Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Not-So-Great Gatsby

Today's guest blogger is Howard Prouty of ReadInk.

by Howard Prouty

A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby, with its original dust jacket, meets anybody’s definition of a big-ticket item.   Copies today (and there ain’t many) run in the neighborhood of $125,000 to $200,000, depending on the condition of the jacket.  Nice neighborhood.

Courtesy of Peter Harrington Rare Books.

The price-points on Gatsby illustrate what all collectors and dealers in modern first editions know: It’s the Jacket, Stupid.  Copies of the most desirable books “in jacket” are often priced ten (or more) times higher than their naked counterparts -- and many vintage modern firsts, especially pre-WWII titles, are difficult-to-impossible to find today with their original jackets in non-tattered condition.  It’s small supply-vs.-big demand, and the resulting prices would choke your horse, if you could still afford a horse.

But take Gatsby’s gorgeous, Francis Cugat-designed paper wraparound out of the equation, and things cool down considerably: several quite decent (i.e. not falling-apart) copies of the first edition sans jacket are available for a mere $1,200 to $1,500.  It’s not rocket science: the jacket is rare, but the book is not.  The first printing of Gatsby, after all, produced a quite respectable 20,870 copies, of which many thousands are no doubt still extant.  Like this one, for instance - still extant, but practically on life-support:

Now, make no mistake: this is a gen-u-wine first edition of The Great Gatsby.  It meets all the textual points (“sick in tired” and the rest of it).  But it’s also an utter horror, having been degraded over its lifetime into a condition that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy’s bankbook.  Like Keith Richards, when you gaze upon it you just have to shake your head and marvel that it’s still kicking around at all.

O Gatsby, poor Gatsby!  How many things are wrong with thee?  Let me count the ways:

For starters, it was once book #32395 in the “Readers’ Library” (i.e., rental library) of a major Los Angeles department store - the Broadway, at 4th & Hill Streets - a fact boldly advertised by that lavender-colored printed label plastered onto its front cover.   (The little swastikas at the corner are a nice decorative touch, albeit a little jarring to the modern post-Hitler eye.)

Also, the book is damn close to falling apart, thanks to careless (or maybe just excessive) handling by the dozens (hundreds?) of people through whose occasionally grubby mitts it passed, for who knows how long before the store decided to retire it.  The binding is shot, the corners are mashed and frayed, the gilt lettering on the spine has worn away, a couple of pages have come loose, the edges of the pages are soiled and dog-eared, and worst of all (at least from a bibliographic p.o.v.), the title page is completely gone.

And there’s yet another goddamn label in the thing, a really big one that covers most of the front pastedown endpaper, and lays out all the rules and procedures of the Broadway’s book-rental operation:

 This tells us perhaps the saddest news of all about this sad, sad book, the greatest indignity visited upon this particular copy and, by extension, its author (in capital letters and underlined, no less): THIS IS A ONE-CENT-A-DAY BOOK.  That’s right, folks: in the judgment of some department-store “librarian,” The Great Gatsby, one of our country’s great literary treasures, didn’t even qualify as a Two-Cent-a-Day Book.  We can only hope that Scott Fitzgerald himself never wandered into the Broadway’s Renters’ Library, while Zelda (or maybe Sheilah Graham) was downstairs buying a pair of nylons or something, to observe the value that one of L.A.’s finest retail establishments had placed on his masterpiece.  That could drive you to drink, for sure.

I mean, seriously: how pathetic can one copy of one Great Book possibly be?

And yet, and yet...There is one more thing:

Let me quickly extrapolate an interesting number, based on that relatively el cheapo $125K copy of Gatsby mentioned above.  If the book itself in that instance (in “Very Good to Fine” condition, per its seller) is worth, say, $5,000, then that would value the dust jacket itself at $120,000.  (Such are the vagaries of the marketplace that this could all change tomorrow -- for one thing, if somebody buys that copy, then the bargain-basement price abruptly becomes $190,000 - but for purposes of demonstration, bear with me.)  The complete jacket measures about 17-1/4 x 7-1/2 inches - that’s 125 square inches of paper, printed on one side only, worth about $960 per square inch.  Now hold that thought, as we turn our attention back to our poor, trashed-up, ex-rental library copy of Gatsby.

Because still another imprecation was visited upon this miserable book, a not-uncommon rental-library procedure of the day: affixed to the front endpaper is a printed blurb about it, helpfully informing the prospective renter-reader that “Here is a novel, glamorous, ironical, compassionate -- a marvelous fusion into unity of the curious incongruities of the life of the period - which reveals a hero like no other...[etc.].”  Then, as now, you see, the best way to get a quick fix on what a book was about, and a sense of whether it would be worth your time and money, would be to quickly skim the blurb...on the jacket. The dust jacket...

 Hey!  Holy Cow! That’s exactly where the rental-library people got that blurb - clipped it right out of the rear panel of the dust jacket.  That’s right: it’s a nice big piece of that $120,000 dust jacket! A 4-1/4-inch by 6-1/8-inch piece, to be exact - wow, now I do need my calculator!  Oh my gosh, that’s a full 20.8% of the original jacket!  Let’s see now, $120,000 times .208 equals...$24,960! Yowzah!  Jackpot!  And if somebody snaps that $125K copy up (lessee, $185,000 times .208...!!!!)

Well, not exactly.  Even a dope such as myself, who’s only been in the book trade for about as long as Fitzgerald had left to live, post-Gatsby (hmmm...) - and has never been lucky enough to have a real Gatsby pass through his hands - knows that ain’t how it works.  It’s hardly even kosher to call this a “partial jacket,” so far, far away from its original, desirable, collectible condition has it been carried by its cumulative hands of fate.  And banish any thoughts of “restoration.” Nothing short of resurrection would bring this one back.  So all that stuff about square inches, doing the math, etc.? Just kidding!

This is all the more painful because right smack in the middle of that clipped-out-and-glued-down blurb is the incontrovertible evidence that this 20.8% was, in fact, once part of an original first edition Gatsby jacket.  Just as the book’s text conforms to all known points, so too does the blurb copy display the one thing that readily identifies a first-issue jacket: the capital “J” over-printed on the lower-case “j’ in “jay Gatsby.”  If this is the most famous and iconic dust jacket in literary history (and it is), then that is undoubtedly the most famous dust jacket typo of all time.

So what we have here is that most maudit of all things in the rare book universe: an uncollectable copy of a highly collectable book.   One hears it (and says it) over and over and over again: condition, condition, condition.  You’ll understand this if you’ve ever watched a serious collector (or dealer) pick up a book, turn it over and around and upside down, hold it close to their face and squint at it... and then say something along the lines of “yeah, it’s pretty nice, but too bad about that little smudge at the bottom of page 57 [or slight fading of the spine, or itsy-bitsy tear at the bottom of the rear jacket panel, or whatever].”

On your better books, the consequences of such minor blemishes can often be measured in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Although this might seem silly to the uninitiated, I assure you it’s nothing to be sneezed at - but if you must sneeze, for God’s sake turn your head away from the book!

So as a bookseller, what am I to do with this poor, put-upon first edition of The Great Gatsby, which might just be The Worst Copy in the World?  To sell it, I have to price it -- but what justifies a price (any price) for a book that, by any reasonable standard pegged to its physical condition, should’ve been trashed years ago?  Truth be told, if it hadn’t been a Gatsby I’d have probably done just that myself.  But it is. 

OK, I admit it: I’m a romantic.  In fact, when I hold this book in my hands, I can’t help but think of Scott and Zelda themselves: beautiful, charmed, talented . . . yet ultimately brought to ruin by illness, drink, disillusionment and failure.  Although Fitzgerald’s place as a titan of American literature now seems secure, as does the stature of Gatsby itself as both a (some would say the) Great American Novel and an absolute superstar in the rare-book world, none of this was the case during his lifetime.

The book’s initial sales were tepid, and in retrospect it seems startlingly clear that his career had already peaked.  His remaining decade and a half was essentially a long downward spiral, during which his creative wellspring was inexorably smothered by financial worries, Zelda’s mental health issues, booze and Hollywood.  He completed just one more novel after Gatsby - 1934's Tender is the Night - and by the time he drank himself to death in California, at age forty-four in 1940, all his major work was out of print and his reputation was in the cellar.  The public, to the extent that they still thought about him at all, had mostly written him off as a has-been.  (Posthumously, of course, he’s done much better.)

So because of all that, it’s easy for me to find reasons to love this particular copy of a book I love anyway, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- the very fact that it’s been so ill-treated by everybody else.  For instance, I love how, with the loose binding and missing title page, the book falls open directly to the dedication page, which reads “Once again, to Zelda.”  I also love that one of those long-ago readers was moved to mark this particular passage on page 134, with a simple pencil line in the margin:

But mostly, I guess, I just groove to the whole metaphorical weltschmerz of the poor thing -- so achingly evocative of the lack of respect and appreciation that hounded its author for too much of his too-short life.  

And finally, I find it sublimely heartbreaking that this wonderful, moving work - this towering achievement of American literature - could ever have been just another One-Cent-a-Day Book.

If you find yourself anywhere near Pasadena this weekend, and would like to pay your respects to this Not-So-Great Gatsby, please come by my booth (#505) at the 45th  California International Antiquarian Book Fair.  I’ll be giving it pride of place, highlighted and headlined as “The Worst Copy in the World.”  And because I am, after all, a bookseller, there’ll be a price-tag on it, too, if you want to take it home with you.  Don’t mind me, though, if I shed a little tear as it walks out of my life.

All images, except where noted otherwise, are courtesy of ReadInk, with our thanks; a special thank you to Howard Prouty for this delightful contribution (SJG).


  1. Your very good words and calculations brought two things to mind: the first being Meyer Wolfshiem's Swastika Holding Company, which Nick visits in the novel's final pages, and my first British Edition of Flappers and Philosophers (Collins, 1922). Once part of the Surrey's Molesey Lending Library, how it ended up at the 1989 Montreal Antiquarian Book Fair I don't know. Though jacketless - not even the blurb remains - it somehow seems a less depressing tome.

  2. This was both illuminating and affecting -- thank you, Howard.


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