1 April 2021 Susannah

Meet A Book Addict – Chris Browne

This month I am featuring a living book addict, my friend Chris Browne, whose book collection makes me quite green with envy. This is what Chris kindly shared:

I began to read at age 3, thanks to my grandmother, and have always been an avid reader. I started collecting in 1970 when I arrived at Oxford to share a house with three already-established book collectors. The first book I acquired as a collector was a fine copy of the 1st edition of Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) in dust jacket, which I found in unread condition in the original Oxfam Shop in Oxford. It cost me 2 shillings, about 40 Australian cents. The current value would be between A$500 and A$1000. I still have the book.

The following year, I met Percy Muir at a Book Fair. He was the legendary book dealer and collector who had helped Ian Fleming in building his famous collection of books. Mr Muir spent the best part of an hour talking to me, and gave me four precious maxims that I have never forgotten and that I always pass on to young collectors: Collect books that you like or admire for their own sake, not for any monetary value; Focus on one or two areas of collecting (I failed spectacularly on that one!); Always buy the best possible copy of any book that you can obtain or afford; When in doubt about a purchase, always buy it, as you never know if or when you will find another comparable copy.

My collection represents my own personal whims and foibles. Currently, it stands at around 13,000 books, largely centred on 19th and early 20th century English literature, children’s books, Victorian and Edwardian illustrated books, and crime fiction, but I do stray!

The oldest item is a single printed page from Polychronicon, a fantasy-history printed by Caxton in 1482.

The oldest complete book I have is an Aldine Press edition of Epistolae ad Atticum (The Letters of Cicero to Atticus), published in Venice in 1561, shown here. (The Aldine press was hugely important in the history of printing – they invented the semi-colon and the italic font.) The newest book in the collection is Donna Leon’s Transient Desires published on 2nd March 2021, so the collection continues to grow at around 300-400 books a year.

It is difficult to name highlights … it is a bit like choosing your favourite child, but if pushed I would have to say it would include my first edition of the first volume of Northanger Abbey (1817) in its original binding, as it contains the first published identification of Jane Austen as an author.

I would also have to include an 1887 combined edition of the Alice books, signed and dedicated to a young female friend by the author, and another Alice in Wonderland, signed and previously owned by Alice Liddell, the original Alice.

I cherish a copy of a book once owned by Charles Dickens, that was given to him by his friend Percy Fitzgerald, and a first edition of Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies, which has a signed dedication from Kipling to the man who nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have a particular liking for richly-illustrated fine editions of the classics, which include the glorious “Peacock” edition of Pride and Prejudice (1894) and stunning copies of Silas Marner (1905), both shown in the featured image above, and Gulliver’s Travels (1894) together with around 100 similar books of the same period. Sabine Baring Gould’s Nursery Rhymes and Songs (1895) is my favourite example of Arts and Crafts style printing.

Storage and management of a large book collection are two important issues. I maintain a database which I designed to meet my needs, and which is still evolving after nearly 20 years. Almost all my books are shelved, although I must confess to about half a dozen cartons as well, and the purchase of a rural property 15 years ago has allowed the paperbacks to retire gracefully to the country.

Here endeth the lesson!
– Chris Browne

Thanks to Chris for sharing his book-collecting joys with me and all of my readers. Have you enjoyed this glimpse into a book collector’s collection and motivation? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Chris Browne, supplied image
Body image credit- Title page of the oldest complete book, an Aldine Press edition of Epistolae ad Atticum, 1561, photo supplied by Chris Browne
Body image credit- 1887 edition of the Alice books, signed and dedicated by the author, photo supplied by Chris Browne

Comments (10)

  1. LORNA nawran

    Excellent. Informative and I’m envious.

    So much for Kindle.

  2. Miland Joshi

    This sounds impressive. Perhaps people need to own houses, for such collections to be possible. I remember that many years ago I bought a first edition of one of Frederick Forsyth’s thrillers. It wasn’t very expensive, and I told the bookseller that I wasn’t actually interested in it as a first edition – I just wanted to read it! I go for cheaper used editions of books (if they are in reasonable condition, “good” or better) for that reason.
    For me, lack of storage space is an incentive to get rid of books that have lain unused for long periods, though in the pandemic this is not possible except when restrictions are lifted, as they may be in the next few weeks.

    • Susan Wolkowicz

      Chris, enviable, requiring a large space as you say – and methinks deep pockets. Do you ever sell any to part-fund this magnificent obsession?

      • Susannah Fullerton

        A ‘magnificent obsession’ is a lovely way of describing it. I have seen Chris’s library and was so impressed by it.

      • Susan
        Thanks for the comment. I do sell books that I have “improved”; for instance, if I have a book without a dust jacket and then later find a better copy with a jacket, I will buy the better copy and sell the jacketless copy, unless it has some other attribute, such as a signature, that encourages me to keep it.

        Space is a constant issue and partly to assist with that, I am always looking for bigger and better bookcases that more effectively house the collection. I have more than 60 bookcases. Different parts of the collection grow at different rates and in fits and starts as I research (and enthuse over) a particular author or topic area, so I am often confronted with having to rearrange books onto different shelves or into different bookcases or whether to double stack them.

        For instance in the past year, my collection of Robinson Crusoe has grown from around six copies to more than 50. (Different editions, illustrators, abridgements and bindings). I am currently trying to decide where to house them and whether to put them together with the various copies of ‘related’ books like The Swiss Family Robinson and all of its variants, Gulliver’s Travels and other “Robinsonades” as the general genre is called. And just in case you were wondering, there are more than 1000 documented editions of Robinson Crusoe published in English, and many thousands more in other languages, particularly French and German. Such is the nature of serious book collecting.
        Chris

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I do hope your UK restrictions get lifted soon.
      Yes, storage of many books can be a problem, but somehow I always find room for those I want to keep.

  3. Maria

    What a marvellous collection and such generous insights from an avid and experienced collector. I am particularly envious of Chris’s Austen books. However, I’d never be able to be a true collector. My practical side makes me concerned about how I’d be able to maintain and even dust so many volumes! I’m quite happy leaving such challenges to people like Chris. I would, however, be pleased to have a friend with an enviable book collection so I could visit and enjoy it without the responsibilities of ownership 📚

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Like you, I most envy his Jane Austen collection. Sigh! But my house simply wouldn’t allow for so many books. Chris is so generous about sharing his knowledge and passion for books, and visiting his home was amazing!

  4. Malvina

    It’s always a delight to hear more from Chris Browne about his collection! Over 13,000 books. Wow!

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