Monday, August 2, 2010

Augst 2:

My old friend Bart, who's a rare book and manuscript appraiser, called me today, we were talking about books and our own relationship to them, and I asked him what Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in the original dust jacket, was going for these days, and he told me that a really good copy had been sold recently for a quarter of a million dollars. That prompted me to find my own copy of the book, a Modern Library edition of 1934, and look it up on ABEbooks, the go-to site for used and rare, and look up values. I knew it had to have some value because Fitzgerald wrote a new introduction for that edition, so it was a first edition of the introduction. Aha! I said to myself when I saw the first entry, $2,000; but alas, that's with the dust jacket, and I don't have the dust jacket. Without the dust jacket, and without the remainder mark that so many of them have, because this edition did not sell well, and in decent condition, it's worth maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Which is something. I can't complain. Besides, I can read it without worrying about messing it up in some way, bumping a corner, say, or tearing the jacket, and reducing its value. I think that's what I'll do. I'll read it.

I've been reading so much lately about Christopher Columbus and now I'm starting to write, and it feels good to begin. How many years will it take? It will take years. So it's hard at this moment to think about reading other things, but I do. I read TLS as always, and the London Review of Books, all the book reviews, in fact, I look through the New Yorker, I read the daily paper, and the local papers. I wonder sometimes if it's making me smarter. I doubt it. Looking through old notebooks once in a while, I discover insights I had forgotten I had, and they impress me. Old thoughts, but real thoughts. I've talked about this before, having thoughts, original thoughts, ideas, insights, those moments that clarify and expand your understanding of the world and how it works, and how exciting that can be. I know writers who have spun out the one original thought they have had in their lives into entire careers. And you can see how that could happen, how you could get on that horse and ride it until it dropped from exhaustion, or you got bored with it. Think about people who lecture on one subject, over and over again. I'm thinking of joining that crowd. I have ideas for two lectures, attractive to businessmen, that would allow me to retire. They're really good ideas. I could expand them into books very easily.

It would kill me, no doubt, because it's not really what I want to do, but the money, the money.... Like a quarter of a million dollars for a copy of Gatsby in the original dust jacket. And if it were signed? Maybe this one was signed. I have thousands of books in the house and you would think I'd have something I could cash in on, but in fact I've already done that, sold most of my rare books, and there was nothing even close to that in value. Not even remotely close. But some nice books nevetheless. Sometimes I miss them.


But here's a new one, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, by Peter Barber and Tom Harper (University of Chicago Press, $45), it's the catalog of an exhibition at the British Library, it's a big handsome book and it describes the use of maps in the Renaissance when maps were expensive to produce, great huge things that covered walls and to be found almost exclusively in the palaces of the nobility. The first map that caught my eye in the book is a woodcut map of Venice so large, approximately four feet by eleven, that it had to be printed in separate sheets, then joined at the seams, and so detailed that a resident could easily have picked out his own building from the mass of buildings on display. This map must have taken months to draw; it looks at the city from an elevation that does not exist anywhere near Venice, so the mapmaker must have gone canal by canal, street by street, through Venice to mark the sites of buildings, their shapes and sizes, in order to make something reasonably accurate. The quality of the woodcut itself is extraordinary and shows the influence of the great Albrecht Durer. According to the text, it cost 3 ducats, "affrordable only to the wealthiest, not to mention the most tasteful, of art collectors and ruler."

I've never owned anything like such a map, but I've seen numerous reproductions of them. I remember when we were living in Rome in the apartment of an American sculptor, who in turn was living in our house in Sag Harbor, he had a map of Rome dating from the sixteenth century that showed the buildings like this map of Venice, and the building we were living in was on the map. That was kind of a thrill. I used to live in a house built around 1810 and I owned a map of our village made for one of the county atlases that were ubiquitous in the U. S. in the late nineteenth century, and it showed our house, and the other houses on our street; and it could not help but rouse one's sense of history.

It's quite a book. There are the maps stamped on coins and the miniature maps printed on the pocket globes that became popular in the seventeenth century; there are later maps such as might be found in the room of a secretary of state of some nation, or in a merchant's house, and of course my favorite, maps of the Americas with half of North America blank space, because it took such a long time to discover the whole of our own continent. The text that accompanies each map is informative and intelligent and never overbearing. A beautiful book. I'm grateful for it.