Posted by: zhiv | April 19, 2008

Revolutionary Road #2: Book Collecting and Scarcity

I finished reading Rev Road, according to a quick, rough calculation, 20 days ago.  I was fairly calm and still on vacation for the 5-6 days after I read it, as it settled in.  I wrote out the earlier post in longhand, then moved on to Mary McCarthy.  I typed up both posts when I got back.  But then I was gripped by a fever of interest and an obsession of sorts, driven by reading secondary material about Yates.  I did some writing as I went along, and I started asking all sorts of people if they knew about Yates and had been holding out on me.  I got my daughter to read the book and cut her off from the internet so that she wouldn’t find out about DiCaprio and Winslet.  I went a little nuts, I admit.  It would be nice if I could put everything I was writing and thinking into a clean, concise post or two, but it’s not going to happen.  And I’m also miffed that I’ve still got a disconnect between writing directly on the computer (and the blog) and my quaint and private notebook system of “notes and thoughts,” which creates a time-lag as I have to get around to typing things up.  Oh well.  This is the first entry from the “fever” of the last 10 days–which has greatly abated–, and the second installment of my RR/Yates series.  There should be at least a couple more to come.


So I’m figuring out that Revolutionary Road is a postwar classic that has been overlooked for decades, and now it will be coming out at the end of this year as a DiCaprio-Winslet movie.  I just took a first glance at the career of Richard Yates and his other books, and it has spurred some thoughts about one of my interests, the gathering of books and book collecting.  I’m not what I would consider a “real” book collector.  I appreciate fine books and first editions and have genuine credentials and history as a bibliomaniac, but I’m just not a player in the great game.  I love books and have done so for a long time, and I acquire them greedily, and at times compulsively.  I love to read and learn and think and know, and having a personal (and family) library is a big part of the program.  I suppose there could be some question of which I like more, the reading, or the getting and having of books, and this question may cut close to the heart of my most basic personal dilemmas, especially if you factor or include writing into the equation.  They are part of the same general enterprise, and both are forms of knowing, but they’re very different activities.

This is all rather involved and complicated stuff, and intersting to me, and in beginning a book collecting and library category it seems like Rev Road and Yartes are a suitable entry point.   Part of this is just my own process of getting to Yates.  I bought my Vintage paperback copy a couple of years ago.  I can’t remember the exact circumstances–it seems like I was prompted by something, a squib somewhere telling me that this was a special book somehow.  It may have been around the time that the movie was first coming together, but my prompt was definitely unrelated and it wasn’t from reading about it in Variety.

RR was Yates’ first novel.  I think it might have been nominated for the National Book Award (update–it was) in the same year as Catch-22 and The Moviegoer.  It didn’t sell very well, and in fact none of Yate’s books ever sold more than 12,000 copies.  He published a collection of short stories as his second book, but none of his sotries appeared in the New Yorker until after his death.  He was a drinker and a smoker and a writing teacher, and he died in his early 60s in 1992.  My guess is that he was a world class curmudgeon and very sad.  Apparently, there’s an important review article from 1999 which is one of a number of pieces to the puzzle of establishing his reputation, and I’ll know more after I read that.  I saw on some blog, right before I decided to bring RR with me to Hawaii, that a press is publishing smart-looking editions of his books.  Yates is finally back in print, just in time for latecomer enthusiasts like me and you to take a long gulp of his work just before and then along with all the moviegoers.  Funny how that works (Percy’s novel won the NBAward that year), and the general Yates phenoment should be quite interesting to watch as it evolves over the next 18 months or so.

My first stop was the library.  I brough home a paperback of Easter Parade and the collected short stories, the latter in a nondescript blue library binding.  The collected stories were published in 2001, another big step in the Yates recovery.  I’m not remembering what the copy of RR at the library was like, nothing special if there even was one.  There was a nice original copy of Disturbing the Peace (1975), which looked like the undistinguished 70s book that it was. 

Only after all this did I think about checking to see what’s up with Yates on the used and rare book market.  My procedure for the past decade or so, I would guess, is to go on ABEbooks.  I really haven’t bought much on there, but I like to window shop and check values and availability.  I don’t use Amazon at all–but I’m curious now what they might have on Yates.  I guess I don’t use Amazon because I live in the city and I like bookstores and I like bookhunting.  My wife has been buying books on, an ebay relative, and it has been good–that may be the next Yates stop, and we’ve gotten some South African books from there.

I’m not so happy with this post, which seems like one long tangent after another, but the point is that if you already have a nice original hardback edition of RR with a dustjacket, you already know that it’s worth a nice chunk of money, and the value is about to go up quite a bit after the movie comes out.  They don’t exist in the marketplace, at least not at first glance.  If I was a bookseller and had a copy, I would wait for the movie, but booksellers generally need to sell things whenever they can and need money, which is one of the many reasons why I’m not an actual bookseller.  I’ll have to keep digging around, but the key point is that statement of how none of Yates’ books ever sold.  Unless I’m wrong, that means that there are no second printings (non-first editions), along with few paperback editions.  For a writer who lived from 1926 to 1992, publishing from 1960-1990, who is becoming a classic and part of the postwar canon, this is genuine scarcity.

The thing that gets me about this situation is that Yates has been right there, sitting in obscurity, right in front of me for all these years.  I think he was teaching at USC towards the end of his life, a writer I could have easily seen and heard and read.  Had I chosen to go to a writing program instead of doing academic work, his work and the man himself might have been an important part of my education.   A lot of the writers who knew him and followed him as “a writer’s writer,” might have been more accessible and intriguing to me.  It’s like I didn’t get the whole thing.  Oh well–whatever.  What’s worse is when I think about my bookhunting, going to dozens if not hundreds of bookstores, spending countless hours over the past 30 years scanning the shelves, and never knowing or seeing the books that must have been sitting right there, in between Woolf and Zola. 

My procedure has changed and evolved in different periods, and with the internet it’s not like the old days, but the standard practice is to have a key authors and books in mind to guide the search, as part of a general scan and moseying about, always open to the general process of literary serendipity.  Recently, over the past year or so for instance, I’ve been looking at different times for Chekov and Jewett, Coetzee, Gordimer, and Olive Schreiner, and Mary McCarthy.  It goes in cycles.  In my grad student days I was had visions of building a personal academic library and I tried to find affordable copies of scholarly works on all sorts of things, mostly Victorian and 18th century.  And I was trying to build a collection of sorts of Leslie Stephen and 19th century literary biography, doing it with no income and no money to speak, and a healthy dose of obsessiveness.  So the whole thing is a mess, but we have a lot of books in our house.

So all I can do is wonder how many times, looking at the shelves in bookstores, down at the end of the fiction section past Virginia Woolf, some Richard Yates books were sitting there, unnoticed and unknown.  Not that I care about having a series of perfect copies, and good booksellers know about these things and they’re never cheap or affordable, but it’s kind of a drag to come into a fun game like this so late.

I’ll also mention that I seem to be learning about and reading a lot of “helpful” or interesting new writers rather late in my journey here.  I’m turning 50 this year, and my process of literary discover appears to be cresting for some reason.  More to come.   



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