Thursday 20 March 2014

1000th Post: 20 Secondhand Books Which to My Mind Have Come to Define This Ridiculous Book Collecting Blog

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I've done my research here – i.e. I've googled "1000th blog post" and glanced at the first two pages of results – and it seems the form with one's one thousandth post is to begin with an exclamation of surprise and disbelief – something along the lines of, "Crikey, 1000th post, eh? Who'd have thunk it, only seems like yesterday etc., etc." – before banging on at length about one's blogging "journey" and then, in many cases, fatally undermining the notion of marking such a milestone in the first place by pointing out that in fact it's only the 1000th post on this particular blog and there were many blogs, and therefore many blog posts, before this one (which is as true of Existential Ennui as any other blog: I, like, many bloggers, have former, long-since-discarded-and-sometimes-deleted blogs in my past – one of them even called Existential Ennui). Which is all well and good, and perfectly acceptable for most blogs reaching their thousandth post, I'm sure; but I'd rather mark the occasion of Existential Ennui's thousandth post with something a little less myopic, a little more meaty – indeed something more pertaining to the reasons why Existential Ennui has reached 1000 posts. Which is to say, books and book collecting.

You see, the collecting of old books – '50s and '60s and '70s crime and spy novels and first editions and the like – has, in large part, driven Existential Ennui (after an initial dalliance with comics blogging), and the collecting of old books has brought me to this juncture: if I hadn't discovered a hitherto unrealised passion for book collecting somewhere around 2008/2009 I sincerely doubt this blog would have troubled the hundred post mark, let alone the thousand. And there are, to my mind, certain books in my collection which define Existential Ennui (whatever Existential Ennui is, or rather, has become: repository of bibliographic esoterica, elaborate excuse for me to carry on buying old books – take your pick). They're some of my favourite books, sure, but they're also more than that: each one is, I think, in some way emblematic of an aspect of Existential Ennui – of how the blog has developed; of its – and therefore my – preoccupations and predilections over the past five years (I don't really count the first two years of this incarnation of Existential Ennui, as it was little more than a placeholder until July 2009).

There are twenty of them in total. They aren't by any means all of my favourite books – that list would also include the likes of Stephen King's The Stand, Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life and Alan Clark's Diaries, all of which I have written about on Existential Ennui – but rather the ones that mean the most in the context of Existential Ennui, both as physical objects and in terms of the words within them. In a vague and ill-defined sense – one which I strongly suspect won't actually make any sense to anyone other than me – these books are Existential Ennui (although Google Images, if you search for "Existential Ennui", only partially concurs). And they are, in roughly the order in which I bought and/or blogged about them:

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1974)
The 1974 Heinemann edition of Patricia Highsmith's third Tom Ripley novel is, if not the first first edition I ever bought (as a first edition, i.e. consciously buying an old book in first, as opposed to buying a new book that just happened to be a first), then at least one of the first; I picked it up in a secondhand bookshop (no longer extant) on one of my first visits to London's Cecil Court (and that's quite a lot of "firsts" in one sentence, for which I apologise). I'd read and fallen for the Ripliad a number of years beforehand and love them just as much, if not more, today: witness the 2012/2013 Great Tom Ripley Reread from 2012 (a series of posts of which I'm uncharacteristically proud). Ripley's Game remains my favourite instalment in the five-book Ripliad, and this copy of the Heinemann first remains one of my most treasured books, even though I own other more valuable and arguably more collectable Highsmith books (Deep Water and This Sweet Sickness in first; a unique signed and inscribed copy of the Heinemann edition of Little Tales of Misogyny; a signed Ripley novel, which I'll come to shortly). Partly it's that thing about never forgetting your first love, but more than that, the Heinemann first of Ripley's Game was, I think, the book that made me a book collector.

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1966)
In 2008 I moved to the East Sussex town of Lewes, with its sundry secondhand bookshops and antique shops and charity shops; shortly after that my interest in book collecting was kindled, and shortly after that I bought a cheap first edition of Kingsley Amis's The Riverside Villas Murder (Cape, 1973) in the Lewes Antique Centre. It was my first exposure to Amis's work, but not my last: I've since read and admired a further dozen or so Amis books, the best of which being the wonderfully humane espionage novel The Anti-Death League. But it's not just his fiction which has shaped Existential Ennui: Amis's critical writing, especially that in the 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen?, has also informed my thinking about fiction and thus much of my writing on Existential Ennui; he also formed the basis of a fine guest post by Michael Barber in 2011. Fittingly, very first post about my then-blossoming interest in book collecting on Existential Ennui, in September 2009, made mention of just one author: Kingsley Amis.

The Man with Getaway Face (alias The Steel Hit) by Richard Stark (Pocket Books, 1963; Coronet, 1971; Allison & Busby, 1984)
Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark (Random House, 1974; Coronet, 1977)
If there's one series of books that defined Existential Ennui in its early days as a books blog, it's Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels. My quest to collect all of the Allison & Busby hardback editions of the Parkers drove much of my blogging for a good few years – said quest only drawing to a conclusion in 2013 – while the wider quest to own every Parker in hardcover still isn't done (I'm looking at you, Deadly Edge). Even so, it felt like something of a milestone when I acquired an American first edition of Butcher's Moon – copies of which even a couple of years ago were in short supply – and though, with the novel back in print and readily available again, that achievement doesn't mean quite what it once did, it's still a totemic book in my collection. The Man with the Getaway Face, on the other hand, is simply one my favourite Parker novels (I reread it recently); for me it's the archetypal Parker thriller (as opposed to The Hunter, which I'd suggest is the prototypical Parker thriller), the deadened, stripped-back prose sometimes equalled in the later books but never bettered. It also boasts the best title of the series – and its Coronet retitle ain't bad either.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (Chatto & Windus, 1939; Penguin, 1949)
Rogue Male made quite an impact on me when I first read it in 2010. It sparked an interest in Geoffrey Household's wider canon, for sure, but more than that it opened my eyes to the possibilities of really good thriller writing – of how a well-written thriller can be so much more than the sum of its parts. I own the novel in two editions – a 1939 Chatto first edition/third impression, with its wartime Enid Marx-designed Services Library wrapper, and a 1949 Penguin paperback edition – and I'm not sure which I prize more.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Hodder, 1974)
The work by which all other serious espionage fiction should be judged: rich, layered, elegiac, quietly devastating. Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is often cited as the best spy novel ever, but for my money Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy beats it hands down – plus it has two fine sequels in the shape of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979). The Hodder first edition/first impression of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (it went through multiple printings) has become quite pricey in the wake of the 2011 film adaptation; ridiculously, I own two copies of it.

The Alamut Ambush by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1971)
The Alamut Ambush, the second in Anthony Price's David Audley series of spy novels, is certainly my favourite Audley novel (bearing in mind I'm not even halfway through the nineteen-book series) – not least because it's set in part in Firle, just down the road from Lewes – but my copy of the Gollancz first is especially dear to me because Mr. Price signed and inscribed it to me when I interviewed him in 2011. (He also inscribed my Gollancz first of the debut Audley novel, The Labyrinth Makers, and inscribed his US edition of Our Man in Camelot and gave me that too.) As such, it's the only signed first of The Alamut Ambush that I know of (as is my first of The Labyrinth Makers), but even more gratifyingly my two-part interview has since become a key text for anyone interested in Price's work.

The Silver Locusts by Ray Bradbury (Hart-Davis, 1951)
There are many books I could have chosen to represent the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – the most popular page or post on the blog, with hits in the tens of thousands – but I've picked Roy Sanford's wrapper for the 1951 Rupert Hart-Davis edition of Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts, partly because it is indeed beautiful, but mostly because I've loved The Martian Chronicles – the title by which Bradbury's collection of stories is rather better known – ever since I was a teenager.

Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas (Hamish Hamilton/Simon & Schuster, 1978)
For a while there around 2010/2011 I became mildly obsessed by the book cover work of glamour photographer Beverley le Barrow, the jacket of the Hamilton edition of Ross Thomas's Chinaman's Chance being a prime example thereof. But it's also the best Thomas novel that I've read thus far (although The Fools in Town Are On Our Side runs it a close second); indeed, so impressed by the book was I that I ended up getting a signed US first edition as well.

Undertow by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1962)
Undertow isn't the scarcest Desmond Cory book I own – that would be the 1951 Muller edition of Secret Ministry, the debut Johnny Fedora spy thriller, my copy of which is only physical copy of the book I've ever seen (although it is available as an e-book) – but it's still extremely uncommon in first, and not only is it the best Johnny Fedora outing but an exquisite novel in its own right.

Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert (Hodder, 1968)
I reread some of the tales in Michael Gilbert's first collection of Calder and Behrens short spy stories (a second collection, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, followed in 1982) earlier this year, and it was a timely reminder of just how terrific they are. Physical copies of Game Without Rules remain in as short supply as they were when I wrote about the book two years ago – especially the Hodder & Stoughon edition – but since then it's at least been made available as an e-book. I have read better espionage short stories than the ones in this collection – by W. Somerset Maugham; see further down this post – but these are almost as good.

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (Collins, 1967)
I try not to put too much stock in the fact that in many cases, my reviews of the books assembled in this post appear on the first page of results when you google their titles/authors. After all, I sincerely doubt that the search engines are taking note of my incisive criticism and sparkling prose; merely that they judge that the posts in question are somehow relevant or popular or, god forbid, authoritative. Even so, to google "Towards the End of the Morning" and find my review nestling just below articles by Christopher Hitchens and Hugh Barnes affords a minor frisson: the web can be a great leveller. Hitchens, incidentally, reserves special praise for Frayn's earlier novel about journalism, his debut, The Tin Men (1965), which I haven't read yet but which I possess a first edition of; I guess it's conceivable it could end up supplanting Towards the End of the Morning in my affections, but it really will have to be extraordinary in order to do so.

The Mercenaries by Donald E. Westlake (Boardman, 1961)
361 by Donald E. Westlake (Boardman, 1962)
The Mercenaries and 361 appear here for a variety of reasons. The former is Donald Westlake's debut novel proper (following a bunch of sleaze novels); the latter is probably the best non-Parker Westlake I've read, and is also important because midway through writing it Westlake stopped and knocked out the first Parker novel, The Hunter (with which it shares certain sensibilities). Moreover, both are the British T.V. Boardman editions of the novels, with their striking and memorable dust jackets designed by Boardman's art director, Denis McLoughlin; jacketed Boardman editions of Westlake's early novels are notably scarce, and these two especially so. And on top of all that, my copy of the Boardman edition of The Mercenaries is signed – one of only a handful of copies of the novel in any edition to bear Westlake's signature – and inscribed, to author and pioneer in gay and lesbian studies Byrne Fone (who also signed it), making it a fabulous association copy.

A Thirsty Evil by P. M. Hubbard (Macmillan/Atheneum, 1974)
It was an earlier Hubbard novel, A Hive of Glass (recommended to me by Book Glutton), which for me brought home what a brilliantly idiosyncratic storyteller P. M. Hubbard was, but A Thirsty Evil is just as idiosyncratic a novel, and in its own way just as brilliant. Moreover, I own two association copies of the novel which are themselves unique: an American first edition, signed by Hubbard (one of only two signed copies of the author's books I've come across) and accompanied by a handwritten letter to fellow suspense author Alan Kennington, and a British first edition accompanied by an internal Macmillan note signed by the chairman of the company – and former British prime minister – Harold Macmillan.

Commander-1 by Peter George (Heinemann, 1965)
Dr. Strangelove writer Peter George's final novel – published the year before he took his own life – is a powerful piece of fiction, one which I own in signed first, but I'm including it here not so much because it's a fine (and unjustly overlooked) book and I possess a collectible copy of it – all of which is true – but rather because of what I wrote about it. I researched the bejeezus out of my post on George and Commander-1, and was rewarded for my efforts when George's son, David, emailed me to let me know that he had read the post and was impressed by it. David's email also gave me the opportunity to correct some misinformation (still present on George's Wikipedia page, unfortunately) about there being a final unfinished and unpublished Peter George novel; there isn't: Nucleus of Survivors (or Nuclear Survivors as Wikipedia has it) was merely the original title of Commander-1. All of which goes to show what Existential Ennui is capable of when I put my mind to it.

Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith (London Limited Editions/Bloomsbury, 1991)
As outlined further up this post, my love for Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad knows no bounds, and the first – and other – editions of the Tom Ripley novels I've collected may well be the books I most often gaze at and remove from the shelf and fondle lovingly (it's no accident that they and my other Highsmith books are shelved downstairs while the rest of my collection is upstairs). Sadly a first edition of the first book in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley, will probably forever be beyond my slender means, but I own the other four Ripleys in first, and last year, after an earlier abortive attempt, I finally got my hands on a signed copy of a Ripley novel – the London Limited Edition of the final book in the series, Ripley Under Water, of which only 150 copies were produced. The acquisition of it was a splendid way to end the Great Tom Ripley Reread, and it's a splendid book to have on my shelves (and gaze at, and fondle lovingly, etc., etc.).

Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard (Secker & Warburg, 1977)
The Hunted by Elmore Leonard (Secker & Warburg, 1978)
There are many, many Elmore Leonard books from my collection I could have chosen here: my signed British first editions of 1980s classics Stick and LaBrava (the latter an association copy); my signed British first of 1990s classic Pronto (the debut of Raylan Givens of Justified fame); my British first of Get Shorty, which for a long time was my favourite Leonard novel; my US paperback originals of The Big Bounce and Mr. Majestyk. But in the end I settled on Unknown Man No. 89 and The Hunted – the former because I've come to believe it's Leonard's best book (of those that I've read) and I own a signed British first of it; the latter because it's one of the scarcest editions of a Leonard novel I own, and its relevant post is as neat an illustration of the madness of book collecting as you'll find on Existential Ennui – plus it was in part the inspiration for the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page.

Ashenden, or, The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham (Heinemann Collected Edition, 1934)
And finally there's Ashenden, a book I only encountered this year – in a roundabout fashion; I initially read bits of it in two spy fiction anthologies, Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies and Eric Ambler's To Catch a Spy – but which is easily one of the two best pieces of espionage fiction I've ever come across (the other being John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Originally published by Heinemann in 1928, the copy seen here is the first appearance of Ashenden in the Heinemann Collected Works of W. Somerset Maugham, and thus the first time the book carried a preface by Maugham. The preface was later expanded for the 1941 US Doubleday edition, a copy of which I also own, but it's the highly scarce Heinemann edition which I prize most.

Those, then, are the twenty books which I think somehow symbolise or perhaps embody Existential Ennui – at least, for right now. Because there are dozens of books on my shelves I've not yet read or blogged about... and there are doubtless hundreds if not thousands of books I've not yet discovered or bought. Accordingly, the chronicle of this particular chronic book collector... continues.