Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (First Edition)

This is a major one for me: I've finally acquired a first edition of one of my favorite novels, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. While I've been dreaming of getting a copy for quite a long time, this acquisition was fast-tracked last month after my visit to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

I was surprised to find myself so conflicted after my visit to the fair. Every booth was stocked to the gills with treasures, ranging from $500 to the hundreds of thousands. There were signed dedication copies of literary classics, perfect-condition examples of so many coveted titles for any intrigued collector to drool over. But then, I started seeing books that I have in my own library; things that I purchased for a song on eBay or from some small used/rare shops in the Northeast, things I purchased for around $100 that were priced at the fair for $1000. Am I lucky to have bought those titles at those prices? I don't think so. I'm just a discerning, patient collector who knows the price ranges of the titles I'm looking for and one who is happy to wait for a book to appear at a price that really can't be beat.

I imagine the entire Park Avenue Armory was filled with dealers and collectors like this. So, what's going on when you can go on eBay and see a handful of Gravity's Rainbows selling for a couple-hundred dollars, but there are a handful of copies in these booths for $1250, $2500, and more? Sure, these copies are in excellent, excellent condition, but really, who are these priced for? It felt like these titles were offered with a hefty prestige-premium, for wealthy casual collectors to soak in the Manhattan convention experience.

Later, I was floored to see a copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls dedicated to Hemingway's mother. There were many genuine one-of-a-kind treasures at the fair like this -- I was smitten with some Joe Brainard drawings, some signed firsts by Shirley Jackson, and many more, but that corner of my mind that was looking to finally grab a Pynchon first walked away from the fair frustrated and embarrassed for their potential buyers. This is a fair to buy *unique* books, not simply rare ones.

I went home over-confident that I could go home and buy a Gravity's Rainbow myself online for a fraction of the ones I saw at the fair.

...and so I did.  In a polite and professional back-and-forth with a dealer on eBay, I got my hands on this:

It's a true first edition of Gravity's Rainbow, not price clipped or damaged in any way save for one droplet of discoloration on the top edges. The book has a wonderful provenance, too: this was from the COLUMBIA PICTURES STORY DEPARTMENT (and stamped with that on the front endpapers).

Basically, this means that in the 70s, Columbia Pictures had a library of books that they might consider making into films. Gravity's Rainbow is hilariously unfilmable, and the book is bookmarked only about thirty pages in, at the following passage:

"A Chorus line of quite nubile young women naughtily attired in Busbies and jackboots dance around for a bit here while in another quarter Lord Blatherard Osmo proceeds to get assimilated by his own growing Adenoid, some horrible transformation of cell plasma it is quite beyond Edwardian medicine to explain..."

It's as if someone read those lines, asked "what the hell's an Adenoid?" and shelved this until the department shut down or something. Amazing.

Currently reading:
Marshlands by Matthew Olshan

Currently watching:
Game of Thrones

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin, (partial) Earthsea Trilogy, first UK editions

 These two books came to me from my grandfather's library: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, books one and two from Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy. While not especially rare in this state (both are second printings), these two books and the third (The Farthest Shore) make one of the more handsome trilogies I've seen.

Published by Victor Gollancz in the early 70s, each book features lovely jackets by David Smee featuring a fantastic scene in pen and ink. True first editions of Le Guin's trilogy are fetching substantial amounts on the market, but as a set, they visually lack the cohesiveness of the Gollancz editions. I'd take these any day. 

Currently reading:
The Corpse Exhibition and other stories from Iraq by Hassan Blasim

Currently listening to:
Do to the Beast by The Afghan Whigs

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Or Shall We Die? A libretto by Ian McEwan (signed first edition)

Although my wife and I have been taking about it for years, this week marked our first visit to the Met Opera. We saw Massenet's Werther (based on a Goethe short story), which featured an other-worldly performance by tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Previously, I hadn't had much exposure to opera, but some of the more curious lateral connections I've had to the medium have been publications of librettos by authors I like. I posted long ago on Ian McEwan's "For You" and thought this might be an appropriate time to feature my signed first edition of 1983's "Or Shall We Die?":

"Or Shall We Die?" features a lengthy introduction by Ian McEwan which can almost be appreciated as an independent essay. The text deals with the then-current political climate and fear of an exacerbating Cold War, as well as a direct discussion of how to approach composing a meaningful oratorio. The introduction's poignancy is compounded once the reader gets to McEwan's libretto: his themes are masterfuly reduced into tightly metered lines:

"On countless planets that power locked in
matter is traced to larger patterns,
the measurements resume in wonder.

But lesser forms, intent on conquest,
helplessly construct the means of their destruction,
and then must face a simple test of wisdom.

Shall we pass, or shall we die?"

This book is particularly rare to find in hardcover and in fine condition -- I made some compromises by purchasing one with a diamond shaped stain of sticker residue, but I think it only cost me around $5.00. At an event last year for Sweet Tooth, I brought this and a few other early McEwan collections to get signed.

Currently reading:
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Currently listening to:
"Do to the Beast" by The Afghan Whigs

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Signed, first edition of Dusk by James Salter

 One of the most moving novels I read last year was James Salter’s All That Is. While an excellent book, I found myself more moved and perplexed by my lack of previous exposure to Salter. All That Is is a novel so inspiringly precise that it makes me turn inward and try to find all the moments in my past where Salter eluded me. Where was Salter when I was discovering the triumvirate of Bellow, Roth and Updike? All That Is is the work of a great American novelist who has no business being in the shadows of those more outspoken (and often incendiary) authors. Salter is in his late eighties, and I am certain in ten years the reading public will wish they’d lauded him with more praises and awards while they had the chance.

As a collector, I patiently focus my efforts on a handful of authors instead of trying to accumulate everything great I come by. A focused library will lead to incremental levels of completion that I feel will be more rewarding than a wide array of assorted first editions. Upon finishing All That Is, I promptly added Salter to my list and am on the hunt rarities, such as this signed first edition of Dusk. Originally published in 1988 by North Point Press, Dust collects a number of short stories originally published in The Paris Review and Grand Street.

Currently reading:
Ivan Vladislavic, Double Negative

Sunday, February 16, 2014

New Haruki Murakami cover for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

I spotted the new cover art for this fall's Haruki Murakami novel over the weekend while browsing Amazon. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage will be released in the US this August, translated by Philip Gabriel. Could this be another cover from Chip Kidd?

Of course, the artwork is subject to change -- Amazon has a knack for releasing internal artwork a little before it's officially ready...

Currently watching:
House of Cards, season 2

Friday, February 14, 2014

Signed, slipcased edition of Richard Powers' ORFEO

I've been intrigued for many years by Powell's "Indiespensible" book subscription. For $40 a mailing, Powell's will send you a signed, slipcased, exclusive edition of some new novel by a notable author. Signature aside, I'm of the mind that a slipcase makes any book a little nicer. The only thing that held me back in the past has been the book selection. Something like a signed/slipcased copy Jonathan Franzen's Freedom would be a nice piece to have, but I could skip the McSweeney's side of things, as well as debut novels by young writers. Here's a blog post I found on some past editions from 2013; you be the judge.

Powell's announces each upcoming issue a month or so ahead of time in an effort to drum up interest, and they absolutely hooked me with their January mailing. I was stunned to hear that Powell's got the great Richard Powers (subject of a previous post here) to sign books for their program. I took a seminar in undergrad on Powers' work and had a chance to spend a day with him surrounding an event he did at my college for The Echo Maker. He very explicitly explained to an auditorium full of fans (and further extrapolated to our class later on) that he just doesn't sign books. He offered his email to anyone interested in writing, and said that traditional correspondence would be a more substantial way to connect with him as an author. I'm a huge Powers fan (I have his email address tucked into the signature page of my first edition of The Time of Our Singing...) so I jumped at the Powell's offer the second I read about it. I'm shocked that it's still available for purchase.

As a novel, Orfeo soars. Anyone who is interested in contemporary classical, science and technology, and avant-garde music and art will find Orfeo to be a revelation. I had a reading copy sent to me to review (which will be online in the next week or so) so I luckily won't have to muck up my slipcased version.

Collectors: go buy the Powell's edition of Orfeo. It's a fine novel by an award-winning author, and already valued at twice as much its cost on eBay (not that you should sell it).

Currently reading:
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Currently listening to:
Underworld, "1992-2002"

Monday, December 23, 2013

Top 5 books of 2013

After much deliberation, I've selected my picks for the Top 5 books of 2013:

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
James Salter, All That Is
Will Self, Umbrella
Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge


Set in the late 19th-Century in a mining town on the coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries revolves around a dead body and a missing fortune, with twelve men involved in the mystery and one out-of-towner who is pulled into the web of intrigue. Catton won the 2013 Booker Prize for the novel and should win tons more awards for it. I've read a number of books this year from the current generation of writing-school grads and found most of them to be exhausting and lacking in a unique voice. Catton spins the plot of The Luminaries through an allegory of celestial charts and cosmic revolutions and her commitment to this theme shines through beautifully in her writing. It's one of the best and most fun books I've read in ages. A more detailed review can be read here.


Where was James Salter when I was falling into the oeuvre of Philip Roth, looking for great American novelists and their related great novels? Salter's All That Is is his first novel in thirty-five years (that's probably where he's been), and in one swoop cuts through through the shenanigans of the old-world, uber-masculine great-American-males like Roth and Updike. All That Is follows Philip Bowman, a former naval officer who has worked his way up the ranks in a Manhattan publishing house. Salter doesn't have any hidden agendas or subtle incendiary themes here, he's just interested in a telling a sweeping bildungsroman of a complex character and his growth through America. This felt like a mid-century classic I'd never heard of, not of its time but lost somewhere in history. My full review can be read here.


(Umbrella was published in the UK in 2012, but released in the US early 2013). One of the most difficult books I've ever read, Will Self's Umbrella is a Joycean whirlwind through psychiatric medicine. Taking place in three timelines that actually switch between each other in midsentence, Umbrella will have you reading aloud to find temporal cluing in Self's magnificent array of voices. The book is an awe-inspiring riddle and perhaps should have won the Booker last year if the judges were given ten years to re-read the shortlist before making a selection. Not for the impatient or weak-willed, but an incredibly rewarding tome. A lengthy review can be found here.


Anne Carson writes with an elegance that I've rarely encountered in my reading. Her formal constraints and pitch-perfect voice turned a Greek myth about about a monster named Geryon into something relatable and deeply personal. I had the chance to meet her at an event at the NYPL and heard her read a lengthy addendum to Red Doc> that she wrote about a character's aimlessness after finally finishing Proust. She's an author that I'm trying to take very slowly -- her books are ones to simmer with, absorb, and re-read. A review can be read here.


Tied with The Luminaries for the top rank this year, Bleeding Edge is a stunner of a book that will resound spectacularly with readers depending on who they were in the year 2000. Me, I was a Nintendo kid in the middle of my teens, growing up essentially in tandem with technology's great advancements, but wasn't immune to the various fads and cultural manias that swept through the country. I remember dial-up internet, Geocities, Beanie Babies, the X-Files, the first signs of Pokemon, and really, to sum it all up, a world pre-Google and before the Apple-empire. Pynchon remembers all of this, almost as if the novel had been cryogenically frozen for 12 years and thawed now that we're deep into the digital frontier and political uncertainty. The book is your standard hysterical Pynchon mystery-fare, but written in a way that renders the millennium like historical fiction. Beneath the double-crossing and foul play of Bleeding Edge, it's bittersweet to see how far we've come in just over a decade.

I highly recommend each of these books. Perhaps you'll need some holiday reading during travels, or have a gift card or two to spend after Christmas. I wish you all a great holiday and New Year's and will see you next in 2014.