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
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
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
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
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.