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2003-09, 339, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Collecting

Book Review

Collecting Modern Books. By Catherine Porter. Miller’s. 160pp. $59.95. Front Cover. By Alan Powers. Mitchell Beazley. 144pp. $59.95. Children’s Book Covers. By Alan Powers. Mitchell Beazley. 144pp. $59.95

Three lavishly illustrated books from Mitchell Beazley remind the reader that the physical book is far from dead. While in the future books will probably all be created electronically, the end product is still going to be predominantly in paper output, especially through print-on-demand (POD) facilities. PODs are already emerging in trade and scholarly publishing, although it will be some time before we reach the vision of Jason Epstein’s paperbacks printed on demand in social settings like Starbucks coffee shops. Such mass outputs are likely to be extremely functional in production and design.

The two books from University of Greenwich lecturer Dr Alan Powers, Front Cover and Children’s Book Covers, superbly illustrate, however, the historical traditions and contemporary creative trends in book production. Front Cover provides an overview of book jacket design from the 1920’s to the 1990’s, while Children’s Book Covers takes as its starting point chapbooks and the eighteenth century.

Book covers were once neglected by bibliographers and regarded in low esteem by collectors. Powers states keeping a bookjacket was almost regarded in the same vein as now considering keeping clothes in the carrier bag from the shop in which they have been bought! Book jackets first appeared in England in the nineteenth century, but only after 1900 did they become commonplace and even then were often discarded. Now the presence of the jacket is, rightly or wrongly, often more important for the value of a book than the text!

Children’s Book Covers provides both authoritative coverage of the subject and also almost provides instant nostalgia. Powers includes over four hundred specially photographed covers of books by authors and illustrators.

Authors analysed range from Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame and Arthur Ransome through Enid Blyton, W.E. Johns, and Richmal Crompton to Maurice Sendak, Alan Garner and J.K. Rowling. Powers does not attempt to price the children’s books cited but the current market here is decidedly bearish for good copies. Many children’s books are intended to be read and therefore condition is often poor, particularly for authors who did not start out as instantly collectable. In this process one should not forget annuals, especially from Britain, such as The Beano and The Dandy, which now fetch high prices for early annuals.The Beano first issue of 1938 recently went at auction for nearly twenty thousand dollars! Powers provides fascinating details of series such as Rupert the Bear. This began as a 1921 newspaper cartoon strip called “Little Bear and the Fairy Child” and evolved from the yellow covered formats of the 1920s into the now familiar jackets and covers for the Rupert Annuals, particularly by Alfred Bestall.

Front Cover, with over three hundred jacket illustrations is equally browseable and fascinating. Powers covers such topics as the impact of modernism on covers in the 1920’s and 1930’s; the Penguin revolution; the James Bond covers by Richard Chopping of the 1950’s and 1960’s; the pyschedelia of the 1970s (Martin Sharp’s Playpower jacket design for Richard Neville) is prominently displayed; and then finally the design revolutions of the digital age.

Major designers and illustrators such as E. McKnight Kauffer, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Jeff Fisher are profiled. Publishers such as Penguin, Picador and Black Sparrow are also featured in what the publisher claims is the first book to bring together the jackets and covers that have made the greatest impact over the course of the twentieth century.

Catherine Porter in Collecting Modern Books follows the same attractive layout of text and numerous cover illustrations. Collecting Modern Books is divided into useful categories such as women crime writers, American contemporary fiction and individual authors such as Joseph Conrad, Joseph Heller and J R R Tolkien. While none can supplant the detailed reference works on each topic, the text is authoritative and the numerous illustrations stimulate the collecting appetite.

Peter Selley of Sotheby’s indicates in a Foreword that book collecting should be undertaken from the heart rather than the purse, i.e. the collecting of books for profit/investment should not be the primary motive. Collecting modern authors can be a very dangerous financial proposition as they rise and fall almost like dotcom companies! John Galsworthy and Angus Wilson are just two authors who have declined in value since their initial popularity. More recent authors whose first edition monetary value has declined include Peter Ackroyd, Philip Kerr and Kingsley Amis, although Amis’ Lucky Jim, with the distinctive yellow Gollancz dustjacket, will always remain a ‘high spot’ and has a current value, according to Porter, of between 2,500 pounds and 3,500 pounds.

Porter provides numerous examples of top end collectables. James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) in the scarce dust jacket with an inscription to his publisher, is priced between 100,000 and 150,000 pounds. This book illustrates three major points for collectors – a proven collectable author, the dust jacket in good condition and an appropriate inscription. A relevant inscription adds value. The Olympia Press edition of Lolita, illustrated by Porter, inscribed from Nabokov to Graham Greene, is priced between 120,000 – 160,000 pounds!

A Peter Carey signature, however, to Fred would probably detract in value from the first edition of, say, The Fat Man in History unless Fred had some particular provenance or fame. Sadly, or perhaps not for Australian collectors, few contemporary Australian authors figure largely in the global first edition markets, with perhaps only Peter Carey and Tim Winton standing out. In this context I vividly remember a Sydney secondhand dealer chanting out repetitively: “No call, no call for Rodney Hall” to a customer who had wandered in with several of Hall’s first editions to sell!

Porter provides useful collecting tips, e.g. on Internet buying, and a variety of helpful glossaries, especially on bibliographical terminologies. First edition collectors need to be extremely wary on the Net in terms of first editions, as many sellers, either wittingly or unwittingly, wrongly describe key bibliographical points.

All three hardback books under review are attractively priced. They will undoubtedly become eminently collectible in themselves in due course but in the meantime they will comprise a source of great pleasure to book collectors new and old alike.

Colin Steele



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