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.