Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People is an excellent collection of essays/memoir by well-known rare books collector, Rick Gekoski. There is an essay about his early forays into book collecting with special editions of D. H. Lawrence. A moment of self-dohbt when he is unsure whether he is a collector or a dealer. Soon enough it is clarified when his rare books begin to sell at good prices. There are essays about his encounters with publishers regarding publishing histories and archival material. One of them is regarding Toby Faber and their long drawn “discussion” on the former chairman, Charles Monteith’s correspondence with poet Philip Larkin. For a while, it involved legal counsel too. Another one involves the publishing legacy of the legendary Victor Gollancz. His firm had decided to dispose of the volumes of books, letters with authors, and files that were lying in a warehouse. The slow process of disposing of the collection in bits and pieces rather than its entirety hurts to read . Another essay involves Gekoski being asked by Ted Hughes to return a precious book once owned by his late wife, Sylvia Plath. There are many other instances recorded in this book of Gekoski’s attempt to trade in rare books or even manage a charity auction for PEN.
It is fascinating to read the book for its stories but also for the sharp understanding that commercial interests are never too far away from cultural predilection of publishing books. One of the throwaway lines in an essay is how hardback literary fiction is of little value to rare book collectors. The books are only appreciated at the time of publication and then on a reader’s bookshelf. Value accorded to rare books comes from a variety of factors such as limited print run, circumstances under which the book was published, rarity of the event, uniqueness of the manuscript, or even ensuring the provenance of the book is confirmed by the author and publisher at the time of printing and not later, scribbled in ink. Value of the books also rises if units are customised by the author. Excellent insights about business of book publishing.
PS I have a copy of the autobiography that Victor Gollancz wrote to his grandson in the early 1950s.
1 May 2022