Back in March at the beginning of the global pandemic lockdown it was Katy-Bar-the-Door in Hawaii. Along with thousands of others I went into self-isolation. With my 77th birthday right around the corner, and the news turning darker every day, I had a sneaky feeling I’d be spending more time alone in the foreseeable future. That premonition turned out to be accurate, as now, ten weeks later, I am still sheltering in place.
Everybody needs a plan B. So as the drama unfolded I took the opportunity to buy 120 issues of Firsts - The Book Collector’s Magazine (published mostly between 2000 and 2011) and binge read my way through them for bibliography, literary bio, and odd bits of bookish information that I hoped would make me smarter and richer if ever we returned to “normal.”
Surprisingly, reading about unfamiliar authors of books I’d never seen and prices that seem simultaneously extravagant and plausible is quite an enjoyable pursuit. While the content of FIRSTS aren’t quite as diverse as the old Antiquarian Bookman (AB), there is indeed lots of valuable and interesting information.
The writers in FIRSTS like fiction and high points. The articles often focus on authors like Alcott, Twain and Dickens, whose books are still being read and sold going into their second century. FIRSTS also does a good job with genres like mystery and science fiction; fields with established collectible authors and stories that translate well into film and other media.
It’s not exactly an accident that I have a soft spot for bibliography. My dad, the late great Morton (Jock) Netzorg, was a bibliographer, and by that I do not mean a casual pedant who cataloged a volume or two. I mean a hard core pedal-to-the-metal completist who made it his life's work to produce the most comprehensive bibliography on the Philippines in World War II ever compiled. (Netzorg, Cornell, 1st edition 1977, followed by the massively updated and annotated two volume set with thousands of entries, was published by Cellar Book in 1995, shortly before his death.) https://tinyurl.com/y85ec2nw
Back in those days we didn’t hear much about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but even though OCD didn’t have a name yet, there was never a time my dad didn’t want that obscure pamphlet, that secret stash of Japanese propaganda leaflets written in English dropped on Manila during the war, the photo album, the song book, the travel guide, the topographic map, and any other oddball items, not to mention buttons, proclamations, or political diatribes.
For those who get a heavy dose of bibliography at an early age it never leaves you. You believe it is possible to have everything and know everything, and identify everything in a certain subject and that includes the missing quotation marks on page 62, or the original selling price on the dust wrapper, not to mention the pirated editions and reproductions from photo copied plates on cheap paper made in Taiwan.
My dad would sit there in his bathrobe, with all his little “slips” - small pieces of paper - usually of a light green or pale yellow card stock covered with his hand written notes on the edition, when it passed through his hands, how many times he had sold it, to whom and for how much, as well as any interesting little tidbits he’d found in the process. Though my father died over 20 years ago I am still coming across things he’d penciled in the margin in his small clear hand, disputing the point, arguing about the date or correcting the spelling and punctuation.
Though I am not nearly the bibliographer my father was, I share his love for detail, for a good story and for at least trying to get all the particulars squared away. Bibliography can be a long slow grind, but over the years becoming a skillful cataloger, and being able to tell with specificity what makes a book important, or a fake, or a later printing, or a first appearance by a rare and collectible author, really does turn out to be a useful (and often financially rewarding) skill.
I should add that hard core bibliographers are a strange breed. It should be noted that they are not above making up bogus citations and throwing them in just to keep things interesting. Most of my father’s tendencies in this direction were influenced by James Branch Cabell, and related to things that could have been true - but weren’t (like islands that were supposed to exist but didn’t).
I see that this practice is still alive and well. Today I read a post by MacDonnell’s Rare Books in Austin, Texas citing a rumored but unseen work: The Screw of the Tern, reputedly a novel by Henry James said to be about the rape of a seabird. The cataloger reported that no copies had been found as yet.
But I digress. Let’s go back to FIRSTS, should you find this enthusiastic plug for recreational bibliography of interest (and just in case the health emergency lasts longer than perhaps you anticipated) let me steer you to the issues and articles I found particularly enlightening.
At the moment many of these are available from the publisher directly at firstsmagazine.com and I also have some of them still in stock.
Kudos to Robin and Kathyrn Smiley respectively publisher and editor of FIRSTS, who have done an excellent job, especially to Robin whose byline appears frequently.
Here are some of my favorites so far listed in chronological order:
April 2000 - Collecting Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlow by William F. Nolan with a checklist of first editions by Robin H. Smiley. This is a fascinating read even if you’re not a Chandler fan. The issue also contains an article titled “Not Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes Pastiches” by Gary Lovisi covering books that take characters, themes or style from Sherlock Holmes and rework them in modern editions by contemporary writers.
September 2000 - Trash Collecting by Robin H. Smiley, an interesting discussion of popular fiction of the mid-20th century, i.e trashy books with a collectible edge such as Forever Amber, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, the Exorcist, etc. Even the Godfather made this list. It’s an unusual premise with a detailed criteria for inclusion in the “trash” category.
November 2000 -Collecting Dashiell Hammett by William Nolan with a brief checklist of firsts. A good read should you be so fortunate as to come across any of the titles discussed.
January 2001 - The Black Expatriate Experience in 1920s Paris by David Gregor.
This issue is a detailed and fascinating companion to the two prior special issues about Paris in the 20s. (Those two came out in 2000 and covered the more standard high spot authors like Fitzgerald and Henry Miller, as well as other notable American writers and their circle of friends.)
April 2001 - DELL Mapbacks by Robin H. Smiley.
A detailed report on vintage paperbacks with nifty graphics on the back. The article has many pictures of small books with an enduring appeal, truly a niche genre.
January & February 2002 - Collecting W.R. Burnett both by Robin H. Smiley.
Two complete issues are devoted to the life and work of the author of Little Ceasar who invented the gangster genre and had a long career writing for motion pictures.
May 2002 - Apacheria by Robin H. Smiley; an introduction to collecting fiction and non-fiction about Apache Indians with an annotated checklist sorted by historical figures and periods.
June 2002 - Collecting WPA Guides by Michael Wormser. The article is long and detailed with a good selection of photos.
January 2003 - Collecting P.G. Wodehouse by Kathryn Smiley. Everybody wants a P.G. Wodehouse collection, but alas it’s out of reach for most. Here’s a toe-in-the-water read about pricey books and their engaging author. The article contains much biographical info, an extensive checklist of firsts and their values at the time this magazine was published.
December 2004 - Collecting Louisa May Alcott by Valerie E. Weich. There is so much written about Louisa May Alcott that it’s hard to know where to start. This issue hits the high spots of her life and works. Though you may never be able to afford to buy and sell these books, this is a solid intro with good biographical information and substantial bibliography, plus many photos.
February 2005 - Collecting Non-Fiction Books on Space Flight by Anthony and Emily Springer together with a checklist of first editions. One of the better articles about modern non-fiction published by FIRSTS.
November 2006 - Robert A. Heinlein Special Issue by Bill Patterson, checklist by Robin H. Smiley - very informative. Lots of info packed into 64 pages.
Sept 2008 - Collecting Joel Chandler Harris & Uncle Remus by Robin H. Smiley.
Like many things from the 19th century, Joel Chandler Harris and his dialect Uncle Remus stories are enjoying significant new interest, especially by collectors of Black Americana. This is an easy way to come up to speed on Harris and his works. This same issue has a long and detailed article on the publication history of Gone with the Wind and the making of the movie of the same name, also by Robin H. Smiley.
Sept. 2010 - Collecting George Amstrong Custer by Tim Tytle. This is a speedy intro to Custer and his period with a checklist of other reference and related materials. It's an interesting read on a period that is still relevant and undergoing extensive re-examination. One of the best of the bunch.
May 2010 - What’s the Deal about Sylvia Plath together with Who Cares about Olive Higgins Prouty, both by Robin H. Smiley. Looks like Sylvia Plath is going to have a following well into the 21st century, the guide you’ll need to buy wisely.
January 2011 - Collecting Eugene O’Neill by Bill Hanrahan. A great deal of biographical and bibliographical info and plenty of theatrical and film notes too. A fast and painless immersion into the works of this celebrated playwright.
And last but not least everything on NOIR in books and films with lots of photos:
Nov. 2003 - Some tough Noirs by Kevin Johnson; films based on hardboiled crime books.
March 2011 - Nine Neglected Noirs - the films and the books that gave rise to them immediately after WWII by Robin H. Smiley.
June 2011 - Neglected Noirs of the 1950s by Robin H. Smiley.
Firsts Magazine, Inc.
P.O. Box 65166
Tucson, AZ 85728
Telephone: (520) 529-1355
Reach me, your faithful but isolated pandemic bibliography fan, at firstname.lastname@example.org