Category Archives: Books

What is a First Edition of The Catcher in the Rye Worth?

alex atkins bookshelf booksJ. D. Salinger introduced the world to Holden Caulfield, the quintessential cussing, anti-phony, cynical, disillusioned, rebellious adolescent, on July 16, 1951 after working on The Catcher in the Rye for about a decade. The 277-page first edition was published by Little, Brown. Salinger objected to cover art and illustrations on his books because he didn’t want readers influenced by any artistic interpretations. However, The Catcher in the Rye was an exception. With this particular book, the iconic artwork was drawn by E. Michael Mitchell, a close and trusted friend of Salinger. The dust jacket features the pen-and ink-drawing of a carousel horse painted red-orange. The title is superimposed in yellow over a field of red-orange. On the lower left, obscured by the hind leg of the horse, is a small sketch of Central Park overlooking the New York City skyline in the lower left. Attentive readers will recognize that Holden’s sister, Phoebe, rides a carousel horse in Central Park (Holden refuses to join her); but more significantly, the horse is an important metaphor in the novel. On one level, the horse represents lost innocence. On another level, it represents Holden’s attempt to jump into adulthood but is inextricably bound to the carousel horse of his childhood. The back of the dust jacket features a black-and-white photo of Salinger taken by Lotte Jacobi.

Back in 1951, a first edition of The Catcher in the Rye cost a paltry $3.00. Since then, the book has sold more than 65 million copies. But more significantly, the value of a first edition has risen exponentially. Most first editions sell for about $20,000 to $25,000. However, first editions signed by Salinger are extremely rare and fetch much higher prices: Currently, there are two signed first editions for sale: one for $55,000 and one for $125,000. This more expensive one is inscribed: “To Ned Thompson with all good wishes J.D. Salinger Windsor, VT Nov. 5, 1961.” Both books are housed in custom clamshell boxes.

One wonders what Holden Caulfield would make of all this. Perhaps he would say, “Half a grand for a lousy book about some whiny jerk and his sister? Leave it to a bunch of phonies to read the book and then smoking and talking about how important it is. And it takes another goddamn phony bastard to come up with that much dough for a book because he believes it’s actually worth that amount. That kills me!”

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The Bats that Protect Books in the Biblioteca Joanina

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe Biblioteca Joanina (Joanina Library), located in the center of the University of Coimbra (Coimbra, Portugal) was built between 1717 and 1728. It is considered one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring libraries in the world. The three-story library, built in the Baroque style of architecture in a cross-shape, features elegant ionic columns that frame a white, gray, and rose marble tiled floor, ornately-carved arched ceilings, stunning painted ceilings, intricate gilded balustrades, and gold leaves adorning bookshelves made of exotic multicolored woods. (Interestingly, the library was built on top of a medieval prison.) But the real treasure is the collection of more than 240,000 books, manuscripts, and incunabula that the library owns. Some of the most prized books include a first edition of Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Encyclopedia by Diderot et D’Alembert, the Latin Bible (1462), and a rare copy of Homeri Opera Omnia (the complete works of Homer). But beyond the beauty of its architecture and collection of books, what makes this library truly remarkable is that a colony of bats protects these precious books — making the library a sort of literary bat cave.

Each day, as the darkness of evening descends on the book stacks, a colony of Common pipistrelle bats that live behind the gilded wood ornaments, swoop down to devour the insects that ravenously feed on paper and book bindings. Fortunately for the librarians, the bats are not interested in eating manuscripts. The bats began their nocturnal book preservation duties soon after the library was constructed in the late 1700s. During the day, the bats keep to themselves, so librarians and guests are safe from any encounters with the winged creatures (otherwise, if you see one, run like a bat out of hell!). The librarians note that on cloudy, rainy days they can hear the bats singing to one another — a series of squawks and chirps resonating throughout the marble chambers of the library. Eerie — in an Edgar Allan Poe sort of way, no?

While the bats are incredibly effective in reducing the insect population, that service does come with a cost, or more precisely, a major annoyance that drives the librarians batty: bat guano (bat shit). Bat guano, as you can imagine, has a very distinct smell. The pellets look like dark brown grains of rice, and often get clumped together by urine. Gross! Needless to say, bat shit on the marble floor of a beautiful library is not acceptable to the librarians — unless you are as blind as, um, a bat. So each day, the first chore of the morning is to clean the library floors. Double gross! After that, they remove the animal skin covers that protect the library’s many 18th century wooden tables. When that task is completed, the library opens its doors to academics who use its resources for study and enlightenment. And most of these scholars are oblivious to the dark, furry winged creatures, hiding in the shadows, that are perhaps the most unlikely — and certainly the most grotesque — sentinels to guard some of the greatest literary treasures in the world.

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Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstores Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life

alex atkins bookshelf books“What is a book scout?” you ask. A self-confessed “book scout,” David Meyer author of “Memoirs of a Book Snake,” explains it this way: “Book scouting has been a pursuit of mine since my high school days. The term ‘scout’ is used in the antiquarian book trade to describe a person who buys old books to sell to old book sellers. [Meyer is being facetious here, books don’t necessarily need to be old; neither do the book sellers.] A dealer, operating a store or office with business hours, can’t obtain all his stock by buying at auction or estate sales or from people offering to sell accumulations of old books. Often the best books, the choice and rare titles which make up a good bookseller’s stock, are found in out-of-the-way places where a bookdealer hasn’t had the time to search.” And as any dedicated book collector will readily admit, the hunt for the elusive Holy Grail or the “unknown unknown” (the book you didn’t even know existed) is half the fun.

If you are a book lover you will definitely find a kindred soul in Meyer as he describes his passion for seeking out literary treasures: “Old bookshops have been the hunting grounds of my life. Also antique shops, Salvation Army, Goodwill and other second-hand resale shops, sometimes attics and basements, and just plain junk shops. No respectable dealer in antiquarian books would admit to visiting such places, but that’s where the book scouts, true treasure hunters that they are, usually go. It’s not the place that matters, its what you find there… The treasures that I have rescued are simply survivors in the sea of old books that washes back and forth across this country — through towns, cities, basements and attics, bookstores, garage sales and junk shops — books deserving of better fates.” Amen, brother.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: Memoirs of a Book Snake by David Meyer

Books Are Like Seeds — They Lie Dormant for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. This room [in the New York Public Library] is full of magic… More recently, books, especially paperbacks, have been printed in massive and inexpensive editions. For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil.”

Excerpt from American astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part television series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey, Episode 11 entitled “The Persistence of Memory.” The science-themed documentary, featuring music by Greek composer Vangelis, was broadcast on PBS in 1980. The mini-series, which won a Peabody Award and two Emmies, was watched by more than 500 million people in over 60 countries. 

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Books Are as Important as Friends

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I know there are good books and bad books. It can be fiction or nonfiction. It can be philosophy. It can be history. Really, when it comes to books, it is its value, its depth. You make an acquaintance with a book as you do with a person. After ten or fifteen pages, you know with whom you have to deal. When you have a good book, you really have something of importance. Books are as important as friends and maybe more so. Because all of us are living in very limited circles, books enable us to run away from them.”

Shimon Peres, former Israeli Prime Minister, during an interview from Independence Hall (July 4, 1996), where he was awarded the Liberty Medal. The Liberty Medal is awarded each year by the National Constitution Center to “men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Previous medal award recipients include the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Malala Yousafzai, and Vaclav Havel.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The Infinite Lines Connecting All Books

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“As I crouch among these heaps of books — awkwardly, since at any moment a tower of delicately balanced volumes might fall on me or crash beyond easy retrieval — my hands and eyes move among pages encountered at ran­dom. In a few moments I will have seized on words from a dozen different books. They come upon me like the patches of hieroglyphs in a tomb revealed by the swaying of an ar­chaeologist’s lamp.

The rhythm is alternately staccato and oceanic, a suc­cession of bee stings or a calm breeze from an unseen shore. By turns I’m lost, I seek, I find, I drop the thread again. Voic­es bark out phrases, then slam as quickly into silence. Maps are delineated in air. Lines of connection link up dissimilar objects and then break off. Meanings crawl around and then abruptly scatter like insects caught in a flashlight’s beam.

What I am engaged in calls ideally for the juxtaposition of many books: the jumbled innards of a cupboard, the accumulations of a basement of an attic or a crammed shop filthy with age. Only by switching without interruption and as rapidly as possible can I appreciate the space dividing one book from the next and with any luck catch a glimpse of the potentially infinite lines connecting them. I eavesdrop on the murmur of overlapping conversations. It’s almost as if the books read each other, the way characters in novels read novels. I merely stand among them and read over their shoulders as characters in Raymond Chandler novels read Proust and Hemingway, characters in Henry James novels read novels by Paul Bourget, certain characters in Dostoevsky read the Bible while other charac­ters in Dostoevsky read Bakunin, characters in Jane Austen read Mrs. Radcliffe, Don Quixote reads Amadis de Gaula, characters in The Tale of Genji read poems written by other characters in The Tale of Genji, characters in Dante spend an eternity in Hell remembering a book they read once.

But however absorbing it might be to get lost in the crisscrossing threads, it is the gaps, the blind pockets, the abrupt curtailments that are most bracing. Step into the hole and you’ve landed in a shuttered chamber, a snug dead end of the labyrinth. Nothing exists but the arbitrary contents of a stranger’s hotel room: a razor, a ticket stub, a crumpled half-finished letter. The known universe is reduced to the dimensions of a detective novel by Freeman Wills Crofts.”

From the essay The Browser’s Ecstasy (2000) from the book of the same name by Geoffrey O’Brien, author, poet, and critic. He serves as editor-in-chief of the highly regarded Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature. To date, the Library of America, founded in 1979, has published more than 300 high-quality volumes of America’s most important authors, like William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Jack London to mention a few.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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What Valuable Lesson Has Life Taught You?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsWhen H. Brown Jackson turned 51, he sat down to write down what half century of living had taught him. It became a cherished weekly ritual and soon he began asking his family, friends, acquaintances, and students of all ages to answer this compelling question: what valuable lesson has life taught you?

Over time, he collected all these pearls of wisdom in a little book entitled Live and Learn and Pass It On published in 1992. “This book,” he writes in the introduction, “contains the combined wisdom of thousands of years of living… It is lessons learned from loving and winning and… losing, from the school of hard knocks, and the old method of trial and error… Regardless of how much we know, it is never enough… with every new experience, we are offered new opportunities for discovery and growth… School is always in session and life challenges us to excel at being both enthusiastic student and inspired teacher.” Amen, brother. And the beautiful thing about personal wisdom is that is priceless — and free. As Jackson pleasantly discovered, you just need to have the curiosity to ask — and the willingness to learn from it. Here are some highlights (age of contributor in parenthesis).

I’ve learned that deciding whom you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. (95)

I’ve learned that most of the things I worry about never happen. (64)

I’ve learned that the great challenge in life is to decide what’s important and disregard everything else. (51)

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t compare yourself to the best others can do, but to the best you can do. (68)

I’ve learned that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. (66)

I’ve learned that nothing of value comes without effort. (64)

I’ve learned that even the simplest task can be meaningful if I do it in the right spirit. (72)

I’ve learned that enthusiasm is caught, not taught. (51)

I’ve learned that in every face-to-face encounter, regardless of how brief, we leave something behind. (45)

I’ve learned that you can’t hug your kids too much. (54)

What valuable lesson has life taught you?

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