At the end of November something significant happened for lovers of the novels of Anthony Powell: particularly the mean ones.
His great work A Dance to the Music of Time comprises twelve volumes. These were originally published in hardback between 1951 and 1975 and then separately in paperback. The paperback publishing programme changed when Powell fell out in mid-series with Penguin, so that there is an incomplete set of Penguin paperbacks and then complete sets published later by other publishing houses. In due course they published the novel in four volumes – three each – which was a good idea, and entitled them Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, which was a bad idea. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, spends Autumn fighting the Second World War: it was a melancholy business but he was only in his thirties, as indeed he is at the onset of Winter. The Folio Society apparently published the four-volume version in hardback, no doubt with their customarily winsome artwork, but I have never seen it.
There are also American equivalents as well as translations into other languages.
Then the individual volumes became available on Kindle. And what happened at the end of November was that that the four-volume version also became available on Kindle, occasioning a small saving.
I immediately bought it. As in life, I am now embarking on Winter.
All this gives rise to musings about what books, and Kindle files, are for. Coincidently, having just moved house, I am trying to assemble a library. For the first time in my life I have a room so designated, and I have spent the last few days shoehorning a vast pile of books, acquired over decades, onto appropriate shelves. Some will make it, others will not. Some important and indeed loved works are going on the Oxfam pile, on the grounds that they will always be available and probably better taken electronically than in the form of a dilapidated paperback. On the other hand my enormous collection of Michael Moorcock, never found in hardback, never to be reread and probably too frail to be subjected to real life any more, has pride of place.
At the other extreme there are authors where one is attempting to assemble a collection of first editions. Alice Thomas Ellis is complete. Penelope Fitzgerald is halfway there. With Anthony Powell himself I have made a creditable start, but will never be able to complete the set as the early novels are far too expensive. The later Powells I already have as first editions, simply because I bought them on the day they came out, but in those days I didn’t realise about first editions and so they have been, like my childhood teddy bear, loved to death and have needed to be replaced with sensible copies with Near Fine dust jackets.
There have been false starts. I read all the novels of Elizabeth Taylor in Virago paperback decades ago and loved them. Recently I thought that I would build up a collection of her first editions: they weren’t that expensive. I bought At Mrs Lippincote’s, and reread it. I thought that it was good but not that good: so it is my only Elizabeth Taylor first edition and I have moved capriciously on.
Of course a library is also a bit of personal PR: I will admit to Jane Austen in garish 1970s paperback, but it is on Moorcock and Penelope Fitzgerald that I want to be judged.
It is a truism that soon we will have our books only either electronically or in a form that we treasure as objects: because of beauty or rarity or funkiness. People say that this will mean the end of the paperback and they are probably right, although I would except my Moorcocks – on all three grounds – and I imagine that in years to come bibliophiles, meeting together, will want to dig out their copies of Morrissey’s Autobiography, an instant Penguin Modern Classic forsooth, and agree, over a companionable single malt: ‘What a tit.’
What is the point of buying a first edition?
Partly it is rarity: the same impulse that leads people to collect postage stamps or unique ‘states’ of etchings. That is rather dull.
Partly they are beautiful: although not as beautiful as a good reproduction, and probably less smelly, given the effects over the years of damp, cats and cigarettes.
I think that mainly it is because the first edition is the novel shorn of its reception. No one knew then if it was going to be a classic. The back cover features quotations from reviewers, not of course of the novel itself but the author’s earlier works. We can marvel how they got it wrong; we can wonder yet again, ‘What exactly was the point of Peter Quennell?’. Less prestigious publications, with no reviews available, may have instead advertisements of Woodbines or the like. The artwork will be contemporary: it will strike as dated or quaint – or funky, like the Moorcocks.
It will probably, compared with today, be built to last: bound not glued, a nice weight to it.
And Kindles – apart from the obvious advantages of instant ordering and Tube-compatibility?
One thing I have noticed while putting the library together is that omnibus editions tend to be no longer legible to my rheumy old eyes. With the Kindle, you can have the words as large as you like – and you get a choice of typeface.
You can’t browse through a Kindle file as well as a printed book but you can word-search. This is a boon for Powellites:
When is Nick Jenkins first called by his Christian name? Not until halfway through volume two.
Was Uncle Giles really disturbed picking up a hooker in Shepherd Market? Simple to check. (I don’t think so.)
Even the Handbook can’t help us with these important questions.
And how am I planning to embark on Winter? Book in bed and Kindle on the Tube: a judicious combination; but more book, I hope, as Christmas comes.