Okay, the study of bibliography isn’t all that dynamic and is unlikely to get anyone hot and bothered, and yet it has its importance. And, if you love books and collect them or are a professional bookseller as I am, bibliographic information is invaluable, even if it’s something you don’t usually share with your friends who might otherwise think you a bit cuckoo.
I recently attended a talk by Vic Zoschak of Tavistock Books, fellow member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America, about book collecting, using reference books, etc.
At one point Vic asked me as a Steinbeck specialist which bibliography I would consult about a potential Steinbeck first edition. I replied that I would consult the Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck, about which I have often written in this blog. Vic inquired further whether I would consult the latest Steinbeck reference book, a copy of which he purchased from me. I replied that I would, and that I actually would consult all of the Steinbeck bibliographies and reference works.
So let’s talk about the most important ones.
The Bible of Steinbeck bibliographies was authored by Adrian Homer Goldstone, long-time major book collector, and John R. Payne, a librarian at the University of Texas, which published G&P in 1974. It has become a collectible book in its own right, being one of only 1,200 copies many of which went to libraries. Using it, a bibliophile can see line-by-line, page-by-page how to determine whether the book being examined is in fact a first edition.
Like all bibliographies and reference books, it has its beauties. And it has its uglies. There are mistakes of fact and some of judgment. On the whole, however, this is the first book I would consult about any Steinbeck book I wanted to identify. No. 1 son.
A few years later in 1980, a bookseller from Santa Barbara named Bradford Morrow published a historic and massive 700-item catalogue of the Harry Valentine collection of Steinbeck. It’s not meant to be a bibliography, but it is an excellent reference tool in that it lists a massive quantity of books and related items which helps any collector to identify books they might wish to seek. And there is an expansion of descriptions of the items listed which adds to one’s ability to describe their own copy.
A few years after the Morrow catalogue was issued, McFarland published The Collectible John Steinbeck by Robert B. Harmon, a librarian at San Jose State University which has one of the finest Steinbeck collections on the planet. Harmon’s book supplements and complements the two previously-mentioned books. He describes Steinbeck’s primary titles as well as first printings of those titles by subsequent publishers. His book has a couple of improvements over the other two books. For most of Steinbeck’s primary first editions he gives print-runs. This gives an important perspective sometimes lacking in the other books. For example, did you know that his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, which Viking published in 1939, had a first edition print-run of 50,000 copies? Did you know that his flawed masterpiece of 1952, East of Eden, had a print-run of 110,000? Did you know that the third of his play experiments, Burning Bright, was first titled In the Forests of the Night and that Viking printed an unknown number of dust jackets with that original title? If you find one, makes sure you let me know. Its main problem is that it also provides a price guide as to value of the books. Like nearly all price guides, those prices were out-dated upon publication. Nearly 30 years later, those prices slightly sour the book’s important qualities.
A lot of good bibliographic work followed, but not in book form — until 2013 when my friends Ken and Karen Holmes, Steinbeck collectors since the 1960s, published a catalogue of their personal collection identifying approximately 3,500 items. The catalogue, still available at the published price of $40, is titled John Steinbeck A Descriptive Bibliographical Catalogue of the Holmes Collection.
Ken and Karen Holmes provide us with much more detail in their descriptions. If you are a completist, which Ken and Karen are, this book is a must. If you collect only high spots within Steinbeck’s canon, this book may not be important to you, but then those who collect only high spots might be considered dilettantes to whom bibliography and references works are a nuisance. Can you say short-sighted?
One might quibble with the Holmes style of presentation, but it works for them, and the information presented is far more important than style.
The same can be said of the disc that accompanies the catalogue. The DVD includes an electronic presentation of the Holmes catalogue in addition to what the late Phil Ralls called Steinbeck Firsts. Steinbeck Firsts was his attempt to correct the Goldstone & Payne bibliography. It also provides a wide variety of images that show the sometimes minute differences between editions and issues. These images can be invaluable. It should be noted that some of this minutiae may be of interest only to completists and that even hard-core collectors may not care all that much about some of the information provided, but for those who want it, it’s there. With G&P, the Morrow catalogue, Bob Harmon’s book, and the catalogue of the Holmes collection one is sure to be able to surround a book, identify it, be able to describe it accurately and minutely.
Look at it this way. At some point, everyone’s books will be sold. Some sell professionally. Some wish to remain book collectors, not book sellers, but the life of every collection, like the life of every collector, must eventually come to an end. At that point, the ability to sell the book may well depend on the ability of one to describe it properly and professionally. If you were looking at two copies of the same book and deciding which to buy, assuming the condition and price of each is nearly the same, which do you buy — the one with the briefest description as if the seller doesn’t care all that much, or the one that may well tell you more than you expected or maybe even more than you might have wanted?