsports over at the

admissions office to cut me some slack. Hell, I wasn’t even a legacy.

Same story at Yale. My dad and I were received with great

cordiality at the Beinecke Rare Book Library-colleges have always lusted after

his Horatio Alger collection and some other choice morsels, such as his

salesman’s edition of Huckleberry Finn -but

once again, that enthusiasm didn’t spill over into the admissions office, where

they had quotas for minorities and scholar-athletes and cowpokes from Montana,

but not for teenage book hobbyists.

However, my adventure in book collecting wasn’t a total

loss, even though I abandoned Hemingway and Steinbeck for the pornographic

comic books of R. Crumb as soon as I hit college. The books I bought back then

still occupy pride of place on my shelf, and they’re worth a hell of a lot more

than I paid for them. Also, they sparked in me something resembling a passion

for books-though how much is due to a love of literature and how much to

avarice I can’t safely say.

Perhaps more of the latter, because lately-whenever I’ve

passed Bauman, a rare book store on Madison Avenue and 55th Street-I’ve toyed

with the idea of bringing in my volumes to get a professional appraisal. Then,

a few weeks ago, I actually did. It was at once a humbling and enlightening

experience.

The dust jacket on my

Farewell to Arms was deemed “chipped” and the book itself “cocked.” There

was even some thought that it may have spent time near or under water. It was

worth $1,000, less than I’d have guessed.

My Grapes of Wrath ,

which I’d always thought of as in near-mint condition, was judged to be only

“fine,” and worth around $2,000. However, The

Great Gatsby -the one I paid $10 for all those years ago-was in excellent

condition and worth at least as much-$2,000 to $3,000-without a dust jacket.

(Finding one with a dust jacket is almost impossible these days; if it had one,

I was told, it could be worth as much as $60,000 to $80,000.)

“This is a book that has tripled in the last 10 years,”

Natalie Bauman, the store’s owner, told me. “The book is so immensely popular.”

Autographed first editions of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle , the book that awakened me to

serious literature in the seventh grade, and Steinbeck’s East of Eden were both estimated in the $1,500-to-$2,000 range.

Of course, that’s small potatoes compared to some of the

items Bauman had for sale. There was a leather-bound 1640 edition of

Shakespeare’s poems-the first time they’d been published in a collected

edition-that had once been owned by J.P. Morgan. It was priced at $250,000.

A first edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities “in

parts”-meaning the serialized magazine format in which it was originally

published in 1859, complete with advertisements for dish covers and cutlery and

“inexpensive things required for the India voyage”-could be had for $20,000.

When I got home, I called my father and told him what my

books were worth. I’d also asked about a few of his, even though Bauman could

give me only the roughest of estimates since they didn’t have the books to

examine. My dad and I had a pleasant chat about all the stuff that excites

collectors, but has little to do with literature per se-how he’d acquired his

books, for how much, and the ones that got away.

He told me the story of the time he went to the farthest

reaches of Queens during the 1950′s to buy a box of Alger first editions from

some little old lady. She’d also had a first edition of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated

Jumping Frog of Calaveras County sitting in a box. But my father hadn’t

brought along enough cash, and he was never able to get in touch with her

again.

When we got off the phone, I felt exhilarated from our

conversation, and I could tell that he did, too. My books may not have gotten

me into the Ivy League or be worth what I’d hoped, but they may have served a

higher purpose-bringing a father and son slightly closer together. You can’t

put a value on that.