My fictional cathedral city of Barchester (and yes, that’s the same fictional city created by Anthony Trollope in the 1850s) needed a founder. In my novel The Lost Book of the Grail, the reader encounters bits and pieces of the history of Barchester from the beginnings in Saxon times through invasions by Vikings and Normans, the upheavals of the Reformation and the Civil War, and even the Nazi bombings of World War II. But through all that history I wanted the spirit of the founder to permeate, and I wanted the founder to be a woman.
I returned to my boarding school recently to spend a day as visiting writer, talking with boys about the writing process, the writing business, and my novel The Bookman’s Tale, which some of the classes had read. The imminent trip made me go digging through a file of old high school English papers and I found that I still have a paper to which I frequently refer when talking to groups about The Bookman’s Tale.
I didn’t hold it in my hand until after I had written the second draft of First Impressions. The first edition of Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice. It is a book at the center of my own novel, coming out in next week from Viking. I had written what I thought of as a very intimate scene in which my protagonist, Sophie Collingwood, who adores Jane Austen, holds a first edition in her hands. After Sophie opens the first of the three small volumes that holds her favorite text and reads the famous opening, she thinks:
One question that pops up sometimes when I am talking to people about writing is “Where do you get names?” Names are tricky, I find. Sometimes a name simply presents itself to me. For some reason I always knew Peter Byerly in The Bookman’s Tale would be a Peter. It had nothing to do with the symbolic meaning of the name—I wasn’t trying to imply that he is a rock. He just always seemed like a Peter. Sophie Collingwood in First Impressions is named after my dog, Sophie, and Lewis Carroll’s nephew and biographer, Stuart Collingwood. Yet as soon as she was named, she became Sophie Collingwood, and could not possibly be anyone else. This brings up another tricky thing about names. I find I have to get it right the first time—it’s hard to rename a character once I have gotten to know her.
Well, Easter was a little over a week ago, and I’m sure that many of you settled in with bowls of popcorn for the annual screening of The Ten Commandments. Whether you think this marathon epic is the greatest film ever made, the biggest piece of cheese ever to emanate from Hollywood, or both, every year ancient Egyptians speak with British, American, and some unidentifiable accents. What does this have to do with books? Only that it reminds me of the afterward I wrote to my 1993 book Everybody’s Guide to Book Collecting. A lot has changed in the book world since 1993, but a lot of the book remains relevant, especially, I think, my “Ten Commandments of Book Collecting.” Here they are in the original form:
Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a reader who had enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale but who especially connected with one of the acknowledgements (please always read an author’s acknowledgements—they are often the most revealing part of a book). In this case, I had thanked, among my book collecting mentors, Stan Marx. My reader wrote to me: “I was a friend of Stan’s and member of the Long Island book group which he was instrumental in forming. He was a good, kind and intelligent man.”
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.
I include the topic of competition in our ongoing discussion of why we collect books (see previous blogs in July and August 2013) not because I think it is a good reason to collect, but because I recognize that, for some, it is a motivating factor. On the occasion of the beginning of the Winter Olympics, when the idea of competition is foremost in the minds of many, it seems a good idea to offer a few thoughts on the book collector as competitor.
130 years ago this evening, nine bibliophiles met at the New York home of Robert Hoe to discuss the idea of founding a club dedicated to the book arts. Within two weeks the men had drafted a constitution and named their new club after the great French book collector and man of letters Jean Grolier (1490–1565) and The Grolier Club was born. It was the first major book collecting club in the United States and I’ve been proud to be a member for more than a decade.