Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There and back again: A Cataloger’s Tale of The Hobbit

April 8, 2009
Posted by Joe

(It is my pleasure this morning to turn today’s writing reins over to Joe Fay, one of our Rare Books catalogers, the father of two, and a good man. He has one of the coolest jobs in the building, working as he does day in and day out with rare and valuable first printings of great literature. It’s a thrill for me just to see some of the stuff on the rack on my infrequent forays down into the nether parts of the building. I can only imagine getting to open and look at some of the tomes. Below Joe discusses cataloging one of his – and the world’s – favorite books: The Hobbit. It’s a special volume indeed, and just one of thousands of things here that, could I afford it myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to bid on. My thanks to Joe, and enjoy! – Noah Fleisher)

In most any job or profession, some days are good, some days are not so good, and a number of days are somewhere in-between. For me, yesterday was none of these; yesterday was one of the truly special days. It was one of those days when I feel especially privileged to work at Heritage, where I have regular access to rare books of the highest order. See, yesterday was the day I was fortunate enough to catalog one of my favorite books of all time: J. R. R. Tolkien's classic The Hobbit.

This particular Tolkien classic is one of a number of rare and important books scheduled for our June 16-17 Signature Rare Books Auction #6025. In addition to cataloging the book, I was responsible for working with the consignor to get the book to Heritage from England, where it has been in the consignor's collection for many years. This part of the process could make a blog entry of its own, and perhaps I'll write of it someday – the unique challenges of communicating with consignors across an ocean and shipping and receiving material from foreign countries. And how much fun it all was and continues to be. For now, however, let us proceed to the book itself.

At first, The Hobbit is a rather unassuming little tome, as are a great deal of modern rare books. It has two covers, pages, some illustrations, a dust jacket, and rather looks like any other book you might pick up at the library. It is only when you dig into the bibliographical distinctions of such a book when the real magic of rare books is revealed, those pesky and demanding "issue points" that will tell you whether or not you have the rare and valuable first issue of The Hobbit, a virtually worthless reprint or something in the middle of these two extremes.

So you wash your hands, sit down with the book, and dive in. First, was the book published by Allen & Unwin in London? Check. Does "First Published in 1937" appear on the copyright page? Check. Does the book have all 16 misprints scattered throughout the book from page 14 to page 248? Yes. Is the overleaf/advertisement in the back of the book? Yep. Is the book bound in green cloth with dark blue decorative stamping and lettering? Absolutely. Does the dust jacket have the word "Dodgeson" on the rear flap with the "e" blacked out by hand by the publisher? Affirmative. After all this, you realize that you indeed hold in your hands a complete example of one of the 1,500 original first issue copies of Tolkien's first published fiction, printed in 1937 at a time when few outside Oxford University even knew the name John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. And that's when the satisfaction bubbles up and slaps a goofy smile across your face.

To some people, such distinctions in books mean little to less than nothing, but to "book people" like me, these are what we love. These little mistakes that can mean hundreds and even thousands of dollars of difference between two books that are sometimes exactly the same in every other way. That's what makes the rare books rare books, see, and the rest of them simply books.

In case you missed it above, here’s one more link to the listing.