First editions

I have succumbed to that illness to which bibliophiles are most vulnerable: first-edition mania. I used to be perfectly happy to go into a bookstore and find a clean well-designed paperback. Now nothing will do but older editions, the closer to a first the better.

Pictured in the Current Reading spot is the latest manifestation of this illness: a 1943 hardback edition of Eliot’s Four Quartets complete with (slightly torn) dustjacket, found in Richmond during a time when Esta and I were supposed to be keeping each other from buying anything. (We were both unsuccessful at that, by the way.) In my defense, my existing copies of the poem were either (a) tattered (paperback edition) or (b) cramped (in the Collected Poems), so of course that excuses getting another copy.

What is it that causes me to go out and do this? This isn’t even my first Eliot first edition; I have a clean Murder in the Cathedral that I found years ago in Georgetown. I think the attraction has to do with several things. First, the typography. There is usually no comparison between the work of a metal press from fifty or seventy-five years ago and modern offset printing. The physicalness of the slight indentations in the paper and the even color are generally far superior. Too, many paperbacks are reproduced in photo offset from the original hardcover settings but with tighter margins, making the page both less legible and more cramped.

And there is a sense of history that often speaks directly to the work. One thing I noticed in this 1943 edition was the color of the paper. Unlike some of my books from the 1920s and 1930s, the paper of this edition had browned like a paperback—because during World War II the only paper that was available had a high acid content (the necessary materials to produce better paper were needed elsewhere for the war effort). Knowing this and holding it in your hands lends an entirely new perspective to Eliot’s poems of loss, time, and redemption, particularly “Little Gidding,” which takes on a terrible concreteness when you situate it in wartime England in 1943:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
    This is the death of air.

(Thanks to Tristan for an excellent online text and notes on the poems.)

For a better discussion of the semantic interplay between text and book, check out Jerome McGann’s Black Riders: The Visual Language of Modernism.