Why I Collect

Click here to see a slide show. Book collectors are thrill-seekers. It is a vegetarian hunt to be sure, without much exertion or risk, but the endorphin rush of the chase and the adrenaline high of the capture are much the same with first editions as I imagine they must be in the pursuit of 10-point stags, largemouth bass, or 20-foot waves at Maverick’s.

Speaking only for myself, I can describe four kinds of book-collecting euphoria. There is, first of all, simply the kick of a bargain. Despite all the Internet has done to make prices transparent and bibliographic information universal, you can still find—at book sales and thrift shops, auctions and even fancy dealers—unrecognized or underpriced rarities. Getting something valuable for cheap is the basic, greedy thrill of book collecting.

The second pleasure is simply that of making a collection—assembling objects that are related in some way and then filling in holes and extending from the edges. Book collecting is a largely solitary, mostly male, and completely absorbing activity. Nicholas Basbanes’ wonderful study A Gentle Madness explores what has driven the great book collectors. As his title indicates, it’s not necessarily outstanding mental health. But while “completism” is clearly a form of nuttiness, it is for the most part a benign one, causing no harm to others and usually little to oneself.

Next is appreciation of the physical object. Though you might not take this point away from the best-seller tables at Barnes & Noble, the book has historically been a beautiful thing. It is a repository of various arts and crafts, including illustration, typography, letterpress printing, paper-making, and binding (not to mention writing). Raised in a house filled with old books, I’m drawn to them: the dust jackets that call out a historical moment, the marbled boards, the words pressed into the page with movable type.

Fourth and finally, there is something that approaches a literary sensation. Holding in your hands the original publication of a book or writer who subsequently became famous rolls back the veils of time and reputation. It connects you to the moment of original potential, before appreciation, recognition, and fame complicated everything. In this way, the first edition has always felt to me like the literature of original intent. It is the book as it went out into the world, the work in its purest (if not necessarily most perfect) form. Of course, there’s a negative side to all this too, which makes me slightly loathe collecting, and which I’ll get back to later. Once acquired, sought-after rare books become inert trophies, chloroformed butterflies pinned to a board. It’s a bit deathly.

I collect 20th-century English and American writers from the ‘20s to the ‘50s, especially those who were drawn to politics: George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Wilson, and John Dos Passos, among others. I don’t care about finding books in immaculate condition; they were made to be read, not entombed for preservation, so normal wear doesn’t bother me. I’m not much interest in autographed copies or inscriptions, special limited editions, manuscripts (which belong in libraries), or galley proofs (which are rare but ugly). I’m simply looking for books and writers that mean something to me in their original published forms.

The best place to find them is Britain. That’s where many of the best modern books were designed and manufactured, without much pretense, in the middle of the century by independent publishing houses like Faber & Faber, The Hogarth Press, Chatto & Windus, Secker & Warburg, Andre Deutsch, Jonathan Cape, Victor Gollancz, and, in paperback, Penguin. As a result, British shelves are where most of those books are to be found. Book shopping is also a pleasure in Britain because it’s still a country filled with people who buy, read, and talk incessantly about books. In New York City, where I live, most street-level used- and rare-book shops have fallen victim to high rents, the Internet, and diminished interest. There’s still the Strand, where schizophrenic vagrants and masochistic asthmatics can lose themselves in 18 miles of shelf, but not many other stores are left for browsing. London, by contrast, still has specialist and nonspecialist stores and dealers of nearly every description. There are dozens of excellent shops and a few that count as the best bookstores in the world.

That’s why I’m here, staying on the top floor of Hazlitt’s on Frith Street, just below Soho Square. Hazlitt’s is an unhip hotel with a literary tinge. A blue plaque (why can we not have these in New York?) commemorates the residency of England’s greatest essayist, William Hazlitt, 1778-1830. Every room has shelves of old and often interesting books. You can read them in the bath; the ceiling is too low for a shower. After a cappuccino just down the street at the 24-hour Bar Italia, I’m off to meet Bernard Shapero, London’s most successful rare-book dealer and arguably the top dealer in the world today.

Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books is a bookshop in the way that the mansions of Newport are “cottages” and Larry Ellison’s 454-foot yacht is a sailboat. This is a Taj Mahal of rare books: a five-story Georgian townhouse on St. George Street in Mayfair, where you’d expect to find the embassy of a former colony or a boutique investment firm. The interior is done up as a manorial literary fantasy: burnished mahogany furniture, Oriental rugs, oiled leather bindings, and even a fluffy terrier. It is an atmosphere that encourages the handing over of large checks, not casual browsing.

Over tea in one of his reading rooms, Shapero explains his view that collecting is in the blood. His father collected armor and gold coins, handy for evading Britain’s postwar currency restrictions when traveling abroad. Like most of his clients, Shapero, who is now 42, started young, buying up unwanted 19th-century Baedeker travel guides beginning when he was 13. A few years later, he quit school and opened a stall at Grays Antique Markets. From there he graduated to his own shop, and eventually, with an Italian partner, to his current quarters. He has expanded his empire steadily, taking over London’s leading book auction house, Bloomsbury Book Auctions, and the leading trade journal, turning it into a slick glossy magazine called Rare Book Review.

Shapero’s specialty is still “travel and exploration,” which sounds better than “colonization and pillage.” He shows me a few of the grander items from his stock, such as the 23-volume Description de l’Égypte, the luxuriously illustrated account Napoleon commissioned during his occupation when he discovered that the Sphinx was too big to steal. You can steal the whole set for £95,000 (about $170,000). Shapero is fond of books like this that have, as he says, “drama.” In the basement gallery, where his staff specialists in 19th-century photography and cartography work, he looks around for a suitable map of the world to take to an antiques fair in Moscow. A set of Ortelius maps circa 1584 priced at £16,500 ($30,000) aren’t quite impressive enough. “These are extremely rare and important,” he says. “But you want something flashier for an oligarch who wants to own the whole world.”

A dour and driven personality, Shapero knows that he is not popular with many of his fellow dealers, who see him as the would-be oligarch of antiquarian books. I have heard the dislike of his colleagues attributed to his former practice, back when he was getting started in the business, of sometimes chopping up books for their engraved color plates. But I suspect the deeper objection is to his success as a businessman. The English retain some of their old snobbishness about commercial success, especially when the not-genteel-enough competitor has a name like Shapero. He also approaches books without reverence, feigned or otherwise. Shapero knows their value, but he doesn’t seem much interested in their content.

Today I admire but do not buy. Twentieth-century literature is not something Shapero cares about, and although he employs a very good specialist in the field, there are no bargains. I would love to own the error-filled softbound first edition of Lolita—published by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1955, when no American house dared to touch it. But at £4,250 ($7,500), I can’t afford not to pass it up. As it happens, I’ve also spotted the same item in the catalog for an upcoming Swann Galleries auction, a place in New York where a lot of dealers buy, with a much lower estimate. It went for $2,800.