In my novel The Bookman’s Tale, Peter Byerly uses the term “Holy Grail” to refer to the ultimate acquisition for a book collector. I’ve been with groups of collectors who bandy this term about; “What’s you’re Holy Grail?” is a frequent question, meaning what book, more than any other, would you like to acquire. When I started collecting, my Holy Grail was the true first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Only twenty-two copies survive, and all but five of those are in museums or libraries. In 1986, I was lucky enough to buy one of those five at auction.
Now my gut reaction to the question “What is your Holy Grail?” is not unlike Peter’s reaction: My Holy Grail is a book I don’t even know exists, some previously unknown work by Lewis Carroll. It may sound preposterous, but as recently as this past spring I discovered a previously unknown contribution that Lewis Carroll had made to a periodical in 1861. If I had to pick a “known” book for my Holy Grail, I suppose it would be one or all of the four missing volumes of Lewis Carroll’s diaries. These manuscript volumes went missing in the 1930s and cover an important time in Carroll’s life—he was learning to be a photographer, studying for his ordination, and growing the friendship between himself and the family of Henry George Liddell, including little Alice, his muse.
But the great thing about Holy Grails is that every collector has a different one, and we get to learn about each other and our passions by sharing our dreams of grails with one another. I’m sure that anyone who loves English literature would love to stumble upon the grail that Peter finds, but I’m interested in knowing what the grails are for other collectors. Let me know what yours is.